Hacking Your Library Catalog, Part 2: Mobile Apps

card catalogMy previous post on ProfHacker highlighted a few ways to hack your library’s catalog using SMS and RSS. But as someone pointed out in the comments to that post, SMS and RSS seem destined to be marginal tools. Few faculty, for example, are clamoring for their libraries to add RSS feeds (though I still maintain RSS can be an incredible workhorse for academics).

Today, I want to showcase a tool that does seem to be a harbinger of what’s to come with library catalogs: the catalog as a mobile app.

Many of the examples in my last post came from the Washington Research Library Consortium, so it’s not surprising that the WRLC also offers a mobile-optimized version of its catalog at I honestly hadn’t used the mobile site until Bruce Hulse, the Director of Information Services for the Washington Research Library Consortium, told me about it. The site is quite stunning on an iPhone or Android device. It’s so slick that you even forget you’re in a browser; it feels like a native app. The main page offers a number of tools:

tool options

The heart of the mobile site—as I imagine it will be for any library’s mobile site—is the catalog, which features a streamlined search mechanism:

search the catalog

Searching for a subject that’s been on my mind recently (don’t ask) yields some eye candy, with images from relevant book covers appearing alongside the titles:

search results

From this point, you can select a title, see which of the consortium libraries hold the book, text its call numbers via SMS, and even recall the book from another patron—all from your phone’s browser.

As a bonus, you can also manage your own checkouts. Notice from tiny red badge on the main screen (shown in the first screen shot above) that I am currently borrowing 44 books. Selecting “Checked out” from the main page brings me to a list of all my library material, and I can get further detail on each item checked out to me:

additional detail

So, I now know Dust is due September 30 and that my renewal limit has been reached! Whoops! I guess I need to renew this one in person and visit the—gasp—actual library. But, hey, that’s not such a bad thing to do on occasion anyway!

More and more libraries are offering similar mobile versions of their catalogs. Check with your institution’s library to see if one exists or is in the works. But what do you do if there’s not one and there are no plans for one?

This is where the WorldCat mobile app comes into play (available for both Apple and Android platforms, as well in a mobile-optimized web version). The WorldCat app is a gem that has gotten surprisingly little attention. And it’s a great alternative if your institution’s library hasn’t gone mobile yet, or if you want to check multiple nearby libraries at once.

From the main screen, shown below, you can search for a title, set your location, or simply find a library:

WorldCat main screen

What I really like about the WorldCat app is its “search as you type” feature, which quickly begins showing you possible titles as you fill in the search box:

WorldCat search as you type

Selecting a title sends you to the details page:

WorldCat search results

On the details page you’ll find the title’s full bibliographic information, including the proper APA, MLA, and Chicago citation formats for the book. You’ll also see which nearby libraries hold the title. There are links to the item in those library’s catalogs (though I’ve found this part of the app buggy, just as it is with the full-blown WorldCat website).

And finally, a neat trick in the WorldCat app is to “map all libraries,” which shows, obviously, a map of nearby libraries holding the title:

WorldCat maps

I’ve got mixed feelings about this mapping feature. On one hand, it’s a visual treat and you get a sense of any given title’s physical prevalence in the academic and public library system. On the other hand, the map is not that useful in any practical way. The map seems to be another example of the current geospatial trend, in which there is an impulse to map everything, even if it doesn’t tell us anything new.

But then again, maybe mapping could eventually be turned into a value-added feature, something that completely revolutionizes the library catalog? Maybe the designers of the WorldCat app (an independent outfit called Boopsie) just haven’t broken out of the current library catalog model, which is essentially the old card catalog, remediated for a digital environment?

How about You?

What do you think? Do you have access to a mobile version of your preferred library’s catalog? Is it useful? Are there ways it could be more useful, innovative, or even revolutionary? Let us know in the comments and check back on ProfHacker in the near future for another installment of Hacking Your Library Catalog!

[Image Credits: Catalog Card made by Mark Sample using John Blyberg's Catalog Card Generator; Other screen shots by Mark Sample]

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