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M-libraries 2011 in Brisbane, Australia - conference report
Article Type: Conference report From: Library Hi Tech News, Volume 28, Issue 5
There were many take-aways from the Third M-libraries Conference held in Brisbane, Australia from May 11 to 13. But, what sticks in my mind most and touched me greatly was a statement by Ela Volatabu, a Librarian at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. She said that people in Fiji would rather go without water to have a mobile phone. One thing that was quite clear at this conference is that mobile phones are a transformative technology and for many people in the world, mobile phones are the computer, the conduit for social connectedness, and their access to local and global information. According to Ela Volatabu, mobile devices bring with them the feelings of quality, relevance, and stability.
Stephen Abram, VP for Strategic Partnerships and Markets, presented the opening keynote address for Gale Cenage. Abram noted that now we have a device that says something about one personally and is intensely personal. Mobile devices also have a great value for learning and this was the major underlying theme of the conference. According to Abram, libraries and academia focus on learning styles of the minority of students. Instead, most students want experience-based, visual and personalized learning; opportunities that are now possible with mobile devices - learning wherever you are when you want it and in some cases based on where you are in the world. Libraries can play a vital role in building the critical connections between information, knowledge, and learning. Learners and others want interactivity and appropriate content pushed to them. In many cases, this is in conflict with privacy issues. Abrams feels that we should provide users with the opportunity to determine their own level of privacy that they are comfortable with. Libraries also have a role in educating our users about the need for privacy in the rapidly expanding mobile connected world we now live in. Abram also focused on how libraries today are following in the footsteps of the explorers, Columbus, Cook, and Magellan and not sure if libraries can adapt to a rapidly changing technology environment. He asked if we know who are users are as every student is a distant user due to the enormous content now available via the mobile devices.
Nicolai Dupont Heidemann, Director of the Kolding Public Libraries in Denmark, presented an excellent case study of creating a mobile-literate staff in a public library. Heidemann purchased smart phones for all staff, who then in groups had to work with others in various exercises such as using the phone to post on Flickr and Facebook, capture and share videos and pictures, read e-books, RSS feeds, and use wiki applications. He ensured that staff had the time to participate in these mobile literacy exercises and they were encouraged to use the phones for various events. The return on investment was a staff that is now actively involved in various mobile development projects highlighted by a mobile idea generating project, and is now offering mobile literacy sessions for library users.
Ken MacAlpine at the University of South Queensland (USQ), the host of this year's M-libraries conference, spoke on building a library mobile web site. MacAlpine's advice focused on determining features needed by your users, content that is or can be configured for mobile, provision of existing services, and of course, a wish list. Their mobile web site includes RefChatter, a virtual reference service, VuFind for searching their OPAC, MyLibrary for loans, mobile-optimized versions of databases, and lectures. The program, JOOMLA, is used for menu-management. USQ debated (and other speakers noted this too) on whether to focus on the mobile web or to develop apps for various phones. MacAlpine's advice is that research is critical to find the most useful tools, to be agile with tool selection, create an easy to use interface and to focus on doing the easy stuff first.
"Keeping up with the Joneses" was a discussion presented by a group of librarians from Deakin University in Australia. These librarians advocate lots of experimentation with changing technologies and applications for library services. It is critical to understand your users who have deep acceptance of smart phones and interest in tablet devices such as the iPad. A major driver for libraries is to ensure equity of access and flexible environments of learning. They envision future mobile devices as those not locked down to a single vendor, can read all e-book formats, are web-enabled and wireless, have color and touch screen, run multiple programs, have a long battery life, are light weight and run Flash (unlike the current iPads). Ideally, libraries should enable users to configure devices to their own needs.
Klaus Cynowa of the Bavarian State Library in Munich, Germany, focused on how we can bring the past to life with mobile devices. In their case, they focused on their rich collection of incunabula and making digital images available. The library has enriched and enhanced the usability and visibility of their content on mobile devices. Instead of using the mobile web, they have focused on smartphone apps. With apps, there is an immediate connection to the digital content the library provides and bypasses the need to search for this content on the internet.
Another keynote presenter was Jessica Colaco, Manager of iHub, Nairobi's premier innovation hub in Kenya. According to her, mobile devices are the single most transformative technology for development in Africa. In Kenya, 3G connectivity is available throughout the country. Mobile learning is playing a major role in Africa. Several projects support collaborative learning among remote lecturers and students. This collaborative learning environment creates a sense of community, stimulates critical thinking, and supports active exploratory opportunities. Colaco has run several mobile boot camps in Kenya to introduce the technology to many users.
In another presentation, Denise Nicholson from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa noted that Africa has the highest growth rate of mobile phones in the world, but because of restrictive laws and restrictive digital rights management (DRM) clauses; there is limited access to much of the content available. She also noted that Africa is book poor, but cellphone rich and that there are several mobile literacy projects taking place, among them the Mobile for Literacy Project by the Mereka Institute, a Palm e-book project in Uganda and a World Bank literacy initiative in Nigeria. According to Nicholson, a major role for librarians is to advocate for open, freely available usable digital content and insist that DRMs be removed from the content to allow for access to multiple users.
On day two, Gilly Salmon, Director of the Australian Digital Futures Institute at the University of South Queensland, spoke about the tree of learning and where the "new green shoots" are likely to appear. As others had already noted, with mobile devices, libraries, and others have opportunities that never existed before. One phrase she mentioned that stood in my mind is that we need to break the patterns of the past and tune into our highest future possibilities. She noted that 500 years ago books were so valuable that most were chained in libraries so that they could not be removed. Now, resources are open and unchained and so much is freely available. She noted the emergence of open education resources (OERs) that began with MIT's open courseware. OERs provide for new ways of providing learning and teaching and have led to a boon in mobile communities of learners. Libraries need to change their focus from interactions of people with information to include interactions of people with other people.
Caroline Gauld of the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane spoke on discovery in the mobile environment. At their institution, students love summon, the discovery interface offered by serials solutions. They want all content from one search that is easy to use and now is mobile enabled. According to Gauld, students prefer apps over the mobile web as they allow them to remember things and are personal so that you get to the information you really need. Courseware apps such as from Blackboard include podcasts of lectures. She and many of the other speakers focused their presentations on mobile use and learning of undergraduates. I was a bit disappointed that, with one or two exceptions, very little was talked about the role of mobile devices by researchers.
Richard Gray and Kate Byrne of the University of South Wales in Australia spoke on mobile content for academic libraries. They surveyed 100 academic users and found that 57 had access to a mobile device and 90 percent of those accessed e-content on their mobile devices. But, there was a lot of dissatisfaction with mobile content such as clumsy interfaces, slowness, small screen size, and poor formatting. The expectations of those in academia are quite high, as they want the same functionality on any device they use.
The final keynote speaker was Mohamed Ally, the Director of the Center for Distance Education at Athabasca University in Canada, one of the universities that has sponsored the M-libraries conferences. Some of his observations: with changing politics and economies, the world is changing at a rapid rate; the new generation of students are into social networking, having an online presence, playing games, and adapt to technology quickly; soon information available will double every 11 days. He noted the UN Millennium Development Goal that education is a human right. Ally went further to say that with mobile phones, there is no longer a digital divide but there still exists a learning divide. Ally noted many trends and initiatives such as Open Education Resources, Open Universities, user-generated content, Google Books, the World Digital Library, the Digital Library Federation, and the Khan Academy that provides over 2,100 instructional videos. An intriguing development he noted was the emergence of teacherless learning. With open learning initiatives, students can learn when they want and with mobile devices, wherever they want. Tutors might be needed from time to time, but access to world-class lecturers can be made available through open mobile learning content. So, what is the role of librarians? According to Ally, there is definitely synergy between mobile learning and mobile libraries. Libraries need to focus on designing services for people on the move and move from text to multimedia.
These talks give a taste of the many presentations and workshops offered at the 2011 M-libraries Conference. It was an interesting contrast for me to attend the M-libraries conference shortly after the ACRL conference in Philadelphia. The ACRL conference provided so many opportunities for networking and interacting with others through multiple poster sessions, panels, table talks and up to the minute Cyber Zed Shed mini-presentations on library technology. Also, mobile libraries, a critical focus for libraries today, is not the only issue libraries must consider. It seems that conferences such as M-libraries provide what Stephen Abram would call a "content bubble." Definitely conferences such as M-libraries do provide a continuing education need and allow for one to focus on this expanding area of importance to libraries.
I was, however, disappointed that the M-libraries conference provided a much more traditional approach with papers accepted many months before the conference and having a formal speaker to audience format. I did enjoy my informal networking with Australian librarians and other international participants and for me that is usually a highlight of any conference. Another nice opportunity is that the approximately 175 conference attendees included both librarians and IT staff.
But, for a high-tech topic such as mobile libraries, is a traditional conference the right format? Even the final speaker, Mohamed Ally noted that mobile is a green technology along with increasing access to digital content. The content provided by this conference could have just as easily been provided virtually to global librarians similar to the virtual Handheld Librarian Conference that also deals with mobile libraries. Also, very surprising to me is that the M-libraries conference creates a print proceeding of the conference, two years after the conference at a time when it only has historical value. Adding the cost of airfare, high-registration fees, I am not sure, I would recommend this conference to others unless it happened to be nearby or somewhere you wanted to visit. The next M-libraries conference will be sponsored by the Open University in the UK and held in Milton Keynes outside of London in Fall 2012. I love London and who knows, I may just go!
Martin Kesselman(email@example.com) Rutgers University Libraries & co-editor, Library Hi Tech News.