Roving Reference, iPad-Style

by Fiona May

photo by Leon Lee

“Librarians are cool!” “I want to work here when I grow up!” Librarians in the Children’s Room at the Boise Public Library (BPL) used to find comments like these unusual. When those librarians began to use iPads for reference in the spring of 2011, things changed.

The Youth Services (YS) division at the Boise Main Library has seen major changes in the last year. Besides the colorful paint, new carpet and a more open look, the division implemented a new approach for providing reference service. In 2010, librarian Tobie Garrick authored an LSTA Just-in-Time grant, which allowed YS to acquire several iPad 2 tablets for roving reference. The total amount of the grant was $6,700, of which $3,300 was used for iPads and accessories. LSTA is the Library Services and Technology Act, a federal program administered through state libraries such as the Idaho Commission for Libraries. For more information, visit or

The goal of the grant was to increase staff interaction with customers by giving librarians tools to move out from behind the desk. The physical reference desk area has been minimized: rather than two librarians sitting down waiting for questions, there is now one stationary staff member and during busy times, one or more roving. Grant funds were used to purchase four tablets and a variety of accessories. The most popular items are permanent hand-grips affixed to the back of the units, a barcode scanner, a full-size wireless keyboard dock, Smart Covers, and a shoulder bag holder. Each accessory was tested by two or more librarians, and most have proven helpful to at least one staff member.

Gaining Familiarity

Librarians received the new iPads in March, 2011. Each reference desk staffer was encouraged to use the devices both for reference and collection maintenance tasks as often as possible. All nine staff members experimented with the iPads for a period of approximately 4-6 weeks. While there was limited formal training, staff members worked together to solve problems related to the use of the new devices. There were varying degrees of satisfaction with the devices themselves, the accessories, and the learning process. Five staff members had used touchscreen mobile devices outside of work. Using the catalog on the mobile device was new to these users, but not completely unknown. Four staff members had no previous relevant experience, and relied heavily on colleagues’ experience and advice. For these inexperienced users, there were many hurdles to overcome before becoming proficient with the units.

Benefits of Mobile Technology

There are several major advantages to using iPad technology for reference. The primary benefit is being able to access the catalog without being tied to the desk. Customers sometimes do not come to the desk and ask for help, even if they have questions. A librarian walking through the stacks may seem available to answer questions in a way that someone working at a desk may not. When that librarian has a mobile catalog in his or her hand to aid in answering the customer’s queries, the interaction is that much more useful.

With four iPads, multiple librarians can access the staff features of the catalog simultaneously. This is a helpful when large groups visit the library, or when many customers ask questions in a short time frame such as before or after popular programs.

Other libraries have used iPads to demonstrate multimedia and web information to their customers. Lotts and Graves (2011) reported on implementing iPads for reference in a university setting. They noted that functions such as the eBook reader, a dictation tool, a calculator, and music players have been useful reference tools in their academic library (p. 219). These functions were not tested in YS.

The pilot project implemented by Youth Services has inspired staff in other areas within BPL to incorporate tablets into their service models. The Circulation division, for instance, hopes to improve customer experience at the self-checkout machines. A staff member with an iPad could diagnose account problems on the spot, sparing the customer a wait in line for assistance at the main circulation desk.

Not Surprisingly, Challenges Arise

Unfortunately, there are still problems to be worked out with using tablets for reference. Horizon Information Portal, a SirsiDynix product, is the web-based public access catalog used by BPL. It is not optimized to work with mobile devices. BookMyne, a mobile application developed by SirsiDynix, is available for accessing the catalog, but staff functions such as placing holds and viewing detailed holdings information are not available.

In the absence of a mobile application, the iPad’s touch screen is not used optimally. For example, selecting an item in a list requires scrolling. Librarians zoom in to make the scroll bar big enough to use, then zoom out to view the result. While this seems trivial, when the task must be repeated several times in a single search it becomes time-consuming and frustrating.

A virtual desktop infrastructure program such as Citrix is required for mobile access to the Horizon staff functions. At BPL, Citrix has a tendency to cease functioning, or “hang up,” periodically. Librarians first wait for the program to respond, then spend precious time trying to ‘fix’ it, and finally close the program and log in anew. Customers wait while these machinations are going on, sometimes expressing frustration at the delays.

The mobile devices are configured to power down after three minutes of no use, in order to comply with existing library and city regulations. Unless data are entered or the screen display changed every couple of minutes, the catalog application closes.

Ergonomic issues are of potential concern. Despite being relatively light, the iPad 2 places stress on hands and wrists as it is carried. Typical use is standing: the device is held in one hand while the user is typing with the other. Using the device for 20-30 minutes at a time can be difficult. In addition, typing is slower with the on-screen keyboards than with a standard keyboard. The full-size keyboard dock is useful for stationary functions, but an early idea of having docking stations at throughout YS proved unworkable.

Some complaints expressed by librarians relate to unfamiliarity with various functions. Switching back and forth between applications is difficult for new users, but experienced users do it with ease. Cutting and pasting text, a simple process on a standard computer, takes practice and some helpful hints on the iPad. Linking the iPad to accessories via a Bluetooth wireless connection takes patience and practice. Only one text input device can be connected at a time. For example, it would be ideal to use the barcode scanner and the keyboard simultaneously, but each requires a Bluetooth text input. Finally, as tempting as it is to walk toward the stacks while typing on the tablet, the risk of tripping or dropping the device precludes typing while walking.

Looking Forward

The iPad has great potential for service provision in library settings. Ideally, each librarian would have her or his own unit, allowing for personalization of the apps and other customization. The mobile devices would be ideal for off-site events promoting the library. Library card sign-ups, demonstration of website functions, and readers’ advisory could be provided. BPL librarians have used the iPads in some of these capacities, and have found the technology to add value to their presentations.

Tobie Garrick recently teamed with Brad Smith, Boise IT Project Coordinator, to present a report on this pilot project at the Idaho Library Association annual conference. Information from that presentation can be viewed online (Garrick & Smith, 2011). At the time of this report, catalog searching with the iPad is still more time-consuming than using a standard computer. Perhaps this reflects a lack of familiarity with the features of the device, but more likely there are a constellation of difficulties. Future improvements in both software and hardware will surely do much to optimize mobile reference. Until then, librarians with iPads agree that it’s fun to be ‘cool!’


Garrick, T. and Smith, B. (October, 2011). “May I (and my iPad) Help You?” Presented at the annual meeting of the Idaho Library Association, Boise, Idaho. Retrieved from

Lotts, M., & Graves, S. (2011). “Using the iPad for reference services.” College & Research Libraries News, 72(4), 217-220. Retrieved from

Fiona May is a Library Assistant in the Youth Services Division of Boise Public Library’s main downtown branch.


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