The Web vs. Apps, Librarians, and Information Freedom

Beyond choosing “app” or “web” mobile strategies for short-term tactical reasons, libraries have a critical stake in preserving the vitality of an open, standards-based, web. While developer-oriented platform debates between the application web and app-store frameworks can seem far removed from our stake in an open Internet, they deserve more attention from the library community and its allies.

I wrote the other day about the fairly narrow question of whether libraries should develop native apps for mobile platforms like tablets and smartphones, or rely on the web for delivery of their content and services. At least for most libraries, I came down on the side of the web. While acknowledging that needs might differ for some libraries with both very loyal (or very captive) users and a need for very tight integration with already-“appified” vended-content platforms, most libraries should devote their resources to websites while making those sites as mobile-friendly as possible. For most libraries—and certainly those I know best—it is hard to see an “app” strategy as an effective tactical use of resources.

Web Remains More Open

But my real concern goes deeper. There is a vital ongoing discussion about the ecosystem of the device-agnostic web versus the various app ecosystems. But libraries and librarians have mostly not been active enough as part of that debate. And libraries (and, for academic librarians, the scholarly institutions they serve) are parties with a real interest in a thriving, open, Web. As a profession far too often still mired in residual “print vs. online” debates, it is important that we don’t allow significant parts of the web ecosystem to decay just as we are, finally, coming to terms with our role in that ecosystem.
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Apps vs. Web: Should Libraries have Native Mobile Apps?

Libraries can easily outsource the creation of native mobile apps for their libraries. With one, potential, exception related to tighter and “better” integration with vendor apps, I have trouble seeing benefits compared to a thoughtful website strategy.

Not long ago, I received a marketing solicitation from Boopsie, a company that builds native mobile apps for libraries. I have no reason to doubt that their product is good: they have a large portfolio of very reputable libraries ranging from public to general academic to special libraries. Indeed, one of my Law Librarianship in the Digital Age co-authors wrote about his library’s effective use of a Boopsie-built mobile app.

But my strong gut reaction is still deep skepticism that there is any reason for a library to have a native app, as opposed to a responsive or otherwise mobile-friendly website. Or, I should say, with one major exception — itself somewhat troubling to me — I see few compelling advantages for native apps over mobile-friendly websites in library applications.

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“Against” Responsive Design

Responsive design is all the rage. But should readers be given the chance to view the shrunken site as if using a desktop browser? Are there limits for complex websites?

Mobile responsive website designs are all the rage. And for good reason. Designing sites and web applications that preserve their basic content and mark up across devices of all sizes, using now well-supported CSS (and very judicious additional client-side scripting) to adjust their behavior based on the end-user’s device, just “makes sense.” Ignoring small-display devices is not an option. Isn’t this so much more elegant than having completely separate and device-dependent code deliver entirely different website versions to mobile devices? Mobile-responsive designs are heralded as an advance in terms of user friendliness over both websites designed only for the full-sized browser window and over cut-down mobile-specific sites. But are there times when the responsive design itself limits end-user options in an unfortunate way? Unlike with “mobile only” site variants there is simply no way, in a responsive design, to have a button or toggle to allow the mobile user to see a shrunken-down version of what she would see in a large-screen browser window. Is that something we should be allowing for?
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Net Neutrality: Is the Web just a super-television?

Do our metaphors for debating net neutrality leave enough room to discuss the original Web, which was glorified as a venue in which anyone could create, develop, and publish? Will concerns related to the management of an Internet of high-bandwidth video, applications, and data-driven services crowd out the ecosystem that sustains the still-vibrant “old” Internet and its “killer app,” the traditional World Wide Web of sites and “pages”?

Are the Internet and the Web a super-television, a super-telephone… or perhaps more of a super-printing-plant combined with a super-post-office? These questions of metaphor lie behind so many of the disconnects in the “net neutrality” argument, including those over whether FCC action under the Communications Act would be regulation or deregulation of the Internet.

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Print vs. Online: What (really) is the Difference?

Discussion, whether in terms of collection building or of research instruction, of print “versus” online resources is outdated and fruitless if that discussion doesn’t seek to clarify and resolve the relative existing and potential qualities of each format in terms of permanence, stability, and “structured” vs. “random” accessibility.

The classic visual impression of a library is an image of books and periodical volumes printed in ink on paper, bound together, and arranged on ranks of shelving. Depending, perhaps, on attitude of the one crafting that image, these imagined shelves might well be either an image of picturesque rows of beautifully bound classics or a vision of of dusty, dark, and utterly impenetrable frustration. But of course all libraries, and particularly academic research libraries, are also deeply engaged with non-tangible resources. Not “books,” but instead the mass of content that we variously refer to as “digital,” “electronic,” or “online” resources. Stuff that is provided to end users, usually via the Internet, out of networked computerized storage.
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LegalHackCHI, “Hacking Law,” legal services innovation

November 19, 2014

I’ve been following the #legalhackCHI tweets today as the Chicago legal innovation and technology meetup holds what sounds like it has been a very well-attended introductory meeting. Daniel Katz of Michigan State spoke about his data-driven, algorithmic, modeling and prediction of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Andrew Baker and Amani Smathers, who help Seyfarth Shaw integrate data-driven decision-making into its client services model (which also integrates Six Sigma process-management techniques into legal services) spoke about “tiny data.” Carla Goldstein, formerly of Seyfarth Shaw and now with BMO Financial Group, gave an in-house counsel perspective on legal innovation.

These kinds of events, along with somewhat related “hackathons” to bring coders/developers and the legal community together at a low-level, practical, level, have been going on around the country for a while. Rob Richards, of the Legal Informatics Blog has been listing and digesting posts from these events — describing them as a movement — since 2012. The CALI folks have been involved, promoting their A2J (Access to Justice) platform for automating/scripting “interviews” to provide web-based document assembly.

The Computational Legal Studies blog likens this movement to the Homebrew Computer Club of the 1970s.

Headings, Lists, and Typography in Library-related posts and pages

I began this post as a WordPress “private post” to test header and list formatting and fonts as I resuscitated my previously-moribund personal blog. I had used a similar “reference” post at Case Western’s law library as an “exhibit,” along with an in-house style guide used by our authoring librarians, to harmonize the ways that we used limited HTML within the content we wrote, and to demonstrate the output authors could expect from the website’s CSS style sheet.

But I modified the original “heading test” private post that I started, to add some comments on the use of structure internal to content units (like blog posts or research guides) commonly written by librarians, and am publishing this post. I’ve also reflected on the possible differences in approaching page structure in HTML5 contexts versus “legacy” HTML page structures. This is a WordPress site, as is the comprehensive law library website that I have developed (lawlibrary.case.edu). But nothing here, except perhaps for occasional “post” or “page” nomenclature, would be limited to WordPress-based sites.
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Justice Scalia (indirectly) on Net Neutrality

November 12, 2014

Jenna Greene, in the National Law Journal, discusses Justice Scalia’s 2005 dissent in a case upholding the FCC’s classification of cable broadband providers — the same classification that the D.C. Circuit later found exempted them from regulation as common carriers. National Cable & Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services dealt with the classification of broadband cable Internet service and upheld the FCC’s 2002 classification of broadband as an “information service” rather than a “telecommunications service.” Scalia was joined by Justices Ginsburg and Souter in a dissent that would have found that such classification was not a reasonable interpretation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

(No pay wall to read up to 5 articles/month, but you do need to either go through their own free registration or connect with LinkedIn credentials.)

White House Endorses “Common Carrier” Net Neutrality Rule

November 10, 2014

In a press statement today, President Obama urged the Federal Communications Commission to endorse a relatively strict form of network neutrality regulation. His statement specifically endorsed classifying consumer broadband provders as telecommunications providers subject (under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Pub. L. 104-104) to regulation as “common carriers” under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act.

The New York Times reports the story here. The Presidential statement is online here.