It may not yet be a truth universally accepted, but the battle against the mobile phone, the MP3 player and other portable devices has been lost. Their ubiquitous presence in society makes it virtually impossible to continue ignoring or banning them from libraries.
Indeed, would this be desirable? Library customers want the freedom to choose how, when and where they access their information, and whilst mobile technology may pose a threat to traditional library activities, it also offers an opportunity. Rather than seeing mobile devices as 'the enemy', libraries should embrace this increasingly powerful technology. It offers an opportunity to push information and library services to an increasingly diverse customer base, demonstrating the continued relevance of libraries.
This is where this timely collection of papers from the 2007 First International M-Libraries Conference  comes in. It surveys the key concepts behind mobile learning and libraries (m-libraries) and provides practical examples of how they have been implemented. This broad focus means it can act as a valuable guide for newcomers, yet contain enough of interest for anyone already involved in m-library projects.
The book comprises 24 chapters, divided into four parts . Part one looks at the social context of mobile technology and the changing attitudes to information and learning, and provides contextual background information which establishes a framework for the remaining chapters. Part two considers the use of mobile technology to reach remote users in very large or developing countries, particularly focusing on developments on the African continent (a useful reminder that we should not purely focus our attention on European or North American libraries). Finally, parts three and four outline specific m-library projects and initiatives.
This highly structured format gives the reader great flexibility when deciding how to read the book. Readers new to this area and wanting to find out more can work through it in its entirety. I certainly found it a highly useful overview of some of the opportunities, challenges and limitations of m-learning. Alternatively, it is equally informative for readers who just wish to refer to specific chapters or investigate particular ideas.
Whilst all the chapters are of interest, it is parts three and four which are likely to be of most immediate relevance to many Ariadne readers. It is here that the practical issues behind developing and supporting m-library services are considered. The wide range of projects featured shows just how much m-learning can offer libraries and their customers, when properly implemented. It is also pleasing to note the willingness of contributors to highlight things which did not go quite so well or which would, with hindsight, have been done differently. It is always helpful to be aware of potential pitfalls before undertaking your own projects, and the authors should be applauded for their willingness to share both their positive and negative experiences.
The book is helpfully laid out, with liberal use of sub-headings within chapters. This makes it easy to read in small chunks, giving plenty of places to break off when you are interrupted – almost a certainty in today's busy libraries! It does not assume a high level of technical knowledge or rely heavily on IT jargon. Whilst some understanding of general IT issues is required, the reader does not need to be an expert. There are highly useful chapters, for example, on the technological capabilities of individual mobile devices (chapters 10 and 15) or the architecture needed to support m-library services (chapter 14) which are accessible to any reasonably IT literate lay-person . This is a book for those interested in service delivery, not technology.
All of the contributions prove highly informative and, whilst there is a common theme running through them, m-libraries are considered in their widest possible context. One of my fears was that the focus would be primarily on academic libraries. In fact, considerable attention is given to other sectors, with chapters on the use of mobile technology in public, health and other specialist libraries. (chapters 11, 12 and 18, inter alia). More importantly, whichever sector is under consideration, the authors are careful to place these developments in the wider social context, which means that the lessons learned can readily be adapted for another sector.
Some of the contributions do betray their origins as conference papers, sounding as though they were designed for verbal, rather than written communication. This is not a criticism, but rather a strength. This slightly more informal style is to be welcomed, making the book accessible to a wider audience than might otherwise have been the case. Just occasionally chapters felt a little superficial – perfect for a 45-minute conference slot – lacking the level of detail appropriate to a written paper. There were times when I wanted to probe a little deeper into some of the findings or question the author on some of the points. This, of course, is an opportunity which delegates at the original conference would presumably have had but is not available to the reader, and may be a source of mild frustration.
The one significant omission relates to resourcing issues. To some extent, this is understandable: the cost of technology is rarely stable; new and better equipment is coming out all the time and prices would be out of date before publication. However, a key concern for many libraries is how staff-intensive such activities are. Given the otherwise thorough treatment, it would have been helpful to have some idea of how long these projects took from planning to implementation; how many staff were assigned to them; whether there were dedicated project teams or whether existing library staff took on additional duties. Whilst a couple of the chapters touch on this aspect, it is not given any systematic consideration. In a period where library budgets are coming under increasing pressure, this would have been highly useful for planners and decision-makers.
The explosion of interest in 'Web 2.0' technologies and this work's wide-ranging coverage means that it should find an equally wide-ranging audience. Although most obviously designed for librarians, it will also be of interest to academics or anyone researching the shifting context of service delivery. Whilst it might be of greatest use to people at the start of the m-library journey, anyone with an interest in this rapidly developing area will find food for thought.
Most libraries are starting to consider the challenges which new mobile devices pose to traditional models of service delivery and how to respond and adapt. M-Libraries provides timely and helpful advice on some of the key issues. The excellent blend of contextual background information together with practical examples and advice makes it a useful addition to any collection.
Having recommended this book, I shall end with a slightly tongue-in-cheek observation. In the age of the iPhone, the Sony E-book reader and Amazon Kindle, it is somewhat ironic that a book concerned with mobile learning remains stubbornly welded to a traditional print format and - as far as I can tell - is not available in electronic format. Whilst the book highlights the many, exciting advances in the field of mobile learning, it also, perhaps, demonstrates just how much further we still have to go.
- The First International m-libraries Conference http://library.open.ac.uk/mLibraries/2007/
- Gill Needham and Mohamed Ally (Eds.). (2008). M-Libraries: Libraries on the move to provide virtual access. September 2008; 352pp; hardback; 978-1-85604-648-0. Facet Publishing.
- Gill Needham and Mohamed Ally (Eds.). (2008). M-Libraries: Libraries on the move to provide virtual access. Table of contents