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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Mobile Libraries and New Information Services in Public Libraries: Issues Arising from the MOBILE Project

Julie Carpenter
Education for Change Ltd.,
Carpenter Davies Associates,
Oxford, UK


Ioannis Trohopoulos
Veria Public Library,
Veria, Greece


MOBILE developed in 1992/1993 from separate but closely related ideas for research projects originating in the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK, arising from some serious consideration of how mobile library services in Europe were responding to the opportunities opened up by information and communications technologies, and whether mobile service points could exploit those technologies to deliver a broader range of information services cost-effectively to the communities they serve. While traditional mobile libraries, offering mainly book-based services to urban and rural communities were clearly widespread in Europe, the principal use of information technology applications appeared to be in providing on-line or off-line access to automated library catalogues and issue systems. The concept which lay behind MOBILE was closer to that being pursued in the United States and described by Suyak Alloway (1990) from St Louis Public Library in the USA as “the electronic bookmobile”

It also seemed clear to the organizations planning MOBILE in 1992/93 that the next five years would see increased demand among the general public in the Europe for information about European initiatives relating to business, culture, language and travel, and a consequent growth in the number of pan-European electronic information sources, relevant, cheap and accessible.

MOBILE was submitted to the European Commission as a proposal for co-funding under the European Action Plan for Libraries Second Call for Proposals in October 1992 and the project contract was finally signed in December 1993. It was one of only two successful projects dealing with public library issues to emerge from the Second Call The final project Partners were Nederlands Bibliotheek en Lektuur Centrum (NBLC) and Centrale Bibliotheekdienst voor Friesland (CBD) from the Netherlands; Borders Regional Council Library (now the Scottish Borders Council) and Carpenter Davies Associates (CDA) from the UK; and the Public Library of Veria in Western Macedonia, Greece. MOBILE was scheduled to run for three years from January 1994. It seems appropriate, since the project had the greatest impact and success in Greece to describe briefly the Greek context. The Public Library in Veria is known as a “central public library”, one of 18 established in the regional capital cities and which also provide a mobile library service to the surrounding districts. The Library occupies premises owned by the Municipality of Veria and its operations are financed by the Ministry of Education. The Library has one static school branch library and operates two mobile libraries serving a large area in Northern Greece which is not restricted to its own county. The population served by the mobile libraries can be roughly divided into two types: relatively affluent, accessible agricultural communities surrounding Veria; and remote rural communities in very mountainous countryside, economically disadvantaged and socially isolated. Library service users are predominantly younger than 40 or school children. In 1992/93 all its services were sustained by a total book stock of under 60,000 volumes and its staff included two qualified librarians. Work on automating the catalogue in the Library headquarters had just begun. To set the national context, Trohopoulos (1994) comments that “the lack of a single law governing all categories of public library, the differences of funding, standards of service, etc., make it very difficult to define and identify the precise role or purpose of the public library in Greece today. Until recently, its image was in general rather old-fashioned, at the expense of meeting the library and information needs of the population at large. Now there is more in the way of popular reading matter or information service provision. The concept of service to readers is slowly emerging, whereas information provision is in its infancy and there is no national scheme of inter-library loans to overcome local collection deficiencies.”

The MOBILE project had the following broad objectives:

MOBILE was planned in three overlapping stages: the first would identify the target user groups and survey patterns of library and information use, education, work and leisure activities, and try to identify unmet demands for information or gaps in current provision. On the basis of this research, services would be planned, vehicles designed and procured. The second stage would trial these new vehicles and services among the target user groups for one year. The third stage would evaluate the field trial services and operation of the vehicles and technology, analyse data, produce and disseminate final reports and research results.

Some of the issues arising from the MOBILE Project in Northern and Southern Europe will be of interest.

Target user groups and user needs

The intention of the MOBILE project partners was to identify specific target users in each of the three regions; groups of people who are not currently regular users of the mobile library services, such as those undertaking full-time and part-time adult education courses locally, local business people and entrepreneurs; and groups which can be expected to have information needs which traditional mobile library services do not cover. The problem for MOBILE with this approach was that, due to funding constraints and the restriction to only one MOBILE vehicle imposed by the European Commission, the experimental MOBILE services in the UK and The Netherlands had to be grafted onto existing mobile library services paid for by local taxpayers; only in Veria, Greece, could completely new target users be identified to benefit from new services. MOBILE faced a dilemma which may be familiar: how to design and introduce effective new services, using new technologies, which will be of recognized value to a group of mobile library users who have expressed no apparent need for such services. How could library users express a clear need for access to information services and sources when they were completely unaware of their existence? Could MOBILE be successful in introducing library users to a new world of information access and presentation, and a new range of hitherto unsuspected information sources, which would stimulate demand and attract different kinds of library service users?

Technological constraints

MOBILE partners investigated the various technical options available to establish external on-line connections from the vehicles:

MOBILE quickly concluded that establishing on-line access services in the new vehicle in Greece would not be technically feasible: the national telecommunications infrastructure in Macedonia was at that time poorly developed, so that even the latter option of using open telephone lines in, for instance, schools, would be a hit and miss affair, subject to poor quality lines and slow transmission speeds outside Veria. No GSM cellular telephone networks operated in the area, nor were any planned until 1996/97. The MDR and VSAT options were simply too expensive to contemplate.

In Borders and Friesland, MOBILE Partners had higher expectations which were quickly dashed. MDR was attractive in that it involved high capital costs but insignificant running costs. Friesland seriously considered this option, but Borders lacked the funds to make such an investment. The European Commission contribution to the costs of MDR (and all other) equipment would be no more than 33%.

A further constraint was discovered: while MDR is efficient for mobile vehicles wishing to communicate with their headquarters or with each other, the “patching” method of gaining on-board access to external networks is unreliable and costly, and transmission speeds are unsuitable for the transmission of large amounts of data (such as using the World Wide Web).

Since MOBILE’s principal aim is to offer mobile library service users access to a wider world of information sources and services, Borders and CBD opted for the GSM network option, with relatively low start up costs, but potentially high subscription and running costs. Perhaps the most surprising discovery was that the GSM network infrastructure was established in the Scottish Borders only in 1994/95, and in Friesland in 1995/96. In common, perhaps, with many colleagues, the Partners had assumed that data telecommunications infrastructure, in the age of teleworking and the Bangemann Report (1994), was more widely and evenly established in Western Europe than in reality.

Sources of information: what do users want?

The MOBILE project came to the following conclusions about using networked information sources and multimedia materials in a mobile library environment:

Things have changed considerably during the lifetime of the project, for instance, the number of commercially available CD-ROM/Multimedia titles increased by 45% just during 1996. Almost every type of information is now available on CD-ROM, not just entertainment and “infotainment”. The numbers of general interest, recreation and leisure titles have increased by a similar volume over 1996.

While English remains the language of ¾ of the CD-ROMs available, German is a growing second and French a distant third. The two categories of subjects that are clearly growing the fastest are “general interest, recreation and leisure” and “education, training and careers”. Since 1993 the proportion of titles originating in North America has been decreasing in the face of faster growth in Europe. With Europe’s multiplicity of markets and the growth of localisation this should be expected. But the number of new publishers in Europe has grown dramatically: a 90% increase in one year, especially marked in Germany and France.

To help to overcome the time constraints inherent in mobile library-based information services, which caused many problems in the MOBILE project, there are now numerous software products that can be applied: such as software which continuously monitors multiple Web pages chosen by the user, detecting any changes. (Internet Fastfind and Tierra Highlights). Some of them can be set up to monitor sites as often as every 15 minutes or only once a month. You can store passwords for sites that need them; pages monitored are stored on the hard drive and can be browsed offline using Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape. There is no limit to the number of sites that can be monitored. Also there are a growing number of new software packages enabling the user to cut down on phone bills by allowing them to “surf the WWW” offline: eg Webex for Windows 95 - the Webex interface allows you to select a WWW page that you want to work with on a regular basis, add it to a list of personal sites, then logs on to the site and downloads a copy of the page with active links to all other pages and sites. This can then be read and browsed through offline.

Other issues

The more substantive, broad -ranging issues which emerged from MOBILE can be summarised thus:

The MOBILE Project, the issues it deals with and mobile library services in general have different implications in Southern Europe. MOBILE has excited a great deal of interest from the European Union’s southern members - notably Spain, Portugal and, of course, Greece, where the Ministry of Education responded positively and generously to the request for additional capital funds in the Public Library of Veria, thereby making it possible to build a completely new MOBILE library service vehicle. The first new mobile library of any kind in Greece for over a decade. The Project has been influential in raising a new awareness of the potential of mobile library and information services to overcome the considerable gaps in public and educational information availability. Ironically, it is precisely the possibility of developing telematics and electronic information services in mobile service points which seems to point the way to comprehensive services, which have never been achieved in Greece (and perhaps never will be) using print-based information sources.


Bangemann (1994) Report on Europe and the Global Information Society presented to the European Council of Corfu in June 1994. European Commission.

Capital Planning Information (1993) Library and information provision in rural areas in England and Wales: a report to the Department of National Heritage and the British Library Research and Development Department. Library and Information Series: No. 20. HMSO.

Suyak Alloway, C (1990) The electronic bookmobile. The Electronic Library , 8 (2), 100-106.