Mobile web interface of academic libraries



More and more academic libraries are offering their services via a mobile web platform. This study examined the current status of the mobile web interface of academic libraries in terms of their usability and tried to suggest an effective mobile service design for academic libraries. Seventy-six mobile academic library web sites were identified. Their first pages were captured and their menu systems were analyzed for different aspects, such as frequently appearing menu items, a search box and search links, URL hiding, menu icons and textual menus. We found many undesirable interfaces that waste space or cause users to be confused. A significant gap between users' needs and the services offered was also identified. To overcome this gap, more efforts should be made in finding users' needs first and implementing services as much as possible to meet such demands.


An increasing number of studies have focused on the issue of mobile websites for academic libraries. Lippincott (2010) expected increased development of mobile websites for academic libraries as most university students own mobile devices. According to McKiernan (2010), a significant number of students, faculty, and the general public are currently using mobile devices. This leads to the recognition that libraries should develop mobile-oriented information services. Cummings, Merrill, and Borrelli (2009) suggested libraries need to have their own mobile services because 58.4% of research respondents who own a web-enabled handheld device say they would use small screen devices to search the library catalog.


Studies have explored the issue of which mobile technologies for libraries are preferred by users. Barile (2011) believes that creating a mobile website or library application allows patrons to access library information easily. Hird (2011) covered the debate on the effectiveness between mobile websites versus mobile applications. Wong (2011) described a case study about the creation of an application and a web counterpart for streaming video content conducted by Hong Kong Baptist University. Broussard, Zhou and Lease (2010) introduced the development of mobile applications for their university library catalog. They believed that mobile applications for catalog access are cost effective. Bridges, Rempel and Griggs (2010) indicated that they used XHTML, CSS, and Javascript web technologies for Oregon State University's mobile library site.

While the studies above explored the technical aspects of mobile websites for academic libraries, other studies focused on their usability. Irwin (2012) shared his experience of the development of a mobile-friendly interface for the Wittenberg University OPAC. Wisniewski (2011) maintained there is a need to perform usability tests of mobile interfaces for users' satisfaction when libraries provide information on mobile devices. Holt and Walker (2011) suggested a way of creating a basic library mobile website and providing access to databases on it. They emphasized that using Notepad is effective in terms of creating a basic mobile site for libraries.

To provide effective mobile library services and content for academic libraries, librarians and researchers have conducted user surveys. For example, Wilson and McCarthy (2010) identified the following most requested mobile library services from 811 completed survey responses at Ryerson University located in Toronto, Canada: booking group study rooms, checking hours and schedules, checking their borrower records, and checking the catalogue.

Several studies surveyed the status of academic libraries' mobile web services using relatively small sample sizes. In his online article about the status of mobile web services at 111 ARL (the Association of Research Libraries) member universities and their libraries, Aldrich (2010) identified the library functions that most frequently appear from 24 mobile library websites (Table 1). Carmel and Crichton (2011) noted in their 2010 survey of the libraries of the 95 member institutions of the AUCC (the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada), only 13 were found to have some type of mobile-specific web presence, 11 of which were mobile websites. Examining those sites, they identified the most frequently appearing functions (Table 2).

Table 1. List from Aldrich (2010) [n = 24]
  • Library Hours (75%)

  • Library Directory (67%)

  • Library Catalog (67%)

  • Contact Us (50%)

  • Main Library Website (42%)

  • Databases (33%)

  • “Ask a Librarian” (25%)

  • Library News & Events (25%)

  • Renew Materials (21%)

  • Library Staff Directory (21%)

  • My Account/Patron Information (21%)

  • Computer Availability (8%)

  • Floor Plans/Maps (8%)

  • Proxy Server Access (4%)

  • Google Scholar (4%)

  • Loan Periods (4%)

  • Reserve Study Rooms (4%)

Table 2. List from Carmel and Crichton (2011) [n = 11]
  • Library Catalog (100%)

  • Library Hours (81.8%)

  • Contact Information (81.8%)

  • Account Access (81.8%)

  • Library Location (72.7%)

  • Library News (54.5%)

  • Main library website link (45.4%)

  • Reference - “Ask a librarian” (36.3%)

  • Computer Availability (27.2%)

  • Study Rooms (27.2%)

  • Feedback (27.2%)

  • E-databases (18.2%)

  • Bibliographic management software (18,2%)

  • Workshops (18.2%)

  • Course reserves (9.1%)

  • Full-text article finder (9.1%)

  • Social networking (9.1%)

  • FAQs (9.1%)


The purpose of this study is to survey the current status of user interfaces of academic libraries' mobile websites, particularly on the issues of the effective use of limited space, and their menu systems in terms of meeting users' needs. This will allow the study to suggest effective interface designs for academic libraries' mobile websites.


The following research questions are attempted to be answered: 1) Whether there is any gap between previous suggestions for menu items and their actual implementation in current academic libraries' mobile websites, 2) How effectively those mobile sites use their limited space while maintaining essential menu items on their mobile homepages.


In this study, the first page of 76 mobile sites was captured without scrolling down and reviewed to check whether essential functions for academic library users were included or not. Initially we examined the homepages of the main libraries of the top 130 universities in the United States as ranked by the U.S. News & World Report. Apple's iPod Touch (the third generation) was used for the examination. Either through automatic redirection to a mobile version from desktop version or by manual search on the web, 76 academic libraries' mobile websites were identified. The first page of all the sites were captured and were manually analyzed in terms of characteristics of their menu systems, such as frequently appearing menu items, a search box and search links, URL hiding, menu icons, and textual menus.


Number of Mobile Websites for Academic Libraries

It is apparent that more and more academic libraries are offering their library services via mobile web interface. Table 3 clearly shows this trend.

Table 3. Number of academic library mobile websites
Aldrich (2010)Carmel & Crichton (2011)Han & Jeong (2012)
22% (24/111)12% (11/95)58% (76/130)

Frequently Appearing Menu Items

Most of the mobile sites in our data used the first page for their menu systems. Only two sites made library news content available on the first page. Therefore, our analysis mainly focused on the menu systems of the first page.

The list of frequently appearing menu items was extracted from the previous literature and the percentage of each menu item among the current study's data set was measured. Table 4 shows the list in a descending order.

Table 4. Frequent menus from 76 mobile library sites
  • Search Link (86%)

  • Hours (80%)

  • Locations/Maps (59%)

  • Contact Us/Contact Information (53%)

  • “Ask a Librarian” (47%)

  • News/Events (32%)

  • Personal Account/Renew (28%)

  • Search Box (25%)

  • Research Guide (by subject) (24%)

  • Laptop/Computer Availability (18%)

  • Study room reservation (11%)

  • Feedback (11%)

  • Social Network (7%)

  • FAQ/Help (7%)

  • Staff Directory (7%)

  • About Us (5%)

  • Course Reserves (4%)

Search Box vs. Search Link

Only 19 out of 76 sites have a search box on their mobile homepages, while 65 sites have various search links, such as library catalog search, advanced search, article search, database search or video search. Twelve sites have both a search box and search links. Various kinds of search links and the co-existence of a search box and search links showed the lack of an integrated search mechanism on mobile academic library websites.

URL Hiding to Save Space

The function of automatic URL hiding is important when a mobile web page is loaded to maximize the use of space. As much as 11% space can be saved if the URL box is hidden on a mobile page (Jeong and Han, 2011). Thirty-seven academic library sites (49%) hide the URL box automatically, while 39 sites (51%) do not.

Icons vs. Text Menu Links

Sixty-two percent (n = 47) of the mobile websites have large text-only menu systems where no image icons are used for links, while only 13% (n = 10) of the sites are mainly using icons for their menu systems with tiny text below them. Twenty-five percent (n = 19) of the sites have icons followed by text which uses font as large as used in text-only menu systems.


Frequently Appearing Menu Items vs. User Needs

The list of frequently appearing menu items from our data set has some differences from those in previous literature. For example, Wilson and McCarthy (2010) found that the most requested service was a way to book group study rooms, but our data analysis showed that only 11% of current academic libraries offer such a function on their mobile website. The personal account access function was also listed as a top requested service on their list, but our data shows only 28% of current academic libraries offer the service. Therefore, libraries first need to survey their users' needs, and then implement the most demanded services on their mobile websites.

Figure 1.

Examples of desirable interface

Figure 2.

Examples of undesirable interface

Site ID

As Krug (2005) emphasized, a site ID is necessary for every website so that visitors can identify the site. Many library mobile websites are using their university logos and an abbreviation of their university names at the top of their pages as their site ID. While it may be enough for their own students, faculty, and staff, they still need to have a clear site ID to keep site visitors informed what website they are using. It is recommended to use the title bar of a site for this purpose.

Effective Space Use

Some sites have significant empty space. In other words, they do not utilize the valuable space effectively. Figure 2 shows examples of such sites, while Figure 1 shows those with better interfaces. They need to create a more effective interface, maximizing the use of limited space.

Integrated and Direct Search Box

A direct search box on the homepage is more desirable than merely a link menu or a search box on a separate page. Many library mobile homepages list multiple search links to different areas such as a library catalog, media search, and article search. It is not clear whether or not their current library systems are capable of an integrated search. If not, the capability for integrated search should be developed. The upper area of the page is preferred for such a direct search box.

Meaningful Icons and Text Labels

Some sites in our data used rather confusing icons and text for their menu systems; for example, using a globe icon for “mobile resources.” Text menus and icon caption texts also need to be more carefully chosen to deliver clear meanings. For example, “new acquisitions” would be better than merely the text “new,” if intending to refer to new arrivals of books or other materials.

Automatic Redirect to Mobile Sites

Lack of discoverability on the web still makes finding mobile library websites challenging. Often, non-mobile websites were the final destination even though our search efforts were made on a mobile device and there was known to be a mobile web version of the site. This issue can be overcome by a simple script used to identify the accessing device and automatically redirecting to a mobile version when a mobile device is detected


Based on our findings, we would like to recommend a 9-icon menu system with a search box for academic libraries' mobile websites. Sites are encouraged to have an intuitive caption in a small font for each icon. In terms of the issue of mobile websites vs. applications, mobile websites are recommended to avoid downloading and the installation of applications.


This study examined the status of mobile websites for academic libraries in terms of what kind of services they provide and how effectively they use the limited space on their mobile web pages. Although more and more academic libraries are offering their services via mobile websites, we found many undesirable interfaces wasting space or making users confused. It is believed that more efforts should be made in finding out users' needs first, and implementing those services as much as possible to meet such demands.