Using mobile devices to answer enquiries - Jo Alcock Consulting
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Using mobile devices to answer enquiries

Using mobile devices to answer enquiries

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With a number of people having (or looking for) new mobile phones for Christmas or in the January sales, and people reflecting on the technological advances of the last decade (ignoring the debate about whether or not we’re actually in a new decade!), I’ve read a few blog posts recently about the great features of mobile devices and how useful they are. All this talk about mobile devices reminded me of a blog post I’ve been intending to write for a while so here it is.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I splashed out on an iPod Touch just over 2 years ago, and commented then on how mobile technologies were likely to affect both libraries and services in general in the future. I also wrote a series of posts about how to utilise some of the apps – some of which probably need updating but are still of use. I loved my iPod Touch but missed being able to use it when not in a wireless zone (particularly during my commute to work), and finally caved in earlier this year and bought myself an iPhone. I can now be usually found tapping away lost in the world of my iPhone (sad but true, I even started writing this blog post on my iPhone using the WordPress app as I was struggling to sleep). I use lots of different apps every day for my personal and work life, and find it invaluable when visiting new places (using maps, guides and useful transport apps to get about). I also use the web browser a lot, and many weekends now I don’t actually turn my laptop on at all and just stay connected via my iPhone.

I use it at work a lot – it has my Remember The Milk to do list application, and I can use it to check my email when I’m away from my desk. I also occasionally use it to access our OPAC (sadly not currently optimised for mobile browsers), and find this particularly useful when I’m in the shelves and not near an OPAC (e.g. when weeding).

Until recently I hadn’t used it for enquiries – most enquiries come to the enquiry desk anyway (we’re not actively roving yet) and if students catch you elsewhere in the building it’s usually not too far to the nearest OPAC. I’ve been following other libraries who have trialled mobile devices (such as Vicki Owen’s work at LJMU) and thought there was great potential, but never used it myself.

However, recently there have been two occasions when I have used my iPhone to deal with enquiries and it’s been really useful. The first time I was in the shelves helping with a backlog of shelving when a student asked for help locating an item. She was sure it should be available and had written down the classmark but couldn’t find it. I had a look with her but I couldn’t find it either. We were right by where the book should be and not very near to the OPACs, so I decided to double check the OPAC on my iPhone. It turned out the item wasn’t actually available (I think it may have been available at a different campus), and saved us time searching around as we now knew it wouldn’t be there. She thanked me for my help and said she’d reserve it instead. I guess we could even have reserved on my iPhone too, but she was happy to do that on her way out of the building. Happy student, and I was pleased to have been able to help her at her point (and location) of need.

The second occasion was when we were having problems with internet access, and I was weeding down in the basement – I often spend time in the shelves if the network is having problems. A student asked me for help locating books on a certain topic area and was stuck due to the internet problems. I had a vague idea where to look (secretly I quite like it when the OPAC is down as it tests your Dewey knowledge!), but wasn’t completely sure so decided to check using my mobile internet access on my iPhone. We found a specific classmark on the OPAC using my phone and the student was able to locate relevant materials. Another happy customer thanks to my iPhone.

Now OK, the second example was unusual circumstances and doesn’t happen that often thankfully, but the first example is something that happens all the time. We usually traipse over to the OPACs or the student has to come to the helpdesk (which must be frustrating for them as they’ve probably already checked, but we then double check as our OPAC isn’t very intuitive). Then, if it should (in theory) be available, we traipse back to the shelves (where the student has already been), and try to locate it. Sometimes at this point we find it, but sometimes the search continues to the recently returned items on trolleys, or sometimes even to the items still in the returns box by the self issue machines. If there’s only one available and the student can’t find it, I usually check our LMS to see when it was last returned which should give a clue to where it may be. Either way, it’s an unnecessarily long-winded procedure which could really be helped by mobile devices.

Some of our campuses are currently roving, but as far as I know they don’t have portable devices of any kind with them. Now that I’ve experienced it first hand, I can definitely see how it can help, even if it’s just iPod Touch or similar wireless enabled mobile devices used to access the OPAC and the web to assist with simple enquiries (although a tablet PC, or the rumoured Apple iSlate, with the admin side of the LMS as well as internet access would be even more useful).

I think maybe it’s finally time to put one of the suggestions sitting in my “possible future ideas” folder to management and see if it’s something we could potentially implement in the not too distant future.

I know there are a number of libraries who were interested in using mobile devices to assist with enquiries, is anyone using them currently? If so I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments, or if you know of anywhere that is currently using them.

I’ll definitely be watching with interest to see where this sort of thing progresses (the banks and airports are already actively using these sort of devices to aid customer service), and in the meantime you’ll be able to find me with my iPhone in my pocket in case students ask me for help when I’m out and about in the building. 😉

  • Ben Elwell
    Posted at 12:22h, 05 January Reply

    Our OPAC has great retro styling, making great use of tables for it’s layout! Give it another couple of years and it will be back in fashion 😛

    If anyone would like to buy me a shiny new Android phone I will happily work on improving our facilities for mobile devices.

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 12:24h, 05 January Reply

      Bright Idea suggestion to get you an Android phone (and iPhone for checking cross-mobile compatibility)?!

  • thewikiman
    Posted at 17:06h, 05 January Reply

    Oooh, I actually have a post in a draft state in wordpress, called ‘what are the best apps for information professionals?’… It’s a list of stuff I’ve discovered to be useful but also a request for suggestions; I’ll read your series of posts now.

    I’ll probably publish my own post anyway but something I’ve wondered for a while – could an app make use of RFID to locate a misplaced book? I’m sure it must be possible somehow…

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 23:15h, 05 January Reply

      Glad I’m not the only one with drafts sitting in WordPress – I’ve had two posts I was intending to complete for that series which have been sitting in my drafts since early Feb last year!

      I thought the same about RFID as I was typing – sadly we don’t yet have RFID but I’m sure in the future it should be a lot easier to locate lost books – we’ll no doubt be saying in 20 years time, “Blimey, do you remember when we used to have to actually go to the shelves to look for lost books?”.

      • thewikiman
        Posted at 10:01h, 06 January Reply

        Well you can deffo use RFID to locate stuff – you just wave the wand at a group of books and it tells you what’s missing as opposed to what should be there, and similarly you can tell what is there which shouldn’t be… (when I say wave the wand, I am of course using all the technical jargon and not just making it up as I go along… not a wand but a sort of infrared scanner thing)

        The question is, would it be logistically possible / practical to harness that for an app?

        • Jo Alcock
          Posted at 10:23h, 06 January Reply

          Yes, I’ve seen the wands in action, very impressive. I just think it would be good if you could click on a barcode on the OPAC to find out whereabouts the item is now (and even better if you could use virtual reality type app to help you find it!). We were discussing these sort of ideas at MiddleMash in the group who were adding library plans to Google Maps.

  • Tweets that mention Joeyanne Libraryanne » Using mobile devices to answer enquiries --
    Posted at 01:28h, 06 January Reply

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  • Katharine
    Posted at 09:52h, 09 January Reply

    Hi Jo,
    Happy New Year!
    Interesting post, and I will be checking out the links later today.
    When I started my new post at Warwick as Enquiry Support Officer, top of my list of things to investigate was smartphones for enquiry provision. I have recently put in a request to LMG to purchase a smartphone for the Library Advisors to trial whilst roving. Hopefully we will get it soon and I will be able to share some real stats and feedback on how it’s working.
    Unfortunately we are limited in which handsets we are available to us for order as we have to adhere to the regulations of our IT Services dept, and they can obviously only provide tech support for a limited number of models and we have to go with what is available on the network the university uses for it’s phone contracts. So it looks like the best we could order is the E72 (see ) which isn’t bad, but isn’t an Iphone.
    I hope to have more news about the progress of the purchase recommendation at the start of next week, so I’ll stick a post on the blog when I know more.

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 11:02h, 09 January Reply

      Great stuff Katharine, I hope you’re able to get the smartphones soon, looking forward to hearing about your experiences.

      Interesting point you make about iPhones being unsupported, I know a number of companies who have changed their business phones from Blackberries to iPhones. Guess Windows Mobile is probably the easiest for an IT department to support if they support PCs.

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