iPads in libraries: preparing for the critical mass

iPad Display Item
The iPad makes reading, carrying, and storing ebooks easy.

Is your library ready for the iPad?  Do you have patrons requesting ebooks for their tablet or asking for reference help on a question they’ve already started mapping out on their iPad instead of a workbook?

If you haven’t seen an iPad in your library yet, then get ready for them, because in No Time Flat we’re going to see these devices on a regular basis, and it won’t be very long before they become a dominant learning technology.  It may not be when classes return in September, but I’d venture that we’ll see iPads and other tablets on a regular basis in January (i.e., after the Christmas season), and by the 2011/2012 academic year they will become a viable study aid and learning tool for a plurality of students.

We know why the iPad will work so well in academics – because of all the reasons it works well in the real world, i.e., it is a small, portable device that is large enough to reproduce A4 and 8.5×11 sheets of paper on a comparable space.  It costs the same as as a netbook but has twice the viewing space and loads of different capabilities a netbook can’t even think of doing.  Add to the fact that the iPad is packed to the gills with communicative technologies seen in our smartphones and notebook computers, and it becomes a match made in heaven.

It’s not going to be long before tablets become ubiquitous on campus, so we need to get ready for them now in libraries.  This means that we must reconfigure our programming and our resources in a manner that makes the most out of the tools our students are using.  A couple things come to mind right off the bat.  We need to push our ebook vendors for decent mobile-configured platforms.  We need to ask ourselves how our websites and streaming tutorials appear on tablets, and how much bandwidth they consume (important to anyone on a 3G/4G wireless network).  We should be asking ourselves how we can communicate to our communities of users on the devices they will carry with them when conducting research with resources we maintain on their behalf.

So many of the opportunities that tablets offer librarians lie in their deign as a communications and information storage hub.   When the day comes that most students carry tablets, we’ll be able to offer tutorials and lectures that create instant, permanent links with our users.  The iPad can change the One-Shot Library Tutorial into a lesson that pushes library content directly onto the student’s own devices.  Imagine walking to a classroom and immediately transferring to students an application that opens your browser window on their tablets so they can follow along with their iPads as opposed to staring at images projected on a wall?  Or how about having several students reading and collaborating on the same digital document with tablets, which can faithfully mimic the form factor of print?    When I send students to EEBO, they must look at renderings of 300-year-old documents on screens that do nothing to mimic the shape of pamphlets, playbills, and books.  The iPad, however, turns the viewing screen on its end to become longer than it is wide; tie it in with the power of cloud computing and we can help students learn from the same digital object on different devices.  Electronic material has become the rule instead of the exception, so we shouldn’t be surprised when students to expect us to have means to advice them on digital objects with electronic tools.

Forgive me for this blue-sky brainstorming.  For several months now I’ve watched friends say, “I want an iPad and I want it now” (I say this myself all too often, too).   We need to go further, though, and prepare ourselves for the time when students use tablets as their main learning tool.  The iPad is an e-Reader, a communicative device, and a collaboration engine all rolled up in one little package.  And since student purchasing power is strongest in September and December/January, we should get ready now for what is to follow, because in a year or two the iPad and its competitors will be as necessary to learning as a pen and pencil.  Those of use who are in the business of helping people learn how to learn must have expertise with the tools these people use to actually learn things.  This means getting ready for the iPad, its apps, and the way it will complement electronic materials.

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