Libraries quickly embraced personal computers, for example. Probably any library in the country will help patrons learn to use a computer for the first time. Or help them learn sophisticated software.
Libraries still find new ways to use computers and peripherals to add new services. More recently, the public has become addicted to mobile phones. So, of course, libraries use them, and help patrons use them, too.
Here is the latest in an occasional series of posts about innovative library services.
Datasets and data visualization
Research is based on data. People who want to follow up on published research often want to examine the data at its foundation. So academic libraries offer datasets as part of their collection.
Libraries have always helped patrons get maximum value from the collection. In the same way, academic libraries help faculty and students use datasets to their best advantage.
Raw data can be mind-numbingly difficult to interpret. Sophisticated software can turn it into various kinds of images.
Data visualization therefore helps researchers convey their findings most effectively. It helps a large audience understand the information. Many more people than the research team that compiled the data can study it, analyze it, and question it. So visualization plays a role not only in expressing knowledge, but also creating new knowledge.
More and more academic libraries have a visualization librarian. Like any other reference librarian, visualization librarians offer instruction, support, and consultation. In particular, they help patrons use the software platforms to obtain the desired outcomes.
Data visualization requires labs with special equipment, including computers, projectors, and monitors or screens for display.
Library visualization departments offer frequent workshops. Some may focus on using software like MATLAB. Others may teach one of the programming languages for statistics. The libraries can use them as a marketing tool. They remind the rest of the university of the library’s resources.
If someone asks for a workshop on an unfamiliar tool or technique, it gives the librarians a chance to train and learn new skills.
The libraries also view their visualization departments as a way to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. Disciplines that, at first, see no reason to get involved with data visualization discover uses for it.
Wi-fi to go
Low-income families often lack Internet access at home. Job hunting, applying for social services, and even doing homework often require going online.
Anyone with a mobile phone or laptop computer can go to a McDonalds or someplace that offers free wi-fi. But libraries can help the poor go online at home. They purchase and lend wi-fi hotspots.
Wi-fi hotspots are small, portable devices. They use a cellular signal to connect other devices to the Internet. Because they require no installation, libraries can check them out the same as other materials in the collection.
Libraries already check out computers, ebook readers, recording equipment, and other electronic devices. In principle, checking out hotspots simply extends library services incrementally. In practice, however, it presents some new challenges.
First, hotspots will only work in areas with a strong cellular signal. Lending them is not feasible in, say, rural areas that lack the infrastructure.
Second, libraries need to plan how to make sure the people who need the service the most will have access to it. Libraries can lend them to anyone with a library card, but in that case they need to have funding to buy enough to meet the demand.
Or they can limit circulating them to a defined population.
For example, some libraries target patrons below a certain income level, patrons who have no Internet service at home, or who enroll in a library program.
Costs to the library include more than the price of the devices themselves. For example, hey need storage containers to protect them from unnecessary wear and tear. They need extra chargers, because patrons often fail to return them. And libraries must pay a monthly service charge to a cellular provider, which can include roaming charges.
Library mobile apps
Americans spend a lot of time using apps on their mobile phones. More Americans have smart phones than computers. Therefore, it makes sense for libraries to offer mobile apps to serve patrons better.
For example, the Miami-Dade Public Library System offers more than a dozen apps on its website. Patrons can download them.
Some apps allow users to download various kinds of content with their library card. Others provide searchable information, help find online courses, or send documents from a phone to a printer in a library branch.
Some libraries have not found apps they consider adequate for their purposes. They have decided to develop them in house.
The Allen County Library in Indiana, for example, noted many apps for parents to obtain for their children. But they did not provide opportunity for parents to interact with their children. The library developed an app that offers videos with activities including reading, writing, and singing, that parents and children can do together.
Libraries that create their own apps, however, encounter difficulties in developing them. They need to make separate versions available for Android, Apple, and Windows devices. Each platform requires a different programming language.
Then they need to upload the apps to an app store so that patrons can download them from there. Whenever developers update the app, users need to download them again.
The platforms periodically update their operating systems, and the updates may cause issues that app developers must fix. Northwestern University retired its library app when Apple introduced IOS 8 and broke it. It added all the app’s capabilities to its website, which was already adapted for mobile use.
If any new technology proves useful to libraries’ mission, innovative library services that take advantage of it will soon follow.
3 unusual and unexpected library services
Ebooks and libraries
Innovative library services: some kudos and a rant
Libraries vs the digital divide
Library makerspaces challenge imagination
Libraries, immigrants, and digital literacy
New technology in libraries
What’s a library without books? Some bookless libraries
What’s new? Innovative library services revisited
How to hot spot / Christina Vercelletto, Library Journal. September 25, 2017
Libraries explore mobile options / Gary Landgraf, American Libraries. February 24, 2015
Visualizing the future / Matt Enis, Library Journal. October 4, 2017
Library sign. Some rights reserved by San Jose Public Library. Link to Flickr no longer works
Data visualization. Some rights reserved by Michael Sean Gallagher
Wi-fi portable hotspot. Some rights reserved by Iridium Satellite Communications
Library mobile apps. Screen shot