Building addiction

When one third of your ten million annual web visits are from mobile devices, it’s a no-brainer to think of an app. Still, an attempt to produce a habit-forming killer solution for a public library sounds impossible, but the Taskukirjasto (Pocket Library) application of Vantaa City Library in Finland seems to have done the magic. As ever, there’s a simple secret behind the trick.

What’s wrong with standard library apps? Helsinki Metropolitan Area libraries, sixty-six of them in four cities, share a common website that attracts some ten million visits a year. The statistics show a growing bias towards mobile use of the site. At the moment, one third of the visits at the Hel- Met.fi site come from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, which means more than three million mobile visits a year.

There are plenty of library apps available. They all share functions like searching, browsing and reserving. Some incorporate e-books into their offerings. All in all, they more or less faithfully reproduce the library website in mobile format, but fail to benefit from the unique abilities of mobile devices.

We all fiddle with our phones first thing in the morning, last thing in the evening and constantly in between. What makes mobile devices special is something social or behavioural. It’s the feeling of being connected that causes this, as we are of a social species – a normal library catalogue has zero social aspects. It answers the questions we ask, but not many of us have that many of them at all.

What makes a killer library app?

Vantaa City Library has given up just passively storing printed materials for those occasions, when someone asks for them. Instead, we’ve defined our raison d’être to be something political. We actively want to advance reading and literacy among all people, including the reluctant ones.

When planning our tailor-made library app, the user interface or clever functions were not the first thing, but an ability to arouse curiosity among users was sought after. Would it be possible to introduce so cial aspects to an app fit for a library? Could we get people hooked on reading?

It’s the life of other people that also makes a library catalogue social. What do other people usually do in a library? Do they like something and dislike something else? Can I spy on them?

New kind of behaviour

Recommendations are widely used in ecommerce. Usually they help buyers to find the most suitable product among almost identical offerings. We’ve another goal. As there’s no monetary or other costs to the user, we can use recommendations to really pile up one’s reading list by suggesting both very fitting and some odd but clever titles every time someone browses our mobile catalogue. Our aim is to increase the number of wanted and eventually also read titles.

The Taskukirjasto application has two special features. It knows and tells what other people with similar tastes have read. The second feature enables a user to directly pass on library materials to the next user. These features are relatively simple to code, but they need special work flows and processes in real life to back them up.

Vantaa City Library has made reservations very easy in general: we’ve abandoned all fees to the user and arranged better pick-up points with convenient hours. We’ve also built a recommendations engine that is based on anonymized usage data of one million titles, 20 million loans and 500,000 users.

Combined, these features and processes have led to a new kind of behaviour: users browse recommendations frequently and for fun. Because it’s free and easy, they are very tempted to make reservations. They are also encouraged to share these recommendations with others in social media. In just two months after its launch, it had over 10,000 users. Their 56,000 searches during that time led to 25,000 reservations. All of these people must visit the library at least twice: once to pick up their reserved material and again to return it.

Simple to pass on

The Friend loan feature refers to the app’s ability to pass one’s loan on to another user without visiting a library. If someone reads a good book and insists that a friend should read it, it’s simple and safe to pass that book on. The new reader takes full responsibility for eventually returning the book, as the loan is transferred to his/her account.

The first test cycle is now successfully over. Our next goal is to vastly increase the amount of users. If there were 50,000 users, they could easily make 600,000 reservations, one million renewals and some 5,000 Friend loans annually. And that’s a lot, as we lend 3 million items in Vantaa City Library annually.

Background

Taskukirjasto is co-developed by Vantaa City Library (architecture and features), Enisoft Inc. (coding and SaaS) and VTT Technical Research Center of Finland (recommendations). All parties own their own products, rights, patents, trademarks or data. Taskukirjasto is tuned to work with Innovative Interfaces’ ILS Sierra, but has already been tested with other systems, too.

Director of Library Services City of Vantaa