Addressing the Gap in Smartphone Use – The Smartphone Pilot Project at the University of Manitoba Libraries

I’ve submitted this to Information Technology division of IFLA’s newsletter, but here’s a preview . . .

In the Winter of 2009 I was asked to do a presentation about smartphones and libraries for a “Mobile Learning” symposium at the University of Manitoba.1 University of Manitoba is Manitoba’s largest, most comprehensive and only research-intensive post-secondary educational institution, with over 25,000 students. We have several professional programs, including medicine, law and business. As a new owner of an iPhone I was very excited about the potential of the smartphone as the primary way people would be accessing and manipulating information in the future. As I prepared for the presentation a few things became clear to me. Canada lagged behind many other countries in terms of mobile phone market penetration and the demographic with the highest use of smartphones was not the demographic of our librarians. In other words, the younger generation of students were leaping ahead of our librarians in terms of using smartphones to access information.
If librarians at the University of Manitoba were going to remain relevant we had to start using smartphones to even start thinking about the potential ways we could be delivering services and information. This situation is very much reminiscent of the early days of personal computers. In the late 1980s managers and technical staff were given personal computers, and only those who had an interest and purchased a home computer were learning about new technologies. Reference and liaison librarians for several years lagged behind what many of our students and patrons took for granted. To break this pattern we decided to use some of a “technology renewal” budget to develop a pilot project. We would purchase smartphones for our frontline librarians. We had enough funding to purchase smartphones for twenty-five librarians (just under half of our librarians), and thirteen technical and electronic resources staff. Since monthly fees didn’t start at the beginning of the year, we also had funding for an additional twenty iPod touches.
For other libraries, sources of funding for a similar project could be grants or diverting funds from desk-phones or computer replacements.

June 23, 2010. From left to right, Pat Nicholls (Blackberry), Lyle Ford (iPhone), Liv Valmestad (iPhone), Jan Guise (iPhone), Karen Keiller (author), and Mark Rabnett (iPhone). Laurie Blanchard (iPod Touch) took the picture. We were meeting to discuss the Smartphone Evaluation Plan proposed by Jan Guise, Laurie Blanchard and Ken Field.

A year later the Reference Community Forum organized M-Ref: Using Handheld Technology For Reference Services. The Reference Community Forum is an event held twice a year for librarians at the University of Manitoba. We had six presentations by our librarians and support staff on smartphones. The enthusiasm and energy at the forum was infectious!

The presentations included:

  • An overview of the UMLs Resources for Mobile Devices Task Force;
  • Explorations in the rapidly developing ecosystem of the iPhone (and iPad): apps, the cloudmosphere, social networking and not-working by a health sciences librarian;
  • Mobile devices and location, looking at how location, generated by the GPS capability in most mobile devices, will be appended to user generated content;
  • Archives mobile resources currently available to users, either through native apps or mobile web apps;
  • Demonstration of the Red Laser app developed in-house that enables barcode searching in the library catalogue and in Summon.
  • Tips and tricks for your Smartphones.

None of these sessions would have been possible without devices in the hands of librarians and support staff.

The path to getting the pilot project up and running had a few bumps and curves. For libraries contemplating similar projects you’ll have to consider:

  • How will you decide who will get a smartphone?
  • Who will pay for apps installed on individual’s smartphones?
  • How will staff reimburse the institution for non-work related calls and texts that go over the plan maximum?
  • How will the project be evaluated?
  • The issue that proved to be the most problematic was deciding who was going to get a smartphone in the first year of the pilot.

Deciding who got a smartphone

For our project we had a task group determine the criteria for assigning phones.

  • Participants should be in continuing and, preferably, full time positions (at the unit head’s discretion).
  • Participants ought to be public service staff or those that are integral to supporting patrons’ use of our resources.
  • Participants must be willing to accept calls on their smartphones, exclusive of meetings and other unavoidable priorities, during working hours.
  • Participants must be willing to participate in feedback, assessment, and reports as the pilot proceeds.
  • Participants must be willing to do outreach to other staff, sharing expertise developed and demonstrating the usefulness of the technology.


Because of the innovative nature of the project, we did not want to set out rigid evaluation criteria at the beginning of the project. Three librarians enrolled in the Graduate Professional Certificate in Library Sector Leadership at the University of Victoria (Jan Guise and Laurie Blanchard from the University of Manitoba Libraries and Kenneth Field, Trent University)  are preparing a recommendation on how the program should be evaluated. As we move forward evaluation of the pilot project will be critical.
For me, measures of success are the M-Ref: Using Handheld Technology For Reference Services event, informal comments from project participants and this email sent from one of the participants:

Since getting an iphone over three months ago not only has my productivity increased, answering emails and reading online content while on the bus going to and from work, my understanding how these mobile devices can and will be used by our patrons when accessing information in real time has grown dramatically.  If you want to understand how society is using location aware smartphones you have to be enabled with that technology. In this case, early adoption is critical to be well versed in understanding how constant connectivity offered by mobile technology is changing how libraries both push out our services as well as how we must reconfigure our online presence to pull patrons in.


About Karen Keiller

I am the University Librarian at Lakehead University.
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One Response to Addressing the Gap in Smartphone Use – The Smartphone Pilot Project at the University of Manitoba Libraries

  1. livinska says:

    This is really interesting and one of the few write ups I have seen about using mobile tech and devices in a library. Can you send me anything more you have written up, especially as related to evaluation? We are struggling with this issue. Thank you!

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