This article appears in the Match 2010 issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter, available for purchase here.
One of the most interesting mobile applications demonstrated at the ALA Midwinter Meeting came from outside the ILS vendors. LibaryThing, a company that has found a niche in adding value to existing library catalogs, has created a mobile app that can be used with almost any of the major automation platforms, allowing a broad range of libraries to create a mobile presence at a very low price.
LibraryAnywhere, developed by LibraryThing, provides an inexpensive solution for libraries to engage their users with mobile devices. It includes features that will enable libraries to offer mobile users access to their online catalogs, including the ability to search the library’s collection and to perform services such as viewing currently charged items and to requesting or renewing materials. It’s designed to be a functional mobile online catalog with a reasonable set of features. No mobile interface offers the full set of capabilities found in full-fledged Web versions, but they attempt to focus on the features most needed and that can be operated through the more limited controls and keyboards of mobile devices. LibraryAnywhere also helps mobile users discover the libraries participating in the service. Features expected in subsequent versions include the ability to return search results in response to queries submitted through a simple SMS text message.
LibraryThing designed LibraryAnywhere to work regardless of the automation system used by the library and for library users with all types of devices. It currently supports most of the major integrated library systems, including SirsiDynix Symphony, Horizon and Dynix sites using the HIP online catalog, Millennium from Innovative Interfaces, Destiny and InfoCentre from Follett Software Company, Voyager from Ex Libris, Polaris, and Alexandria. It also supports a wide range of mobile devices. Library users with any of the major smart phones will be able to take advantage of the service.
LibraryAnywhere functions as a mobile Web application, but will also offer apps for specific devices, enabling a more enriched user experience. Device-specific apps continue to offer features not possible through Web applications alone, even when those Web applications have been designed for mobile devices.
On the technical side, LibraryAnywhere is based on the open source WebKit framework that underlies Apple’s Safari browser and Google Chrome. Supported equipment initially includes some of the most popular devices such as the iPhone, those that use the Android mobile operating system from Google, and the Blackberry.
The flagship business of LibraryThing involves its services for helping individuals organize their own collections of books and to providing an online community for those passionate about what they read. LibraryThing reports a total of one million members with a cumulative collection of 47 million books. An important part of the infrastructure of LibraryThing involves giving its users the ability to assign tags to each of their items, functioning as an informal set of subject or name headings. These tags, currently totaling over 59 million created and shared among LibraryThing users, function as powerful organizing tools that can be applied without formal training, unlike instruments like the Library of Congress Subject Headings, which are designed to be wielded by professional librarians. While a few libraries have adapted LibraryThing as their online catalog, it primarily targets individuals.
LibraryThing has also developed products specifically for libraries. Its initial offering in this arena, LibraryThing for Libraries, makes use of the body of tags within its system, which can be layered into a library’s own Web-based online catalog to supplement the formal and more complex headings derived from MARC records of the underlying ILS. LibraryThing for Libraries has been adopted by 175 libraries, and another 50 libraries use LibraryThing for Libraries content as part of the optional MyDiscoveries add-in to AquaBrowser. As a Web 2.0 service from its inception, LibraryThing brings this understanding of users and interfaces to its library products. LibraryThing for Libraries includes user-created reviews and recommendations that contribute even more substantial content to a library catalog. The company recently added a shelf-browse feature that lends the ability to visually browse items in shelf order, emulating an important in-library experience.
LibraryThing has found its niche in the library automation arena by creating products that integrate into a library’s existing library automation environment to add value through the delivery of content or services missing in the interfaces delivered by the ILS vendor. LibraryAnywhere extends this niche to the mobile arena. Some of the ILS vendors have recently announced iPhone apps for their products, but many seem to be slow to respond to this pressing need. LibraryThing aims for LibraryAnywhere to deliver mobile access to library collections earlier, with more features, and at a much lower price than those offered by the ILS vendors. From its initial version, LibraryAnywhere conforms to the requirements of Section 508 for use by persons with disabilities, a vital feature for publicly funded libraries with mandated compliance.
LibraryAnywhere leverages the connectivity layer that LibraryThing has developed for its LibraryThing for Libraries offering that allows libraries to integrate user-generated tags and other user-supplied content into their Web-based online catalogs. One of the key realities of library automation today involves a separation of the interface layer from the underlying library automation system. This separation has been driven by interest in alternative Web-based discovery products, such as Encore from Innovative Interfaces, Primo from Ex Libris, AquaBrowser from R.R. Bowker, Summon from Serial Solutions, as well as open source alternatives such as Blacklight and VuFind. The independence of the interface from back-end automation will also prevail in the mobile arena, opening up competition that will exert upward pressures for increased features, functionality, device support and downward pressure on price.
Tim Spalding, founder of LibraryThing, reports that LibraryAnywhere is currently in the testing phase and that libraries will find its cost surprisingly cheap. Spalding offered an early glimpse of LibraryAnywhere at the Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association in Boston, with full release expected in April 2010. In a rather unusual move in the library automation industry, LibraryThing has published specific pricing for the product:
- Schools, $150 + $50 per additional location
- Public libraries: $350 for main facility + $50 per branch
- Two and four-year colleges: $750 + $150 per additional library building
- Universities: $1000 + $150 per additional library building
Libraries anxious to enable mobile access will have multiple options, including those offered by their ILS vendor and from LibraryThing. Other competitors will likely emerge. With the high level of functionality and the low pricing, this competition will lower the threshold for mobile technology into the reach of almost any library.