Using apps to bring attention to libraries

For our project, the archives and special collections special interest group has decided to craft a proposal for a mobile application. This app, called Stack Tracks, will highlight libraries and provide information about their collections, as well as integrate with Google Maps or similar geographic information system technology to help users locate libraries that are nearby or on a certain route. We developed a list of topics that relate to different aspects of this project and divided them between us. In this post, I would like to outline my ideas for Stack Tracks, explain why I feel it is important, and share some articles that I found that I think are essential to read when considering using apps and other technology to bring attention to libraries.

A goal of Stack Tracks is to bring attention to libraries by highlighting unique features or services, and increase access to library collections—either by serving as a gateway to other, more in-depth apps and sites related to the libraries it identifies or by encouraging people to visit the libraries in person. This is important for a number of reasons.

First, as Dahlkild (2011) noted, increased interest in the concept of the digital library, or “the library without walls,” has heightened “interest in the library as a physical space” (p. 33). This app will take advantage of this in two ways. Because libraries have long been symbolic centers of learning, many communities have invested considerable time and money in erecting library buildings that are architecturally significant or which have become iconic landmarks (Dahlkild, 2011; Lamster, 2012; Latimer, 2011). Librarians also are becoming “experimentariums” (Niegaard, 2011, p. 177), using space and offering services in ways that are experimental, experiential, and innovative. Stack Tracks will draw people’s attention to architectural wonders and innovative environments alike.

As more library holdings become connected and books digitized and easier to find, it is special collections that continue to make libraries unique (Sandler, 2006). In addition, there has always been an element of the “curiosity cabinet” (Gwynn, 2011, p. 51) in the notion of a library, with many libraries owning or housing unique artifacts and artwork. By featuring these rare documents, collections, and unique artifacts, Stack Tracks will be increasing awareness of items that may have been long ignored or of which many people will have been unaware (Boyer, 2010; Morris & Davis, 2011).

By highlighting the rare and innovative, Stack Tracks will encourage people to consider the effort and thought that go into preservation and planning at libraries (Boyer, 2010). As such, it may work toward reversing stereotypes of librarians as outdated and overly preoccupied with rules and regulations (Radford, 2003), or as mere technicians, and of libraries as warehouses for books (Fernandez, 2009; Garrison, 1972-3).

Ultimately, projects like Stack Tracks are important because they increase awareness of libraries, archives, and collections (Boyer, 2010; Wong, 2012)—part of our effort to live up to the American Library Association and the Association of College and Research Libraries’ expectations that librarians understand “the importance of effective advocacy” (ALA, 2009, 1H) and that they promote “appreciation and use of special collections” (ACRL, 2008, 11.M-N)—and because they encourage people to visit libraries in person. Craig (2011) noted that “materiality, machines, people, presumptions, and multiple players of culture are part of the essential dimensions of any record” (p. 214); viewing a rare document in person rather than onscreen makes history real (Boyer, 2010). We need to encourage people to take advantage of libraries, archives, and special collections because they contain evidence of our past and provide “an account of the present for the future” (p. 233). Stack Tracks will join the efforts of other libraries and librarians to increase online and physical access of our shared heritage. At the same time, we want to remain true to libraries’ heritage as spaces of independent inquiry (Lilburn, 2012); while creating and distributing the app via mainstream commercial platforms is most realistic at this juncture, hopefully non-commercial alternatives will develop and increase the app’s reach.

For my portion of the literature review, I sought articles that focused on using apps and social media technologies to promote libraries. To locate relevant research, I used the University of Washington libraries to review prominent journals like Library Trends, Library Quarterly, and Library Journal, as well as conducted searches in Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts; Library and Information Science Abstracts; and Library Literature & Information Science. Here are the articles that I found most essential as background for this project:

[Note that if you are unaffiliated with the University of Washington, the article links below may not work]

Boyer, D. (2010). From internet to iPhone: Providing mobile geographic access to Philadelphia’s historic photographs and other special collections. The Reference Librarian, 52(1-2), pp. 47-56. Retrieved from

In the context of describing a project by the Philadelphia Department of Records to create a mobile site and app of historic photos and records, this article shows the potential of an app focused on special collections to increase access to holdings, use GIS technology to provide context, build interaction with the community, and increase collaboration with other institutions. Boyer also describes some of the challenges the project faced in creating the site and app, and offers guidelines for other organizations thinking of starting a similar project.

Lilburn, J. (April 2012). Commercial social media and the erosion of the commons: Implications for academic libraries. Libraries and the Academy, 12(2), pp. 139-153. Retrieved from

Although this article does not speak to using apps to increase awareness of special collections, I feel that it is an essential read for anyone thinking about whether or not to use social media and other technologies in promoting an academic or public library. Lilburn presents the other side of the story, so to speak, by pointing out that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are owned by private commercial companies, as are sites like iTunes that sell and promote apps. This raises important questions about whether this undermines the library as a place of open access. He asks, “what does it mean for libraries to establish a presence on proprietary platforms…How might libraries continue to offer an alternative to commercial space if we willingly participate in it?” (p. 145). I think the last question is most important. I’m not convinced that libraries can afford to ignore social media and other new technologies, but is there a way for them to participate that preserves the commons?

Wong, S.H.R. (2012). Which platforms do our users prefer: Website or mobile app? Reference Services Review, 40(1), pp. 103-115. DOI: 10.1108/00907321211203667

While taking place at a Hong Kong university, the experiment to determine whether users prefer a mobile site to an app that Wong describes in this article still has relevance to the US. Wong provides some useful and interesting statistics about mobile app use in the US, explains the advantages and disadvantages of apps and mobile sites, and contains tips and strategies useful for others considering building and promoting an app.

Bonus! Here are three other, short articles worth checking out:

Morris, C., & Davis, M. (2011). Expanding effective 21st century access to historical and academic materials: Examples, strategies and implications. Collaborative Librarianship, 3(3), pp. 154-156. Retrieved from

This article contains an anecdote about the success of the British Library’s iPad app that articulates a key reason for using mobile technology: to increase access and awareness. As Morris and Davis note, “many of the books displayed in the app may not have been viewed for over a hundred years. More than 60% of the titles in the app are not available elsewhere online, and prior to release, a researcher or casual reader would have had to get to London, make a Reading Room appointment and request books to review onsite” (p. 155).

Fernandez, J. (September-October 2009). A SWOT analysis for social media in libraries. Online, 33(5), pp. 35-37. Retrieved from

This brief article contains a general SWOT analysis of social media in libraries and points out the potential of social media to reverse stereotypes about librarians, by letting people see that “libraries are run by real people for real people with information needs” (p. 36).

Rapp, D. (February1, 2012). Apps: What do patrons want? Library Journal, p. 27. Retrieved from

This infographic illustrates the results of a recent survey conducted by Library Journal about what services patrons would like to have in a library app.


2 thoughts on “Using apps to bring attention to libraries

  1. Feel free to contact me for the reference list that should accompany this post. I didn’t put it up because this post was long enough as is. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Reflections on Stack Tracks | Raiders of the Archives

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