The Hope of Mobile Computing and It’s Risks to Underserved User Communities

by Joseph Koivisto

The shift of libraries towards provision of digital and online services has been long-coming and well documented. According to Sennyey, Ross, & Mills (2009), the trend has been to increasingly focus on the development of ubiquitous digital collections, available from any number of internet-capable platforms while decreasing the physical demands of the conventional library collection (253-254). Considering the overall social trends towards the migration of traditional materials and services to digital platforms, we should not be surprised by this transformation. As a microcosm of society at large, the library is subject to all the changes of the world around it.

And as the library begins to change along with the world around it, an important element of the changing library is how they ensure access to materials for underserved patron populations including communities of color, lower economic classes, and those for whom English is not a primary language. Two important elements that figure heavily into the provision of materials for these underserved populations are the accessibility of materials via trustworthy platforms and the usability of materials in a device-agnostic manner.

Many libraries have adopted some form of ebook service as a means of providing digital materials through online platforms. Here in DC – as with many other systems – the District of Columbia Public Library System (DCPL) subscribes to the OverDrive service to provide users with access to the latest releases in popular fiction and nonfiction as well as numerous public access works in an unlimited licenses format. While services like OverDrive are extremely beneficial, the most ambitious endeavor to date has been the Google Book Search initiative which aims to bring a Google search interface to the world of print media and provide downloadable copies of public domain books to anyone with an internet connection (Grimmelmann, 11). In terms of providing services to underserved communities, the Google Book Search platform stands head-and-shoulders above many other services because it not only provides access to an innumerable amount of materials in a non-physical format, but it does so in a way that integrates neatly with established search behaviors, lower the necessary behavior changes needed to engage with both born-digital materials and print materials. Additionally, the availability of the Google interface from any internet connection diminishes the need to be a part of a library system or to use a dedicated internet connection in order to access library-specific collections.

With regards to the advent of mobile technology, Hanson (2011) points out that the adoption of mobile technologies such as smart phones and tablets have soared and that mobile internet accessibility has undergone a nearly 5000% increase in the years leading up to 2010 (8). While this rapid change is stoking the flames of institutional change that is sweeping the library field, what is more startling is the important impact that mobile computing has for minority and impoverished users: the Pew Internet and American Life Project notes that Black and Latino respondents were more likely to own internet-accessible mobile devices and were 8-13% more likely to use them to access online information (9). Considering the lower cost point of a smartphone – when compared to a $700 laptop – this information is unsurprising. However, this does change the calculus for libraries as we must acknowledge the reality that the users who most need our services may not access information in the same way that we do. We must embrace mobile computing as a viable platform for information access and ensure that our services are developed accordingly.

While the road before us does appear to be paved with golden iPads and smartphones, there is a dark side to the increasing prevalence of tech-enabled materials and services: the risk of user surveillance and the commodification of user information. High profile occurrences such the adoption and extension of the USA PATRIOT Act highlight the risk inherent in digital services and data (Malinconico, 2011, 160). While the PATRIOT Act represents a sanctioned – albeit lamentable – incursion into privacy, such revelations as the Heartbleed bug – a computer glitch that allows for dangerous access to server-side information such as usage patterns and user information (Hesseldahl, 2014) – remind us of the instability of some digital information and the very real risk that it can be used against us. Meanwhile, legitimate concerns over the sale of user information remain in the forefront of developer consciousness (Malinconico, 2011, 161) to such a degree that the Google Book Search court settlement mandated has been criticized by legal counsel for not explicitly declaring the sanctity of user privacy (Grimmelmann, 2009, 16).

Clearly, these concerns are grave and are particularly important to the library profession, one that holds user privacy so sacred. However, these topics present a particularly difficult issue with regards to the needs and protections of minority and financially-depressed users. The threat of governmental surveillance is a serious issue to all users. However, those with social or economic means to subvert surveillance enjoy the privilege of work-arounds and other means of avoiding the watchful eye of the state or the corporate wranglers. However, for those who do not have these means, the only recourse is to either acquiesce to a violation of their privacy or to go without information or access. Additionally, systemic elements of oppression that exist in our culture place minority or poor users in an even tighter spot as the threat of surveillance or commodification may serve to further disenfranchise this user base even further. This in turn may push these users to totally abandon digital services and materials as they will only be yet another social pinion, perceived as an orchestrated means of keeping them away from true agency or autonomy.

In light of these sensitive issues, what can we do to ensure that we do not alienate the very users we hope to reach with our new approach to services and content? A few recommendations include:

  • Institutional mandates that all development proposals, RFPs, and deliverables must ensure the protection of user privacy through the masking of sensitive data and redundant security measures
  • Increased advocacy in the face of social pressures to give in to governmental incursion into citizen privacy
  • Educational outreach to ensure users remain informed about the information risks that certain user behaviors can invite
  • Positive institutional mandates to protect user privacy at all levels
  • Careful consideration to weigh the impact of safety measures against the user experience of access and use

While none of these represents a comprehensive solution to the complex issue of privacy and user protection of marginalized user groups, they are steps in the right direction. Digital technology and services have opened a door into a brave new world of access for users who have traditionally gone under-served by many segments of public service. Along with these new opportunities, risks have appeared. And while we may have our own personal and professional ideas about how to best deal with these issues, we must make sure that we remain conscious of those who stand to gain the most from these new modes of library materials of service. Even though they have so much to gain, they still have so much to lose.


Articles Cited

Grimmelmann, J. (2009). How to fix the Google Book Search settlement. Journal of Internet Law, 12(10). 10-20.

Hanson, C. (2011). Why worry about mobile? Library Technology Reports (February/March). 5-10.

Hesseldahl, A. (2014). How Heartbleed’s worst-case scenario was proven possible. <re/code>. Retrieved from http://recode.net/2014/04/27/how-heartbleeds-worst-case-scenario-was-proven-possible/.

Malinconico, S. (2011). Librarians and user privacy in the digital age. Scientific Research and Information Technology, 1(1). 159-172.

Sennyey, P., Ross, L., & Mills, C. (2009). Exploring the future of academic libraries: A definitional approach. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 35(3). 252-259.

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