Speculation: Library Mobile Development Lab

Last year I started speculating about a library mobile development lab at Virginia Tech, but I never fully developed the idea. Now happens to be a good time to communicate this idea to some of my colleagues in the library, and at other libraries, so I’m publishing some of my thoughts and will continue to revise them as things happen.


According to an April 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, 64% of all adults, and 85% of adults between the ages of 18-29 own a smartphone.  In April 2014, analytics provider Flurry reported that the average U.S. consumer spent 2 hours and 42 minutes per day on a mobile device, including 2 hours and 19 minutes using apps.  Banks, retail outlets, and towns have joined other organizations in developing and releasing mobile applications.

The popularity of smartphones among the typical college-aged population has created a demand for high-quality, native smartphone apps that provide access to educational resources and library services.

The lack of a centralized campus authority to provide I.T. services beyond basic network infrastructure, security, and mass software licensing needs has created an opportunity for the library to develop its own innovative mobile applications.

In addition, the status of the new library as the center of campus collaboration will allow the library to take a leadership role in helping other educators at the university to create learning  technology tools that appeal to today’s device-wielding populace.

Proposed Mission

The Library Mobile Development Lab will utilize library expertise in user experience and technology development to create excellent mobile apps that are useful to library patrons, as well as mobile apps that serve as educational tools.

The Library Mobile Development Lab will seek to:

  • Develop and release mobile apps for use by patrons of the University Libraries
  • Develop mobile apps to be used internally by the University Libraries staff
  • Assist campus clients in the app development process
  • Provide learning opportunities for students interested in software engineering
  • Disseminate knowledge through the release of cost-free, open-source software and published papers


Three Potential Projects


Library Tour App with Location Awareness

This app has been proposed by Neal Henshaw of the University Libraries at Virginia Tech and is a revision of a previous tour. Currently, new students are given the opportunity to take an informational tour of the library by walking around each floor and scanning QR codes with a mobile device. Each QR code links to an audiovisual presentation with information about the current station.

The new app revises the process by eliminating the need for students to scan QR codes, and thus the need to install a working QR code reader on the device.  Instead, low-energy bluetooth devices known as iBeacons will be placed around the building to provide micro-location support. The app will detect when a student is within close range of a beacon, and will play the appropriate video clip. Students may use their own devices, or check out iPads with the app pre-installed from the circulation desk.

Along with the elimination of the much maligned QR code, the app will feature an interface based on visual designs by Liz McVoy, and new content based on feedback that librarians received from instructors.

The tour has been updated with new learning objectives, and the app will have facilities to test learning outcomes.

Paul Hover, Assistant Director for International Outreach, has volunteered to organize recording of the tour audio in additional languages: Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish. These languages will increase accessibility and maximize comprehension for native speakers of foreign languages that have recently arrived on campus.

Update: As of 2016, this app is currently under development and deployment for use this year. Jonathan Bradley is lead developer.

Code4Lib App

The code4lib app is a project proposed by Virginia Tech. Approximately a dozen developers from institutions across the United States have volunteered to help create the app. In the initial design phase at Code4Lib 2015, a live prototype was created using real data to display the potential of two modules:

  • Code4Lib conference schedule
  • Code4Lib journal reader

Additional modules have been proposed:

  • social networking features
  • Code4Lib Jobs viewer

Separate groups of developers will work concurrently on building an Android version and an iOS version of the app.

Update: As of 2016, this app is on hold due to a lack of follow up by me.


The Forest of Rhetoric: silva rhetoricae

This app is the first example of mobile development lab collaboration with other departments on campus through library Digital Research Services director Amanda French’s digital humanities outreach program.

The Silva Rhetoricae app has been proposed by Quinn Warnick of the English department.  Silva Rhetoricae will be a glossary style educational app that will allow users to find and learn the definitions of the terms of classical and renaissance rhetoric.

The app will be based on Creative Commons content from a website that is well-known and popular among students of rhetoric, with the blessing of Gideon Burton, the author of the original site. The interface will be based on UX Companion, which has a search bar and a list view of all terms.

The app will be co-branded with Virginia Tech University Libraries and CATH.

There is an initial, unpolished concept demo video.

Update: As of 2016, I’m working on this independently, and slowly with some assistance from BYU.

Staffing Suggestion

Mobile Developer 100% FTE

The mobile developer is responsible for translating the design and requirements of an app specification into working code, for verifying that the app runs successfully on currently supported devices of varying screen sizes, for building and releasing apps into the relevant app store, and for releasing bug fixes and version updates as necessary.

Designer 100% FTE

The designer creates visual resources for mobile apps, checks compliance with user interface guidelines and requirements, works with the developer to improve app accessibility, and has primary responsibility for the general flow and experience of app usage. When the app specification is sparse or otherwise missing, it is created by the designer.

Project Manager 100% FTE

The project manager works with all involved parties to define and document the initial scope and timeline of the project, verifies that required resources are available during the life of the project, follows the status of anticipated milestones, facilitates communication, and manages and limits changes as the app is being constructed.

Marketing 50% FTE

The marketing division is responsible for creating press releases, teaser videos, and the informational websites about the apps. Marketing promotes apps, asks for feedback, and collects and analyzes usage statistics.

Other Startup Needs

  • Computer
  • Test mobile devices (can use some personal equipment if necessary)
    • iPad Air 2 Wi-Fi refurbished – $509.00
    • iPhone 6 refurbished – $525.00
    • Android phone Virgin Kyocera Event no contract – $50.00
  • App publisher licenses


                                                    299.00/ year (allows private internal apps)

  • Developer training [These prices are going to shock librarians]
    • Big Nerd Ranch Android Bootcamp – $4200.00
    • Apple Worldwide Developers Conference – $1599/ticket + S.F. hotel cost + airfare (however, most of the sessions are recorded and made available at no charge)


These examples show the surprising cost of developer training.

Learning Opportunities for Students

There are several roles that student employees, interns, or volunteers could fill to help create mobile applications for the library and for campus clients.

In particular, computer science students are offered elective courses related to mobile development. In the past, an Android development course has been offered, and in Fall 2015, a course in iOS development will be taught in the computer science department.

Additionally, visual design students could be involved in a project to develop graphical resources – including buttons, icons, and color palettes – for an app.


Potential Future Projects


Native Mobile Interface for Scholarly Repository

The current VTechWorks repository, based on DSpace software, has a REST API that can enable the development of a native mobile interface. This native mobile app can be designed in such a way that enabling it for use with the upcoming Fedora 4 repository is straightforward.

Patron Self-Checkout via Mobile Device

This app would enable library patrons to check out books and other library items by using their  telephones to scan the barcodes on the item. This is similar to the self-checkout kiosk on the first floor near the coffee shop, with the advantage that the checkout could be performed anywhere in the library.

Data Gathering Tool for Peer Roving Assistants

Location Based Mobile Access to Special Collections

Apps For Research

Apps can be used for research, and the lab could serve as a consulting technology partner to researchers in the university. Some examples of apps used for research include apps to track and study health data and medical conditions, as exemplified by Apple’s ResearchKit and CareKit frameworks, and apps to collect crowdsourced, location based data, such as the FCC Speed Test app.

Mobile App Development at Other Libraries

The Mobile Computing Interest Group of the Library Information Technology Association was formed in 2009.

NCSU has a mobile development interest committee that assists the campus community in developing mobile web applications. Jason Ronallo, Associate Head of Digital Library Initiatives, attends the meetings and the library is active in the group. The library developed a mobile audio tour app and NCSU WolfWalk, a location-aware app to view historical photographs of campus.

UIUC has a technology prototyping service that often works with mobile technologies.

Context at Virginia Tech

The computer science department has a mobile computing lab, but its research focuses are data management, security, and dependability; not app development. The department also has a Mobile/Cloud Software Engineering Lab (MCSEL) which does perform app development. MCSEL is currently working on funded research projects, and does not have the resources to develop specific apps for the library or other campus clients.

Virginia Tech has a set of enterprise mobile apps, including Hokie Mobile, the official public app for Virginia Tech. Hokie Mobile includes an event calendar, bursar and registrar access, maps, campus news, and course lists. Development of official Virginia Tech apps is managed by Kevin Rooney in the Information Technology department. This department develops apps that are to be used by all segments of campus.

TLOS, Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies, provides students with access to documentation and software development kits, but does not perform app development.

In a few cases, professors practicing disciplines other than technology have released apps. John Boyer, geography professor, held a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for an interactive educational comic/app. John Seiler and John Peterson of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation worked with programmer Bob Potts to develop vTree, a forestry identification app. The team reports that university support to deal with changes to mobile operating systems that broke the app would have been helpful.

The library is the place on campus to build innovative library apps and to work with partners across campus.


We’ve been approached by people in the library, on campus, and in national organizations and are already accidentally doing this work. We should make it official and well-supported.



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