Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Library services on mobile devices

A month or so ago, my fiancee and I had a couple of days in Edinburgh. We were talking about our Prime Minister and how he describes himself as a "son of the manse". We knew that a manse is basically a vicarage, albeit a Church of Scotland one, but we (or more accurately I) felt the need for a proper definition.

I used my Nokia N95: it has a web browser, 3G connectivity and does a pretty good job of rendering web pages. I went via the library home page to our online subscriptions and logged into OED online. Only it wouldn't let me log in, claiming that cookies weren't enabled. The thing is, they were: I assume the phone's browser doesn't want to play nicely with the OED, but I don't know why.

Wikipedia didn't have any such reservations: it worked fine and gave me a definition I was happy with. But let's be honest: I'm never going to be content with a Wikipedia article on a subject like this. It's great for tech stuff, or anything with a cult following, because your "proper" reference tomes won't cover that kind of topic in as much (rabid, scarily-detailed) depth. And Wikipedia articles are often pretty well-referenced, pointing to authoritative sources.

I got myself an iPhone a few weeks ago, and it's been a joy to use. Look at what it does with the OED:

OED on iPhone

Perfect. No problems logging in, and the iPhone's zoom function embiggens the text enough to let me read it without squinting.

It renders the OPAC pretty well too: that came in very handy on a book-buying excursion last week. Being able to show it to enthusiastic teenagers and say, "look, we've got 16 copies of that already" saved us buying a few duplicates.

The moral of this story, if there is one, is this: the paid-for subscriptions we push to our users need to better than the free alternatives in a number of ways.

  1. Findability - going through half a dozen library web pages is no good. Going straight to Google is easy.
  2. Access control - Wikipedia doesn't ask me for my library card number. Nor does it require the first three letters of my local authority's name as a prefix.
  3. Interoperability - I've had trouble with the OED on Firefox at home, plus there are the issues with the N95 above. Why? It's unfeasible to test a product on every feasible piece of hardware, but it makes a great deal of sense to write code which conforms to standards.

Personally, I'd love to see MLA renegotiate the deal a large number of us take up. Would the publishers consider dropping the login rigmarole in exchange for, say, 90-odd of the 147 English library authorities signing up to the MLA package?