BlackBerry in the Liberry

Dan Overfield, Business Librarian at Villanova University, told us about a pilot project in which 3 librarians traded their office phones for BlackBerry mobile devices.

ACRLog – How did this pilot project come about?

Overfield – The primary reason was that we employ a satellite research office model where subject librarians, in this case in business and the sciences, operate from the library as well in various buildings across campus. Our remote locations, combined with our other obligations, made communication difficult.

ACRLog – Do you know of any other libraries using BlackBerries?

Overfield – I am not aware of specific cases that feature the dedicated use of mobile technology by academic librarians, though I have heard discussions about text reference via cell phone. I am certain that others must, or soon will, be following the same model. Our research support team shares a cell phone but it is only used whenever someone is both “on call” for research support backup and simultaneously not able to remain in their offices.

ACRLog – What were some of the reservations people had?

Overfield – One clear factor was cost and that limited us to three devices in the pilot. At this moment I have asked our telecommunications office to compare the annual costs of the BlackBerry and the desk phone because our wholesale adaptation of this idea will need to consider the bottom line as well as other factors. The other concern was that the participants would find themselves receiving and answering calls and emails all night, everynight, over holidays, and on vacation. I am also personally concerned with the possibility of losing the device. Desk phones are low risk and it is very difficult to misplace one.

ACRLog – Well, what about answering questions at all times of the day and night?

Overfield – The BlackBerry allows me to easily keep up with patrons. When I am unable or unwilling to make replies I simply leave them for my next opportunity. Everyone wants to be as available to students as possible, and the blackberry does accomplish this very well. The main thing is that it is very simple to read and reply to email, even at odd hours, because you can check your messages by pressing a single button. Laptops require an internet connection, a power supply, passwords, and time to load the applications. I have installed del.icio.us onto the BlackBerry and it is quite painless to cut and paste links into emails to students. Two of us in the pilot commute to campus using public transportation and we are normally able to read and respond to emails before we arrive at work.

ACRLog – What are the benefits of using a BlackBerry?

Overfield – Students, faculty, and colleagues can reach me at one telephone number, or via email, at any time, regardless of which building I am in, or whether or not I am even on campus. With emerging technology like Twitter I can make updates to my websites by simply texting them to my account. Students can also subscribe to “follow” my updates via text or email, so with the blackberry there is the potential to communicate with patrons without anyone having to be at a desk or in front of a computer.

I have dramatically reduced my response time to student questions. In cases were I cannot reply in an appropriately complete manner I am, at least, able to forward the email to someone who may be on campus or inside the library. My entire address book is loaded in the device so it is easy to reach any of my colleagues at any time. Again, response time is something we are very pleased with, and students have frequently been impressed with our shortened response times this semester.

ACRLog – The drawbacks?

Overfield – It is first and foremost a new technology for my colleagues and I, and we have had to spend ample time learning to use the device efficiently. I was confident with the device after a few weeks though I am still learning tricks after several months.

It is also very hard to type using the BlackBerry. Stated simply, the keys are small and our thumbs are large. The other significant draw back is that many websites are not optimized for mobile viewing. I have noticed that some academic libraries have developed a mobile version of their sites, but this adaptation ends when a user follows a link to a different website or database. The web browsing capability of the iPhone seems like it would be much better, and my hope is that other devices will soon catch up.

ACRLog – What’s the next step?

Our panel will meet to discuss our individual experiences using the device. We plan to review all of the pros and cons and will then report our findings back to our colleagues. At that point, if our experience has proven to be positive, we will conduct a cost benefit analysis to see whether or not the mobile phone, with its many abilities, is a viable alternative to sitting at one’s desk, next to one’s phone, in case it should ring.

It should be noted that our project would not have been possible without the endorsement of Joseph Lucia, University Librarian, and the participation and efforts of Linda Hauck, Research Support Librarian, and Alfred Fry, our Science Librarian.

10 thoughts on “BlackBerry in the Liberry

  1. I just traded in my cellphone for a blackberry and am already addicted. One of the first things I tried was searching our catalog for a book. Unfortunately, our system doesn’t allow this type of mobile functionality, and after a few inquiries, it turns out that the catalog upgrade required to search our resources via mobile device is prohibitively expensive.

    I wonder if other libraries have invested in the technology to allow mobile phone access to library resources (catalog/databases) and what the usage and usability is like.

    One of the cool features of the Blackberry 3810 is the GPS capability. Perhaps if libraries begin using RFID, the potential nexus between hand-held devices (like Blackberries), GPS and RFID could make it easier for patrons to find books and other materials in a large library.

    Just brainstorming here: RFID tags are mounted on shelves throughout the library corresponding to all the call number ranges. There would be a link (something like “find using GPS”) in the mobile version of the catalog. The Blackberry (or other GPS-enabled device) then searches for the corresponding RFID signal indicating the correct shelf and guides the patron to the correct area. Is this possible?

  2. As I attend meetings I see more and more librarians with blackberries and treos – and it does make it easier to get back to folks quickly who send an email question. Our librarians wanted to get iPhones for reference but the cost was prohibitive. But one of our librarians, David Murray, does use his personal iPhone for in and out of library reference to good advantage. The iPhone overcomes the problem of searching library resources – which works poorly on the blackberry or treo. David wrote about this for my “Pencils Never Crash” column in The Reference Librarian, but it hasn’t come out yet. I think when the price for the iPhone drops – or as competitor iPhones come out – it will really make mobile reference much easier to do.

  3. I have to admit that my first thought on reading this was “what’s the hurry?”

    I can see OB-Gyns being accessible. When babies want to be born, they aren’t very patient. But do we really have to answer most reference questions this instant while we race through an airport? Do we have to respond to every e-mail the moment it’s received? Must we find the call number or GSP location of that book right now? It’ll take a few minutes at least to read the damned thing.

    I like the idea of being able to pull something out of my pocket and check a call number when I’m lost in the stacks (though RFID kind of creeps me out). But I’m beginning to think our emphasis on speed and efficiency and access may encourage students (as they often already are inclined) to think that research should be fast and efficient and any time spent reading carefully or thinking abstractly or pondering or doodling ideas that don’t end up on the page is time wasted.

    Maybe I’m just getting old.

  4. The question of whether or not our immediate accessibility to students is a benefit or a liability is indeed very important. For me, the emails that I might answer in the mid to late evening are usually follow ups from people I had met with earlier that day or from patrons with whom I have a developed sense of camaraderie. This concern is still very valid, and deserves consideration. In my opinion, the more we can impress our students with quality professional research assistance the better. They find the interaction helpful, share their successes with their peers, who in turn will seek and receive the same treatment and librarians, therefore, regain / retain relevance and value on their campuses. You have prompted me to add a line to my email signature reminding patrons what to expect in terms of response time.

    The concern over issues stemming from increased efficiency and service provisions should be extended to late night in person reference hours, 24 chat services (both in house and via a consortium) and perhaps even last minute requests for research assistance.

    I am sure that most, if not all, librarians would help a last minute student if at all possible, but the issue mentioned above remains whether or not we use a blackberry or are sitting at the reference desk.

  5. I think it’s important to be available to students, but I’m not a doctor — your question can go to someone else when I’m not here. I love mobile communication when I need it; I love it when it lets me work from home; I like the idea of being where the students are. On the other hand, I chose to be a librarian partly because I can go home at night and not worry about my work! So at the risk of seeming undedicated, I’m saying, sure I’m all into an IPhone for work during work hours, but I’m turning it off / passing it on / twittering my unavailability otherwise.

  6. “I have installed del.icio.us onto the BlackBerry and it is quite painless to cut and paste links into emails to students. ”

    I should correct this: I have not downloaded the del.icio.us application to the device, but have only bookmarked my page. I apologize for any inconvenience.

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