March 16, 2018

Meet the Tabletarians | Mobile Services


In March 2011, the Boise Public Library (BPL), ID, used $3,300 in Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant funding to purchase four iPad 2 tablets and all of the trimmings, such as wireless keyboard docks, barcode scanners, and cases with hand grips. According to “Roving Reference, iPad-Style,” published in the Idaho Librarian in November 2011, “the goal of the grant was to increase staff interaction with customers by giving librarians tools to move out from behind the desk.”

As with BPL, many libraries had been looking for ways to showcase librarian and staff expertise and enhance customer service. Having staff stroll the stacks and proactively offer assistance is one way to ensure that even the most reference desk–averse patrons are finding what they need, and Apple’s new tablets—the original iPad had been introduced less than a year earlier—seemed like the perfect accessory for roving reference.

As it turned out, BPL may have been a couple of years ahead of its time. Staff soon found that it took too long to sign in to their Horizon Information Portal using the iPads and that it was difficult to place holds or complete other basic tasks. Most staff also felt the early iPads were “a little too heavy to carry for long periods of time” and were too big to balance comfortably with one hand while typing with the other, Heidi Lewis, BPL information services librarian, explains.

“It turned out that interacting with customers in the stacks and then walking back to [a] PC to look something up continued to be at least as effective, if not more than, as trying to use the iPads within the stacks,” Lewis says.

The iPads did prove helpful when BPL was hosting classes or large groups and “four or more staff members were trying to look things up or place holds,” she says. “An iPad or two at times like this allowed us to help more students, even if the interactions weren’t as easy as when using a PC.”

Ultimately, Lewis says, the tablets weren’t used in the way that was originally planned. Usage did improve once three of the four iPads were assigned to individual staff members “who were most invested in experimentation and technology in the department,” rather than kept for general use. These staff members personalized the tablets with apps to facilitate story times and youth services events and used them to stay in touch with the library via email while hosting off-site programs.

And while the iPads were never worked with much in the stacks, the program “brought with it the need for a series of important conversations about reference work without the reference desk…. [Staff] became more aware of the idea of finding and helping customers where the customers are at (rather than expecting customers to always come to the desk) than before the program,” Lewis says. “At the very least, the iPads succeeded as a disruptive technology—in a great way—because of the discussions surrounding their intended benefits to the customers.”

New demands

This conversation is now coming full circle. Technological advances continue to make tablets lighter, faster, and more affordable. Vendors including SirsiDynix, Innovative Interfaces Inc. (III), and The Library Corporation (TLC) have recently launched interfaces that make it possible to use a staff tablet to perform tasks ranging from weeding books to signing up new cardholders. Also, applying lessons learned about these devices during the past five years, many libraries are rebooting or enhancing the way tablets are integrated into roving reference, off-site programs, and other workflows.

“When people first started realizing that tablets existed and that they could be useful in libraries, they were mainly just trying to experiment. Now what we’re seeing is a more strategic integration,” says Rebecca K. Miller, assistant director, learning services for Virginia Tech Libraries, Blacksburg, and coeditor of Tablet Computers in the Academic Library with Heather Moorefield-Lang and Carolyn Meier. “People are actually assessing whether or not using tablets as tools [increases] effectiveness or enhances the way we work with patrons.”

The trend is manifesting in a variety of ways, Miller notes. For many public libraries, providing access to new technologies is an important part of their mission, and even with tablet ownership on the rise, programs that lend tablets or enable patrons to use library-owned units on-site have become more commonplace. Libraries are mounting tablets on shelves or stands to serve as ready-reference help points for patrons. Instructors are integrating tablets into library programs and courses. And as with BPL, many libraries are looking for ways to enable staff to spend more time engaging with patrons. Tablets may still be part of the answer.

“I think librarians have always wanted to be as engaged and interactive as possible, but we always felt tied to our reference desk or, if we were in a classroom, tied to the podium in order to advance slides or demonstrate a database,” Miller says. “But now that there’s mobile technology that allows us to go where users are…. I think it’s just that the technology is enabling us to do what we’ve always wanted to do.”

In addition, many patrons are using tablets to access a growing number of library resources. Employing a staff tablet to demonstrate how to check out an ebook, for example, makes more sense than walking a patron through the process on a different interface, notes Michele McGraw, information services manager for Hennepin County Library (HCL), MN.

“If we talk with patrons and show them what we have using a desktop, they’re going to go home and try to use those [resources] on their iPad or phone,” McGraw says. “We should be using the tools that our patrons will [have] at home.” HCL was recognized by the Urban Libraries Council as a Top Innovator in 2013 for two 2012 test projects with staff-operated iPads and HP Elitebook tablets. The project later expanded to all 41 HCL branches.

HCL staff did experience some of the same limitations and issues that Lewis describes at BPL.

“You couldn’t do everything on them that you can do on a desktop or laptop. We could get in to use the public catalog or the staff catalog but couldn’t access all of the features of our ILS,” McGraw says. “At that point, I think you couldn’t print from them. You could check out something for somebody, but you couldn’t give them the receipt they were used to having.”

Going mobile

Vendors have begun addressing many of these issues with portable clients designed specifically for tablets. SirsiDynix debuted MobileCirc in 2013. Available to Symphony and Horizon users as an iOS, Android, or browser-based web app, MobileCirc is designed to work with portable Bluetooth scanners and includes features that enable libraries to check out, renew, and place holds on items remotely. MobileCirc can also be used to sign up new patrons and issue library cards by scanning a driver’s license barcode. And for staff doing work in the stacks, the app offers reports and real-time lists of books and other items for weeding, inventory, and other tasks.

MobileCirc does include an offline mode for off-site events or other instances when a network connection is unavailable, but otherwise “whatever is done with the tablet is reflected immediately in the ILS system,” says Ranny Lacanienta, director of product strategy for SirsiDynix.

It’s evident that the mobile client is filling a need. “It’s the best-selling, most robustly adopted product in our history,” surpassing even the company’s eResource Central integrated content management tool, says Eric Keith, VP of global marketing, communications, and strategic alliances for SirsiDynix.

In October, III completed the general release launch of the Leap web client for the Polaris ILS. Last spring, when Innovative made waves with its back-to-back April 2014 acquisition of Polaris and May 2014 acquisition of VTLS, the company outlined a plan to develop a next-generation, cloud-based library services platform (LSP) that would work with Polaris, Innovative’s Sierra, or VTLS’s Virtua on the back end. Leap will ultimately become part of a suite of tools available for users of that LSP.

For now, Polaris libraries can purchase the responsive web client, which was designed with tablets and mobile devices in mind but can be used on any device with a browser, including laptops, notebooks, or desktops. Leap enables librarians to use tablets to check out and check in books and other materials; ljx150101webenis3register patrons and edit patron accounts; accept payments for fines; print receipts, hold pickups, and in-transit slips; create pick lists; and more.

“It’s basically a reimagining of a number of the workflows within Polaris to make for a more intuitive and better experience for staff, [enabling them to] work without being confined to the desk, to engage with patrons, and to work in the stacks [or] outside the confines of the library,” says Mark Eskandar, III’s director of research and development.

Sarah Hickman Auger, director of product strategy for Innovative, adds that “libraries are no longer just about the collection they provide. They’re also about the service experience they provide.”

Patrons will judge the service they receive in a library against comparable retail experiences, whether it’s a bookstore or Apple store, she contends, and “there’s an expectation in terms of how patrons interact with technology [and staff]…that they bring with them when they enter the library. For the library to remain relevant and continue to engage their users, they have to step up their game.”

In August, TLC launched CARL•Connect Circulation, the first product in a planned line of web-based staff clients for its CARL•X ILS. Like Leap, the client is web-based, so while it is optimized for use with tablets and mobile devices, it will also work on any device with a browser. CARL•Connect Circulation includes tools to facilitate weeding and collection analysis, materials checkout and check in, patron lookup, and wireless patron registration—including a feature that will email to patrons a scannable digital barcode that can be used immediately to check out materials.

Lorrie Ann Butler, director of product strategy for CARL•Connect at TLC, agrees that retailers such as Apple and Nordstrom have raised many people’s expectations for proactive customer service, even in settings such as a public library.

Also, she adds, “as libraries have become the ‘third space’ for their communities—offering a place away from home and the office with comfortable seating, computers, wireless Internet—library [patrons] are now using library services away from the circulation and reference desk…. And once someone gets comfortable at a PC or table, it’s difficult for them to decide to leave their valuables to seek help. So they’ll struggle with a problem longer than they need to.”

Mobile-optimized staff clients do make a difference, according to Cathleen Wortman, customer resource manager, Baltimore County Office of Information Technology. Baltimore County Public Library (BCPL) has worked closely with Polaris during the testing phase of several projects, including Leap. BCPL staff had been using iPads for roving reference and other tasks for about two years, but before Leap, Wortman says that these librarians had the same problems cited by Lewis at BPL and McGraw at HCL. With Leap, she says that staff are now able to complete tasks such as registering new patrons at off-site events and resolving issues with patron accounts using their tablets.

Leap “is pretty basic right now, but when the development includes RFID capabilities and e-commerce capabilities, we’ll probably be using it more, even at our service desks,” Wortman says.

Lessons learned

In Boise, where BPL uses SirsiDynix’s Horizon ILS as a member of the LYNX! Consortium, Lewis says that the library had recently begun testing a new tablet program that doesn’t involve a new mobile staff client. Two staffers have been given Microsoft Surface tablets as replacements for their regular work computers. Docking stations for the tablets are set up at each staff member’s desk and at the reference desk, so these employees can use their tablets for work or for roving. With Windows 8, the tablets have full access to Outlook and other MS Office programs, as well as access to network drives and the ILS.

“Although there has not been an update to provide smooth touch screen functionality with the ILS at this time, the cover/keyboard for the Surface will allow staff to interact more easily with the ILS than the iPads [did],” Lewis explains.

This new test program applies two key lessons that BPL learned during its previous experiments with tablets four years ago. First, tablets should be assigned to an individual staff member, who can then customize and personalize the device with whatever apps, bookmarks, and programs are best suited to his or her work with patrons, Lewis says. The one-tablet-fits-all approach initially tested in 2011 led to low usage among employees.

Second, while using the tablet, staff must work to wean themselves from desktop PCs.

“The use of a tablet for all aspects of one’s work requires breaking some of the habits formed by years of working with PCs and laptops,” Lewis says. If a staff member tries using a tablet, and only that tablet, for an extended period of time, he or she will find creative ways to solve problems without jumping back and forth to desktop workstations. “Instead, staff members have the chance to experience different ways of interacting with customers, coworkers, and the world of information,” Lewis says.

As one BPL staffer stated, “It’s the habits that are harder to break than even getting used to new things,” Lewis recalls.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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