Edupunk goes mobile: Mobile library sites with zero budget

one of my DIY shirts from High School

DIY aesthetic

As a kid I loved punk rock and had no money. So I spent my time making t-shirts based on album covers or gig flyers that I meticulously taped around my teen girl bedroom. Perhaps this is why the concept of edupunk appealed to me and has become my approach to librarianship and instruction for the last couple of years. Basically, edupunk is “an approach to teaching and learning practices that result from a do it yourself (DIY) attitude.”(Wikipedia) Thus it was only natural that when I can’t get something done by traditional means, I will just make it myself. I recently presented my latest DIY project at the Mobile Computing Interest group during ALA Midwinter in San Diego. The following is a fleshed-out version of my brief presentation.

The original album cover Agnostic Front Cause for Alarm

Mobile services and libraries

In 2007, a study funded by JISC found that sophisticated learners use personal technologies (PDAs, Mobile Phones etc) to enhance their learning (JISC, 2007). With the increase in smartphone ownership by students and faculty there is an expectation for libraries to have a mobile presence to support educational needs. While many libraries have created pages to link to basic services, options for the mobile learner have been absent thus far. Recent findings regarding use of mobile phones, access to information, and information-seeking behavior bolster the argument for creating mobile access points to library content as well.

Pew Research reported that 87% of blacks and Hispanics own a cell phone and “take advantage of a much wider array of their phones’ data functions compared to white cell phone owners” (Pew 2010). With such a large population of mobile users relying on phones for internet access, it is important for libraries to offer content in a mobile-friendly format. For teens, the numbers are an even more significant indication of this need, with 65% of mobile users accessing the internet, and 40% watching videos on their phone (Pew 2010). Both of these findings illustrate anecdotally that mobile users may be served well with access to library instruction and content for point-of-need use.

Mobile Über Alles

Library Journal recently conducted a survey of mobile sites and libraries. Unsurprisingly, 65% of academic libraries said they had or planned to have a mobile web presence. What was surprising, conversely, was how few actually had a mobile site available. The reasons given for not currently offering mobile services included budget, priorities, skills and perceptions (Carlucci Thomas 2010). These barriers ring true for many libraries, especially in the wake of severe budget cuts and staff overload.

While I have a great academic technology department at my institution, they do not have the time or people to experiment with emerging technologies, especially if the need is not a priority of the organization. As a result, I often experiment with low-cost alternatives and propose more formal changes once I have evidence of success. This is how I began playing around with low-cost mobile site alternatives.

For the last couple of years, I have been aware of libraries developing apps or mobile sites. It wasn’t until I started to use a smart device regularly that I saw the true need for this format. As an end user with a mobile phone, it is often a matter of convenience to locate general information such as book availability, phone numbers, or other questions usually answered by our library website. Nothing was more frustrating than having to navigate the tiny fonts and layout to get to the information I needed (usually urgently). I am sure others have had similar experiences. Thus, it is not earth-shattering that when blogger Aaron Tay studied mobile library pages, he found that most sites contained very basic library information designed for on-the-go needs (Tay 2010).

Very few libraries, with the exception of the medical library at Yale, Duke University, Penn State and Rice incorporate instruction and content into their mobile sites. With the popularity of apps like Wikipedia, IMDB, and various news outlets, there is definitely a proclivity for users to seek content via smart phones when an information need arises. This sentiment is echoed by Joan Lippincott, who advocated for the access of mobile reference materials and even development of research guides by discipline for a variety of just-in-time use (Lippincott, 2008).

Or Not…

The libraries that have developed mobile sites have reported little use of their pages, which leads to the inevitable discussion of whether the return on investment is worth the effort of diving into mobile access. Lukas Koster studied usage of mobile services and came to the conclusion that students don’t use library links on their mobile phone other than typical key services and therefore, libraries shouldn’t bother with mobile sites or apps. Lukas Koster states, “there is no future for providing mobile access on smartphones to traditional library content in digital form: electronic articles and books”(Koster 2010). This is shortsighted thinking and doesn’t consider the everyday information needs increasingly being met by searching apps or web browsers via mobile phones. With the growth of databases and catalogs in a mobile-ready format, I foresee an increase in usage as patron awareness grows. A bookmarked library page may become the link that gets used more often especially if it provides links to a variety of information sources that students are used to getting via the traditional web. Likewise, point-of-need information like instructions and video tutorials can be easily viewed on a mobile device while the user simultaneously performs the function on a computer. Using a free and simple tool to test this premise can help determine if investing in a full-scale mobile site with enhanced links to instructional content is a worthwhile endeavor.

While it’s not expected that students will read entire journal articles on their phones (until content is as mobile-friendly as interfaces), the ability to search for an article mentioned in class and email the link to view later can be useful now.

DIY for the win

One of the main barriers identified by the Library Journal survey was a lack of skill. Carlucci (2010) found, “Survey responses also pointed to a lack of technical expertise among existing staff as a barrier to development. Specifically, respondents report a ‘lack of staff who can do the necessary setup.’” It makes sense, therefore, to use an edupunk approach to mobile interface design to meet the short-term needs of students: why not use tools that are mobile-friendly and freely available on the internet? It eliminates the need for programming skills, especially since these companies routinely adjust for newer screen sizes and features available across platforms; sites like WordPress will modify pages for new browsers and anticipate changes in technology that may improve the mobile experience. By letting the professionals handle the technical side, librarians can focus on developing content. While any free blog site that is mobile ready will work for a DIY site, I examined two of the most popular platforms use by libraries.

The first platform I began to experiment with is LibGuides. While it is not free tool, so many libraries use this product that it can be a “free” mobile platform for those with accounts. Springshare has always created LibGuide pages that will automatically detect mobile browsers, however recently, they have moved towards developing more robust tools to construct pages primarily for mobile use. This choice for mobile site building is also ideal since it’s already integrated with many libraries’ subject guides. The ability to see and answer poll questions from the mobile site also allows for use of phones as clickers if one wanted to expand the use of the mobile site for instruction. Overall, if you have a current subscription, it will be easy to create a mobile site with no additional cost other than development. For an example of a fully developed mobile Libguide page please see: College of North Atlantic-Qatar Mobile Page (updated link per comments 2/3/11)

The second option is the commercial (free) version of WordPress, with the mobile detection formatting enabled. The embedded slide presentation shows screen shots of the mobile page on the fly using WordPress. I just created pages for navigation and pasted information directly from my library home page. This page took about an hour to create, with only minor formatting changes required. Using the both the WSWYG/HTML editors, I created this page with no plug-ins or advanced features.

Of course, these basic pages in both LibGuides and WordPress can be modified by adding icons and resizing text to fit mobile screens better and the creation of buttons, etc. But for a quick and dirty mobile presence, it was painless and my students can use it during the spring semester.

Designing for learning

I divided the content for my mobile page into two categories. The first one links to general information usually found on all mobile library sites. The second was a set of links for mobile learning. How useful are research tools on a tiny mobile format? How often will students use a database app or instruction tutorials? While there hasn’t yet been an empirical study of the use of mobile apps and mobile databases published, I think the offering of these services creates a value-added purpose to the library mobile services. It is my hope that instructional options on mobile library sites will eventually become as useful for students as the current Google and Wikipedia apps.

Mobile services for instruction

The beauty of a mobile site for libraries is the ability to have increased access to point-of-need instructional materials beyond the key sources that students often need for general use of the library. To move from a service-oriented site to one for learning, I added links to instructional tools I use in their desktop format. I agree with Aaron Tay, who advocates for more linking to mobile-ready tools currently used by libraries. While libraries have linked to their social media accounts, they have not linked to instructional resources, such as videos and slides. I included links to instructional videos from the library YouTube page, Slideshare to view class presentations, poll questions (LibGuides), and Scribd to follow instructions. This spring, I will be encouraging students in my large lecture courses to follow my presentation on their phones if they don’t have their laptops.

To ensure easy access to the mobile-friendly site, class handouts will have a QR code link to the site as well as a direct link from the library “quicklinks” box on my LibGuides. I will be collecting assessment data from page statistics.


The most obvious limitation is the redundancy of maintaining two pages. However, if the platform is LibGuides it will remain relatively static (hours are entered for the entire year and librarians have permanent phone numbers) and the proxy links will be updated centrally, so the workload should not be too overwhelming. Access may also be an issue if students don’t know the library has a mobile version. But as I stated before, this is my short-term solution to what I see as a need that should and can be easily filled. Of the two platforms, I prefer the ease of WordPress. LibGuides has had more formatting issues as some of the boxes don’t allow you to change font size. WordPress was more flexible but had the added disadvantage of not being housed on your server (if using the free version). Writing a grant or working with the university to develop a proper mobile web presence is definitely the preferred method for creating a permanent site. But until then, I will follow the immortal words of Frank Sinatra as sung by Sid Vicious: MY Way.


Carlucci Thomas, L.(2010) Gone mobile? (Mobile Libraries Survey 2010) Library Journal Retrieved from

Edupunk. Retrieved from Wikipedia

Exploring the learner’s perspective on e-learning: In their own words (JISC, 2007) Retrieved from

Koster, L. (December 2010) Do we need mobile library services? Not really” Retrieved from

Lippincott, J. K. (2008). Mobile technologies, mobile users: Implications for academic libraries. ARL: A Bimonthly Report on Research Library Issues & Actions, (261), 1-4.

Smith, A. (2010). Pew Internet: Mobile Access 2010. Retrieved from

Tay, A. (April 2010) What are mobile friendly library sites offering? A survey. Retrieved from


12 thoughts on “Edupunk goes mobile: Mobile library sites with zero budget

  1. Aaron Tay

    Very nice post! I was actually thinking of blogging along the same lines, you beat me to it, though I haven’t tried it out has much as you! There’s quite a few free/low cost mobile solutions out there.

    SpringShare itself is planning to release some mobile page management system I heard, don’t have the details I wonder what this package would offer for people who have LibGuides already.

    ” The ability to see and answer poll questions from the mobile site also allows for use of phones as clickers if one wanted to expand the use of the mobile site for instruction.” – This is an idea I haven’t thought of before…

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  5. atwiseman

    I like the idea of a mobile library. Bring the library closer to people who can’t make it to the library buildings. I did not know what edupunk is (“an approach to teaching and learning practices that result from a do it yourself (DIY) attitude.”)so thank you for the definition.

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