Digital Media in Community Libraries, Part 1: Mobile Media

Over time we have seen how public libraries have expanded their services to provide a wider range of informational and entertainment media, such as music cds, videos and dvds, and books-on-tape.  With the widescale distribution of books and multimedia available via the Web, community libraries are once again reconsidering not only the range of services they provide, but also their mode of outreach and incorporation of new digital technologies.  This post reviews noteworthy efforts by community libraries to adapt to and make use of new mobile media.  

Mobile phone use in the U.S. has shown tremendous growth in recent years. As of 2008, there were over 260 million mobile phone subscribers, representing about 85 percent of the population (Singh, 2008). 88 percent of college students own mobile phones and 27 percent have a Blackberry or PDA (Rainie, 2008). According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control, 20 percent of U.S. households had only mobile phones (i.e. no landline) as of the end of 2008, and about one third of those aged 18 – 24 and one fourth of those aged 25 – 29 live in mobile phone-only households (Fram, 2009). While young people are more likely to have no landline, about one third of people who live in poverty also only have mobile phones. According to a report by comScore, as of January 2009 some 22.4 million mobile phone users were accessing the mobile web on a daily basis, and this usage had doubled since one year prior (Burns, 2009).

This shifting landscape of mobile communication use intersects with the evolving role of the library discussed in the previous post. There are three main reasons that libraries have embraced the use of mobile technologies:  (1) to expand the range of content available to patrons, (2) to offer a fuller menu of services, and (3) as a new mode of public outreach. In terms of content, the question posed is, how do wireless devices such as mobile phones and PDAs allow libraries either to distribute content in different forms or to expand the field of information about a library item?  For services and outreach, how do mobile devices enhance customer service and expand the patron base?  And yet, to argue that the use of mobile media is a NEW manifestation of the desire to expand outreach efforts (or provide a wider range of information and services) would be to ignore an important element of the history of community library efforts.

Consider the humble bookmobile. Yes, the bookmobile, the traveling RV bibliothéque that many of us remember (with delight in my case) gracing our elementary schools once a month with its glorious presence. At the bookmobile one could conveniently have access (service) to books (content) unavailable at one’s own school library, and even the kids with the most lackadaisical attitude toward reading were drawn to the bookmobile because its monthly appearance in and of itself made it special and because it was a chance to be dismissed from class for 30 minutes to go and look at books with groovy titles and fun images (outreach). Of course, the mission of many bookmobiles today aligns more closely with the vision set forth by Mary Titcomb when she came up with the idea of the traveling wagon full of books in 1905 – to provide books to those without any access to a library in their local community ( Bookmobiles also make available books and services to seniors and others with limited physical mobility. More recently, with his Internet Bookmobile (, Brewster Kahle, director of the Internet Archive, traveled around the U.S. printing and binding books in the public domain (such as Alice in Wonderland), raising awareness of the Internet as a free digital library for all, and challenging copyright extension legislation that continues to be passed in Congress (Cisler, 2002; Koman, 2002).

Taking the bookmobile as a starting point, in what ways are community libraries engaging with mobile communication technologies to enhance content, services, and outreach for the purposes of learning? How is mobility a part of both the physical and the virtual library? It should be noted that the following discussion is by no means exhaustive and is meant to point to interesting applications and projects that are in the works. For additional links to important “mobiles and libraries” interfaces, applications, and resources (not limited to public libraries) see “M-Libraries – Library Success: A Best Practices Wiki” (

Mobile technologies clearly allow libraries to expand the range of forms for distributing content. For decades, libraries have offered books on tape and CD in order to provide content for those unable to read a physical book, such as the sight impaired, and for people who desire content that they could enjoy on the go (driving, walking, etc.). More recently many libraries have begun offering e-books and digital audio books for download. For example, since 2005 cardholders of the New York Public Library have been able to download audio books from the Internet any time of the day or night simply by going to the library’s website and entering their card number and a PIN ( They can check out as many as ten audio books at a time for up to three weeks and play them on their computer, CD player, portable digital music player, or cell phone. The New York Public Library and thousands of others use OverDrive’s technology, and OverDrive’s website allows users to search for libraries offering free digital downloads ( Libraries have also begun offering not only digital content, but also the means by which to use it. As Ellyssa Kroski (2008) discusses in her recent report, On the Move with the Mobile Web, institutions such as the Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, Illinois ( allow patrons to check out iPod Nanos with audio books loaded on them.

In addition to storing digital books, mobile devices are also being used to expand the field of information around books. One way is through the use of QR (quick response) codes, which are a type of two-dimensional barcode that can store a lot of information that can then be downloaded via a mobile phone. They are already quite popular in Japan and parts of Europe where they are used mostly for promotional/marketing reasons. However, QR codes could have multiple uses in libraries. As librarian Lex Rigby explains, currently in libraries while conventional barcodes are used to link an item to its catalog record, the information is limited and it can only be accessed by scanning the barcode at the check-out desk. On the other hand, QR codes could be used to store descriptions, images, useful links, etc. for all types of library materials. A library patron could use their mobile phone to scan the QR code to access this information ( The library at the University of Bath is at the forefront of using QR codes to link to their catalog ( This expanded range of information available at the click of a (camera phone) button is obviously time-saving and efficient. Thus far, however, the use of QR codes in public libraries in the U.S. does not seem to be widespread although such two dimensional barcodes have been generated for the web spaces of each branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (

In addition to providing a new mode of content provision, mobile devices are also being used to enhance library services. In this regard, text messaging (or SMS – short message service) is an obvious means of inexpensive and efficient communication, and several public libraries have implemented message options for their cardholders. Orlando, Florida’s Orange County Library System ( allows patrons the choice of receiving text message reminders about upcoming due dates for materials and start dates for courses (Kroski, 2008). The Skokie Public Library in Skokie, Illinois offers such alerts as well as updates on holds placed and the option of renewing items via SMS ( For similar purposes, some libraries are also using Twitter (, a micro-blogging service that allows users to send updates (tweets) to their “followers” and receive tweets from those they signed up to follow. Posts can be viewed on a computer or an Internet-enabled mobile phone.

In addition to using mobile-enabled messaging, many libraries are designing their websites to be mobile friendly, which involves making the information concise, limiting the number of links, using descriptive icons, and including “home” and “parent-link” icons (West, Hafner, & Faust, 2006). At the current moment, however, there are still issues with display quality across different devices (Liston, 2009). Again, among community libraries the Skokie Public Library emerges as an exemplar as the library has designed a version of its website specifically for viewing on the small screen of a mobile device. The library catalog can also be browsed using a phone or PDA (with AirPAC, a mobile version of OPAC). In a recent presentation, Megan Fox (2009) has outlined numerous types of library friendly applications designed for the iPhone and other smartphones. Such applications enable users to find public libraries, organize notes, and conduct mobile searches. For example, the Washington D.C. Public Library has an iPhone application specifically designed to navigate its services. Some libraries also provide audio tours via mobile phones ( A final mobile service deserving mention is the WorldCat Mobile pilot project (, which enables users to search for library materials as well as libraries, maps, and directions.

In 2008, 62 percent of those aged 18 – 30 years old visited a public library for a range of purposes, including checking out books, using computers, seeking reference materials and the like (Rainie, 2008). Despite this figure, public libraries feel it is imperative to continue to reach new users and to maintain the users they have. The mobile content and services mentioned above are offered as opt-in choices for patrons. However, outreach generally means reaching out to those not already enjoying the library. Mobile phones may not be the most ideal devices for this purpose because of their extremely personal nature and people’s profound disdain for mobile spam (due to cost and irritation factors). However, some libraries are finding success using Twitter via mobile phones to make more connections in their communities and to promote their services and programs
( Such tweets might concern everything from pointers to the library website, to information on upcoming events, to research about the library’s role in society (Milstein, 2009).

Many libraries have also created Facebook and MySpace pages, such as the West Palm Beach Florida Public Library ( While many users view such pages on desktop or laptop computers, accessing social networking sites via mobile phones is becoming a popular activity and one that is growing rapidly (Burns, 2009). For this reason, Rainie (2009) recommends that libraries try to become “a news node for information and interaction” in the lives of young people. As Rainie adds, “The internet is ‘personified’ in some people’s lives and [libraries] can provide information and social support in the same ways that social networks can.” Since people often build their social networks via social networking sites such as Facebook through “friending” their friends’ friends, libraries could tap into this networking function as a form of outreach. Dempsey (2009), however, questions whether users will be motivated to participate in such networks.

There are clearly several interesting projects and applications joining together libraries and mobiles at this current moment. As library professionals participate in Google groups (, blogs (Gerry McKiernan’s, and conferences ( dedicated to exploring mobile libraries, the future promises to bring more ways that mobile phones and PDAs can be used to serve the library’s mission in terms of expanding content, services, and outreach. However, one word of caution should be added in this conclusion. Aside from text messaging services, most of the initiatives highlighted above necessitate a mobile phone with Internet access. Considering that most data plans are only compatible on more high-end phones and cost upwards of an additional $20 per month, clearly not everyone can participate in such mobile-enabled initiatives. As Horrigan (2009) discusses in his recent report, The Mobile Difference, only 39 percent of the U.S. adult population are “motivated by mobility” and have “largely positive and improving attitudes about how mobile devices make them more available to others” as well as high levels of usage for “non-voice data applications such as text messaging and internet browsing” (25). However, 61 percent are defined as “stationery media will do,” meaning they do “not feel the pull of mobility – or anything else – drawing them further into the digital world” (4). As Horrigan emphasizes that “the bar that qualifies as high-tech among users has risen” (p. 16), we must continuously ask whether such mobile services and applications will broaden participation in libraries or perpetuate an insurmountable knowledge gap.


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Milstein, S. (2009). Twitter FOR libraries. Computers in Libraries 29(5), 17-18.

Raine, L. (2008, April 17). The role of libraries in a networked world. Paper presented at the Texas Library Association Annual Conference. Dallas, TX. Retrieved March 8, 2009, from

Raine, L. (2009, January 14). How libraries can survive in the new media ecosystem. Paper presented at the HELIN Library Consortium. Bryant University, Smithfield, RI. Retrieved March 8, 2009, from

Singh, S. (2008). U.S. raises $19b in spectrum sale. The Times of India (March 25). Retrieved March 8, 2009, from

West, M. A., Hafner, A. W., & Faust, B. D. (2006). Expanding access to library collections and services using small-screen devices. Information Technology and Libraries 25(2), 103-107.

Author Bio

Cara Wallis recently completed her Ph.D. at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her research interests include the social and cultural implications of new media technologies, particularly as these relate to issues of identity, power, and social change.