~ 1. April 2011 ~
We have decided to look at our options for making our catalog mobile-friendly, so I got a trial of LibraryAnywhere, a fairly new product from LibraryThing. My experience, from Jan.-Feb. of this year, is based on using it on an iPod Touch, iOS 4.2.1, using both Safari and the LibraryAnywhere iPhone app, though I also accessed it using a desktop web browser at www.libanywhere.com/m/. Here’s a demo I made and shared with other librarians in the district. More description below.
It looks terrific.
LibraryThing has done a great job of figuring out CSS tweaks to produce both a touchscreen-friendly design (my CSS skills are becoming outdated, but I see a lot of “webkit” in there and I know that’s a key) and a “universal” version for some non-iOS, non-Android devices, which worked well on a Blackberry I saw. People working on their own styling for WebPac Pro could probably learn a lot from studying LT’s stylesheeets, thought they’d need to steer clear of copyright infringement.
The “favorites” feature
The detailed entries for items look nice, and it’s sort of brilliant to be able to just push a star icon and have the item saved for later retrieval. The caveat here is that the record is cached, and therefore doesn’t reflect current loan status. If the record were live, or could at least be refreshed, it would be a great feature for students who use reserve books constantly–they could even hand their phone over to circulation staff, who currently have to decipher hastily scrawled call numbers. It would also be nice to be able to be able to e-mail a record to yourself–I know that this is more properly a function of the native OPAC, but it seems to me there ought to be a way for this system to integrate itself more tightly into the phone’s core functionality.
This is really well done and would be nice to use even without the catalog. It’s easy to add pages and content. You add content into input boxes and then select URL, free text, or some other existing page. If you select “URL,” you then enter the necessary URL; phone numbers can also be used for this if you preface them with “tel:”. I was able to put links to our Wordpress blog, Twitter account, and YouTube channel, all of which have mobile versions–so you get an idea of how this can fit together. Unfortunately you can’t format text at all or add images/icons–I’d guess that this could be added though I haven’t asked. But you could of course point to a Google Doc or something similarly mobile-friendly instead and format there. There’s also an “Events” feature that accepts RSS feeds.
LibraryThing has created an XML syntax that will presumably be documented at some point and may allow more flexibility with these pages. Even as is, the system would allow us to put make a library website containing basic info.
Good on LibraryThing for being straightforward and up-front about their pricing. Since we have an unusual set-up–four separate libraries sharing a catalog–we needed a custom quote, but that quote came in well under Boopsie’s (which would cost more than 4x as much the first year, and more than 3x in subsequent years), and Innovative’s AirPac would be 4x as much the first year, though it would apparently drop considerably after that (since the model is purchase + maintenance fee rather than subscription).
The Less Good
Let me preface these by saying that LibraryAnywhere is under heavy development and some things may even have been fixed by now. A few problems I saw initially had been fixed before I could describe them. Not this first one, though.
Any connection where our users transmit their passwords has to be secure. This includes logging into their account. So SSL is vital. I was told by an LT rep that connections using the native apps are SSL. When connecting via the web, you need to specify https in the URL. An institution should be able to control its own links, but it can’t control people typing “libanywhere.com” into their web browsers. And I was told by support that the “universal version” will always allow insecure connections, because some phones don’t support https. LibraryThing should have an option for administrators to “force ssl” on their users, as Google Apps does. Or just always enforce SSL.
So the save function is great, but you’d also like to be able to e-mail a link, right? How do you get it to someone else? But LibraryAnywhere generates the item URLs dynamically, so that’s a no-go. (Looks to me as though the universal version does have permalinks.)
No built-in browser/Strange behavior of Web app
Many iOS apps have a built-in browser, so that when you click a link to an external Web page, you don’t have to leave the app. This would make a lot of sense to the extent that the app serves as a mobile website–you shouldn’t have to leave the app in order to initiate a chat session, for instance. This process changed a bit while I was demoing the service, but it was never actually fixed—when I went to a chat session and then returned to the app, I was greeted by a blank page and it was impossible to get back to my library’s home screen..
I understand the service is growing rapidly, but I really had a hard time getting e-mails answered. I noticed a post on the LA Google Group where someone was having similar trouble getting answers. This would probably eventually improve as the staff adjusts to the demand for service, expands its knowledge base, and quashes bugs, but it could be frustrating if we encountered any problems.
Pretty good service, but not for us
The SSL issue was basically fatal for us. Any mobile solution, it seems, will need to be locally hosted.