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Marketing library mobile resources: welcome to the library app store.

By creating an app store for your institution, you can market your apps in a visually appealing style that captures the full functionality of user devices and allows your patrons to download your apps just as they would install the latest version of Angry Birds.

While responsive design and dedicated mobile websites have helped to make libraries more accessible on handheld devices, a disconnect often still exists between the library's mobile website and the databases and ejournals to which it provides access. Some databases detect mobile devices and automatically serve up a mobile-friendly version. Others are not so simple, often requiring detailed instructions, the creation of accounts, and the downloading of separate applications. How can libraries present this information in a manner that is easy for patrons to understand while being constrained by limited screen real estate?

In trying to find a solution to this problem, I recalled the old adage of not reinventing the wheel. Apps, smartphones, and tablets have been around for several years, so surely there must be a model for marketing apps. Upon reflection, it was fairly obvious that the "app store" model was the preferred method of marketing apps to mobile users. Apple, Android, and Amazon all have one, and they all function in roughly the same way. Apps are categorized by subject, and each app is identified by a unique icon. Horizontal and vertical scrolling optimize the app store for screens of varying sizes without needing to limit the number of apps in each category. Tapping on an icon opens up a more detailed view of the app, complete with instructions for installation.

Looking more closely, I concluded that what also makes the app store model effective is that it takes full advantage of its medium--the screen. The latest mobile devices provide responsive touchscreens, often with retina or similarly high-pixel-density displays, capable of rendering breathtaking visuals. Compared with a list of links on a page, there is an added level of excitement when you see dozens of apps in a dazzling array of colors. While users may not view library database apps with the same excitement as game and movie apps, marketing them through an app store experience could capitalize on the "wow" factor and maybe entice users to download them.

Setting Up Shop

Having recognized the merits of an app store model, I decided that the best way to connect library patrons with our mobile database apps and websites would be to create a unique app store for the Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library at George Washington University. The result was the Himmelfarb App Shelf, the brand name for our version of an app store (see Figure 1). The App Shelf is modeled after the Apple App Store or Google Play store, but it is completely web-based. Whereas the Apple App Store and Google Play are applications installed on a particular device, the Himmelfarb App Shelf is accessible through the internet browser on a mobile device. Working with the reference and electronic resources librarians, we divided our apps into six different categories based on content types, with an additional two categories of "Top Picks" and "New Arrivals," which we use to highlight recommended apps in our collection and newly acquired apps. Patrons can scroll vertically to view different categories while horizontal scrolling reveals additional apps in each category. I also created a series of icons to serve as quick links to the library website, the university, and the three schools served by Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library.

Once a patron decides on a particular app that he would like to install, he can tap on the icon to bring up more detailed information about that particular application. As you can see in Figure 2, this includes a description of the app, information about access--mainly, if it is a free download or the library provides access--and installation instructions. Additionally, a larger version of the app icon is included along with the app's name, price, and category information. Finally, a link is provided to download the application from either the Apple App Store or Google Play. Originally, the icon on this page linked to the download in each store. However, usability testing revealed that a specific download link should be included below the price information since this is where the installation link is found in both the Apple App Store and Google Play. Since we wanted our app shelf to be, in some ways, a catchall for our mobile resources, we also included databases with mobile-optimized websites. Rather than an icon linking to an app download for those databases, users see an icon linking them to the mobile website.

Is This Really a Do-It-Yourself Project?

Having decided to create an app store for our library, I next had to figure out how to actually build it. It may seem like a daunting task, but it was made easier thanks in a large part to the developers at iDangerous, which provided access to a free software framework for an app store. One downloadable folder provides developers with the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript needed to create a web-based app store. Figure 3 shows the demo app store that is freely available online. Building off this foundation, which provides the functionality of the app store, I made some fine-tuned adjustments to give the Himmelfarb App Shelf its own uniqueness and to fit into the library's branding. I swapped out the large feature icons for a single one, adjusted the colors, and added some borders in place of background gradients to delineate each category. After that, I populated the app store with Himmelfarb's app collection and links to each app on either the Apple App Store or Google Play.

The one additional adjustment I made was done to accommodate the fact that some of the databases to which the Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library subscribes only provide apps for Apple devices, whereas others are also available on Android phones and tablets. To account for this, I have two versions of the App Shelf homepage, one populated with apps for Android and one with apps for Apple, which is the default page. I then added some JavaScript to the Apple version of the page, which detects any devices with an Android OS and redirects them to the Android version of the page. It results in a little bit of additional work in maintaining the two versions of the App Shelf, but it allows users of each OS to view a unique environment that isn't cluttered with information and links not relevant to their devices.

Getting the Word Out

Once the App Shelf was functional, the next task I had to consider was how to link to the App Shelf in a way that would target our mobile users. I briefly thought about configuring database links that, based on OS or screen size, would link to either the desktop version of the database or to the App Shelf page for that particular database. Upon reflection, however, I thought that method would be too invasive as some users prefer to view the desktop version of pages even on their mobile devices. It also would not provide a consistent experience since some databases do not have a mobile version. I did, however, like the idea of having some experience tailored to mobile users. The result was to include a link to the App Store, under the popular resources section of the library's homepage, that only appears if users access the site on a mobile device (see Figure 4). The link is in a very prominent position for mobile users but the fact that it disappears on larger screen means it does not clutter the screen for desktop users. Since I didn't want to completely exclude desktop users from viewing the app store, I also included a link in the footer of the page. This link fulfills the dual-purpose of providing a link for desktop users and also making sure the App Shelf is linked from every page on the library website, not just the homepage.

Since the App Shelf represented a significant shift away from previous efforts to raise awareness of the library's database apps, it was essential that the library engage in additional marketing of the new service. Print and digital signs were placed in the library and throughout the school of medicine to raise awareness of the App Shelf, and an advertising image was also placed in the news and events section of the library website. Finally, librarians were encouraged to highlight the App Shelf during instruction sessions and reference consultations to alert students and faculty to the availability of the App Shelf and the resources to which it provides access. As awareness of the App Shelf grows, the library hopes to see an increase in the use of its mobile database collection.

Why It Matters

As libraries continue to expand their mobile presence, it is essential that they connect their websites with the information resources they provide. The app store model is one method libraries can employ to better connect their users to mobile database apps and websites. The greatest benefit of the app store model is that it is a system with which users are already familiar. Anyone with a smartphone or a tablet is bound to have downloaded an app for it and therefore should have firsthand experience with the app store concept. By creating an app store for your institution, you can market your apps in a visually appealing style that captures the full functionality of user devices and allows your patrons to download your apps just as they would install the latest version of Angry Birds.

Michael Blake (, M.L.I.S., is the web services librarian at Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library at George Washington University. He has recently redesigned the library's website and is responsible for all web-based projects at the library.
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Author:Blake, Michael
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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