Research in the Mobile Age

Mobile devices are a vital part of today’s information landscape. However, for many they are still seen as a novel part of the information world – a recent innovation. It’s worth remembering that the iPhone was first unveiled at the end of June 2007, and launched later that year. The smartphone is now (almost) a decade old, and for many students entering university, has been a part of their lives for so long as to be unremarkable.

For libraries, mobile devices have been a mixed blessing. They can contribute to noise in places of reflection, but can also deliver an entire encyclopaedia that would take several shelves of storage into a student’s hands in their bedroom at 2am in the morning. They change the geography and time of people’s interaction with information.

Research in the library has always had a risk of intrusiveness – an interruption when someone is deeply engaged in a book, or surveying their borrowing habits over a term. These problems become more problematic when observation, albeit indirect, may reveal that a card-holder is in Sydney, rather than Brisbane, or at home at 2am rather than in the library building at lunchtime. What is appropriate or inappropriate data to capture becomes more problematic. While capturing data can be invisible, that can be the very problem. Researchers can be unaccountable, and in some senses it is harder for users of library services to have moments of privacy.

There is also a loss of accountability. It’s clear to the reader that they are in the library building, but many online and mobile information services are complex. Libraries aggregate services, and logins can direct a user from a library search result to content buried deep inside a publisher’s own website. With that change, the library loses track of an ebook’s use, but also a user’s work is now revealed to the publisher. It may surprise many, but most people fail to recognise when they change from one website to another. That problem is known to be worse on the small screens of mobile phones and tablet computers, due to the smaller size of the display. For a library researcher, data that could in principle be found inside the library often becomes locked behind the privacy of the publisher’s website.

There are opportunities too. We are still, as a discipline, starting to understand how to capture the real meaning of that 2am moment when a student checks an encyclopaedia. However, the easiness of that moment is a vast leap distant from the time when the same student would give up, or wait until Monday morning. How to study that moment with today’s constraints and barriers may be a problem, but there are chances for encounters with information that yesterday’s librarians perhaps might not have imagined.

George Buchanan

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