Challenges and Opportunities of the Small Screen

How will academic libraries make sure that their content is available on a 3.5-inch mobile device? Should this even be a goal of the academic library?

November 19, 2009

How will academic libraries make sure that their content is available on a 3.5-inch mobile device? Should this even be a goal of the academic library?

This week the NYTimes wrote about the rapid growth of reading platforms, and reading, on cellphones and other mobile platforms. In "Cellphone Apps Challenge the Rise of E-Readers" we learned that there are 84 million smartphones and 50 million iPhones and iPod Touches that can run reading applications. In comparison, analysts expect that we will have ~4 million dedicated reading devices in the market by the end of 2009.

While firm numbers are hard to come by, it appears that a significant number of people prefer to consume at least some of their reading on a mobile device. This reading is mostly done at "in-between" times, while on coffee breaks, waiting in lines, sitting on the bus etc. I'm currently reading the Kindle version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on my iPod Touch ($6 at Amazon).

Whatever reading our students are doing on mobile devices, we can be pretty sure it is not academic or curricular reading. It seems to me that libraries have made a mistake in trying to have physical e-reading devices available for checkout, rather then having the digital file available that students (and faculty and staff) can check-out to the mobile devices that they already own.

We can easily glimpse a future where members of our academic community will prefer to have the option of interacting with content on mobile devices. Nicholas Carr touches on this phenomenon in his NYTimes piece "The Price of Free", writing: "As screens proliferate and shrink, and as the Web allows us to view whatever we want whenever we want, we spend more time watching video alone." I think the key phrases here is "proliferate and shrink" and "whatever we want whenever we want".

When we get to a point that a mobile version is expected of whatever content we want to interact with, not having a mobile version may cut-off the desire to consume that content. People who teach courses, and those of us who also work with people who design and teach courses, need to recognize that we are more likely to succeed in having our students engage with the curricular content if our students can access this content on a platform that they choose. Students are amongst the busiest people on earth. Perhaps they will be more likely to read an assigned chapter if they can grab some snippets during those "in-between" times on their mobile device. Later they can crawl up for extended times with the paper book, or on an e-reader, the point is to offer choice.

I think that there is a fear of "catering" too much to our students. I often hear that we should not try to meet their every need and whim. I disagree. In an age where students have choice - on which institutions to attend, which classes to sign-up for, and where to invest their time - we should endeavor to make our offerings as relevant to their needs as possible. If having curriculum available on mobile devices increases the amount of reading done then I'm all for working towards making this a reality.

Once we get over the philosophical question - should we be working to mobilize our collections and curriculum? - then the next question becomes one of how to do this. This is an area where I think our leadership in academic technology, academic libraries, and our professional organizations needs to get engaged. How can we organize to figure out the proper incentives for the Amazon's, the Barnes & Noble's, Google, the publishers etc. to offer digital book subscriptions to academic libraries that can work on mobile devices? Are there schools that are already working to make their academic library collections and curriculum available in mobile file formats? Can we envision a time when our academic libraries provide a similar experience to the Kindle bookstore? Is anyone out there already doing this?


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