March 17, 2018

Mobile at the Library | Office Hours

Michael StephensI unpacked (slowly, slowly) my new iPhone 5S in a major moment of personal technolust. Upgrading from a quickly aging iPhone 4, the larger screen size, fingerprint identification, and enhanced camera pulled me in. It also caused me to reflect on the mobile device and its touchstone role with people in general and librarians in particular. What a history we’ve had together!

Beware the future

Sharing images of library signs—especially those related to mobile devices and their use within library buildings—was part of my early focus on how libraries interact with their users via signage. Aaron Schmidt, writing LJ’s User Experience column, has also explored these ideas, most recently in “Signs of Good Design.” Language usually attached to an image of a mobile phone with the red circle and line through it was of this variety: “Violators will be asked to leave,” “Conversations not allowed,” and one signed ominously by “the Library Director.” Other ­signage you may have seen passed around Buzzfeed and LIS blogs warn that food or drink near library computers would bring “the wrath of the library director.” When did the position of director become so scary? When did we become so mean?

I poked a bit of fun at these signs at the expense of the library that posted them and was called out more than once. But for every bad sign that went up, I believe many more came down, as librarians took to making kindness audits of signage and spaces. “Quiet conversation, please” and “Don’t forget to set your phone to vibrate” are much more user-positive admonitions.

A world of information

Years ago, I did a presentation for a group of librarians, LIS faculty, and students in South Carolina. The night before the talk, the hotel bartender chatted with me about his mobile device. He was playing the bar’s music from his iPhone. We started talking about apps we liked and the ways we used our phones, and he said, “I have everything I need here: I have my web, I have my email, I have my text, I have my video, and I have my music: I have the world of information in my hand. His remark resonated with me, and I have told the story in many presentations since, because it’s indicative of the way that people think about their devices. This is supported by recent research that might just surprise you.

It’s all about me

A joint study by AOL Inc. and advertising firm BBDO recently revealed that “68 percent of consumer mobile phone use occurs in the home” and indicated that folks have seven primary motivations for using mobile devices. The descriptors include self-expression, discovery, preparation (planning a trip, etc.), and accomplishment of a task (mobile banking, etc.). The highest use, however, at 46 percent, is what the researchers call “me time,” defined as “seeking relaxation and entertainment in order to indulge oneself or pass the time.” The study, aimed at marketers, should also inspire us to seek ways “to help users indulge and enjoy ­themselves.”

Pew’s “Cell Phone Activities” and “Cell Internet Use” reports from fall 2013 provide further evidence that our mobile devices are ingrained in our lives. Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, stated, “For many, such as younger adults or lower-income Americans, cell phones are often a primary device for accessing online content—a development that has particular relevance to companies and organizations seeking to reach these groups.”

It’s all about them

The North Carolina State University James B. Hunt Library’s Instagram contest is an example of turning “me time” into a collaborative, participatory project for students. Invited to shoot artistic and fun images of the new Hunt, students’ snaps, tagged #huntlibrary, were displayed around the space and online. The students, armed with their smartphones, created a unique library collection. [See LJ’s coverage.]

The day after receiving my new phone, I traveled to Missouri to make a presentation. During free time, I visited a local county library branch, happening upon a librarian roaming the stacks with an iPad. She approached me and inquired if I needed help. No, I said, but I was very interested in how the iPad was working for her as a reference device. She had positive views, talking about how the library was working to use technology more effectively to interact with patrons. She was optimistic about the future of the service. We parted, and I walked from the stacks to the main reference area, where I was greeted by a sign: “Cell phone use is prohibited.” Posting a shot of it to Instagram, I tagged it to my classes: “There’s still work to be done.”

Michael Stephens ( is Assistant Professor at the School of Library and Information Science, San José State University, CA

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Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA



  1. Re the AOL study on cell phone use in homes – was it determined whether this was the user’s only phone?

  2. While I do agree that we need to utilize technology – yeah for the librarian in the stacks with the iPad…I for one do not think that we need to step away from the no cell phone policy in the library. Of course there should be a friendly place somewhere in the library for cell phone use, but I am tired of being stuck on the railroad, supermarket line, in the gym, etc next to or near someone yammering away about their weekend plans, their terrible day at work, etc, etc. etc. I truly think that its rude to stand on a checkout line and while the cashier is attempting to interact with the customer the customer is rudely ignoring her/him while chatting away. We deal with this all of the time.
    In addition, we have over 20 public access computers near the Ref. desk. If all 20 decided to chat away (and you know they would) there would be no peace for those who are here to study, and patrons do come here for a respite from the cacophony that surrounds all of us.
    Texting and Internet surfing are quiet pursuits – talking on the phone is not.