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Mohamed Ally, Gil Needham, editors.
M-libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access.London, UK: Facet Publishing. 2008. 287 p. $125. ISBN: 978-1-85604-648-0.
The title of Mohamed Ally and Gil Needham's book, M-libraries: Libraries on the Move to Provide Virtual Access, points in a direction the content does not quite follow through on. It is at once fascinating and disappointing: a great abstract idea looking for practical application and only partially succeeding.
M-libraries, a shortening of the phrase “mobile libraries,” are libraries that accommodate the needs of clients using mobile platforms, such as mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), tablet PCs, and any other portable communication technology. In four sections, Ally and Needham have gathered material, based on the “First International m-Libraries Conference,” that discusses the intersection of mobile technology and information; development of mobile technology for delivery to portable devices; current initiatives, innovations, and challenges in m-libraries; and current practice of m-libraries. The organization of material makes sense, and each section flows easily to the next, building on what has come before. Many of the individual chapters are informative, interesting, even exciting; however, others often only tangentially touch on libraries and the roles that libraries can play in a nomadic society. In other instances, the practical examples involve services that libraries do not traditionally perform such as English as a second language (ESL) training. The overall feeling is that much has been shoehorned into the m-library category to fill out the conference agenda from which this material has been taken.
Importantly, the book avoids the apocalyptic pronouncements that many of the evangelists of new and emerging technologies make. It never says, “embrace this technology or your library is doomed.” Instead, it points out that people are still feeling their way around the technologies and the way that libraries might use them, and that while fairly ubiquitous, the technologies do not blanket the world quite yet. It handles its cheerleading for m-libraries with grace and patience, never blackmailing the reader with tragic scenarios of libraries abandoned en masse by dissatisfied cellular users. On the other hand, the jacket blurb speaks of mobile phone ownership and concomitant opportunities for libraries to make resources and services available, so one expects exciting examples of library-to-mobile services. The most compelling purely library-oriented material, however, is on formatting static information pages, such as library hours, for numerous small formats. This is disappointing in that of all the technologies covered by the m-library rubric, mobile phones are the most prevalent, with PDAs experiencing market contraction and tablet PCs not quite taking off.
Another problem is the lack of evaluation evinced by the case studies. With the exception of the ESL project (discussed in two chapters), there is no attempt to measure the effect of the m-library intervention. How will we know that a project succeeds if we cannot show that participants changed their behavior or that one option had an advantage over another? The ESL intervention (mobile phone–based learning) assessed the level of learning of the participants but did not compare them to users without mobile phone access. Nor did it measure the general success of participating students: were they more inclined to finish the course if it were offered via a mobile phone platform? This is not to denigrate this particular study, because the design was most well thought-out and is emblematic of many library-related projects. Unfortunately, the chapters included as proof of m-library effectiveness are generally the weakest.
The best chapters in the book are the stage-setting chapters, such as the foreword, and the more technical ones that, for instance, urge m-librarians to make use of ontologies to help “make clear the tasks” of m-libraries. This chapter is not especially well written from the point of view that its intent is, ostensibly, to foster understanding, and its unwillingness to offer definitions—ontology in the “technical sense rather than philosophical sense”—makes it dense and a hard slog without a glossary. These chapters are, in fact, exciting and point to a horizon that shows the practical examinations included with the book to be mere baby steps in the delivery of mobile information. Given this, the book is uneven and would have, perhaps, been best as a special, and much shorter, themed issue of a library journal.