Just so handy: The impact of smartphones on public access computer usage in libraries

Ever since I bought a smartphone, my digital camera, video camera, and Nook have been gathering dust on the shelf. I also find that I use my laptop a lot less on the weekends. It's just so handy to use my smartphone to do those things (take photos, shoot videos, read e-books, and check email). I also used to stop at libraries and coffee shops to use wireless when I was traveling. Now I just use my smartphone to keep up while away. Thinking about my own changed habits since acquiring a smartphone has me wondering, how are smartphones impacting public access computing in libraries?

According to a recent Pew survey:

  • Nearly half (46%) of American adults are smartphone owners as of February 2012, an increase of 11 percentage points over the 35% of Americans who owned a smartphone last May.
  • Two in five adults (41%) own a cell phone that is not a smartphone, meaning that smartphone owners are now more prevalent within the overall population than owners of more basic mobile phones.
  • Nearly every major demographic group—men and women, younger and middle-aged adults, urban and rural residents, the wealthy and the less well-off—experienced a notable uptick in smartphone penetration over the last year.
  • Overall adoption levels are at 60% or more within several cohorts, such as college graduates, 18-35 year olds and those with an annual household income of $75,000 or more.
  • Although this overall increase in smartphone ownership is relatively widespread, several groups saw modest or non-existent growth in the last year. Chief among these are seniors, as just 13% of those ages 65 and older now own a smartphone.

I've seen a lot of analysis of how e-books will impact usage of print materials in libraries. Will smartphones impact public access computing in a similar way? Is that role for public libraries going to dramatically decrease as more and more people have smartphones? I've seen a lot of work and discussion about providing library resources for smartphones, but what I'm curious about is the impact on public access computing in libraries. Looking at the numbers from the Pew report, there are still a lot of people who don't have a smartphone and that will inevitably remain the case. The need for public access computers is certainly not going to disappear in the near future. I think libraries will continue to address the needs of people who do not have smartphones. The other opportunity, of course, is to address the technology needs people have that cannot be accomplished with a smartphone. What do you think? As you plan for the next few years, how is the increasing prevalence of smartphones impacting your decisions about public access computing?

Smith, Aaron. Nearly Half of American Adults are Smartphone Users. Pew Internet & American Life Project, March1, 2012,http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Smartphone-Update-2012.aspx?src=..., accessed on September 7, 2012.




You're right to say, "the need for public access computers is certainly not going to disappear in the near future." When I think about what library visitors accomplish at public computers, I'm hard-pressed to imagine much of it happening on mobile devices, even iPads. Writing resumes is one task that comes to mind, one that is impossible on a smart phone and difficult on tablets. Add accessibility issues to the mobile phone mix, and you're really in trouble.

Bobbi Newman offered a good thought-provoking (and still relevant) piece on this topic: Mobile Phones are not the Key to Bridging the Digital Divide.



The public library needs a fresh infusion of vision and funds.  Decisions will have to be made about how many books, periodicals, etc. will actually take up wall space as we are well beyond books and yet tightly tethered to them.  Other pressing decisions include digital media access and whether to provide these tools to the public.  "Lending" and what this means must be decided in cohort with private entities that provide digital media.  Finally, with ebooks, publishing is now in the hands of us all and the public library must engage this.  The philosphical space taken up by the library as a public institution has never been more important nor more generally neglected.  We speak of education, but focus almost exclusively upon schools.  With the right leadership, I believe the public library could become so important that it will be seen as vital to the public interest as water purification and electricity. 

Some have alleged that public gathering places like libraries are no longer needed with the web in existance.  The same people told us that paper consumption would decrease with computing.  The public library should become the hub for the communication of ideas in every possible form short of smoke signals... and perhaps a demonstration of that out back once a year wouldn't be such a bad idea either.  The commitment to a public place for information is not an option, but a necessity.  I'll stop here.