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5 Lessons Every Business Can Learn from the World’s Most Tech-Savvy Library

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NYC’s Queens Library system is tackling the digital divide with creative mobile solutions—and you can probably learn a thing or two from them.

Queens Library is one of the world’s most innovative organizations when it comes to technology usage and apps. They’ve won several awards, like the Library of the Future Award, from peers and industry pundits alike, who have recognized their impressive strides.

What makes them so impressive? Over the last two years, Queens Library has embarked on a journey to reimagine how mobile can help fulfill their mission of providing learning and enrichment opportunities to their community. This program was jump-started with the gift of over 5,000 tablets from Google after Hurricane Sandy.

To take full advantage of this generous gift, Queens Library used the Appcelerator Platform to build a tablet app. With this, library patrons hold in their hands a portal to the library’s entire virtual collection, which includes over 45,000 e-books, 5,000 e-movies and 6 million digital musical recordings, along with 40 databases and e-materials like academic papers and vintage newspaper clippings. Users can also manage their regular library accounts. Queens Library visitors can check out the tablets and take them home, where they are able to work offline and access content even without a Wi-Fi connection.

They also offer a “BYOD” (bring your own device) mobile app called Queens Library that patrons can download from the Apple App Store or Google Play and use on their personal devices if they so choose.

No other library has put mobile technology to work quite like this, and Queens serves as a model for the wider community, demonstrating how common resources can be delivered in a format better suited to the way people prefer to consume content today.

With an IT staff of 56 people, Queens Library has been able to reach 1.5 million users, with 700,000 regularly active. Their apps have processed millions of transactions.

It hasn’t been easy, however; they’ve faced serious hurdles in the form of legacy system integration. When you think about all of the disparate data sources and content at any library that would need to be integrated to make a program like this work, it can be dizzying. Backend data sources are a common reason why all kinds of organizations struggle to go mobile, but Queens has managed to succeed using a well thought-out API strategy.

By using mobile to its fullest potential, Queens has managed to achieve their goal of bridging the digital divide. They are bringing valuable (yet free) content to a whole community of users, many of whom would not otherwise have easy access to it. The global library community pays close attention to what Queens is up to, eager to see what they do and how they do it—and for good reason. They define the cutting edge in this sector.

But there’s plenty Queens can teach the wider business community, too, and really anyone building mobile apps. Here are five lessons other businesses, nonprofits and even indie developers can take away from Queens Library’s mobile initiatives:

1. Understand User Context
Do your users have 24/7/365 access to a reliable internet connection? Doubtful. The Queens Library developers knew that was especially true of their constituents, so they built their tablet app to have offline capabilities. It’s no good for your mobile app to only work under perfect conditions. The key is to understand who your users are and what their reality actually looks like, then build for that context.

2. Simplify the User Experience
You can have the best content in the world, but if the user experience stinks, your users will just go elsewhere. Many companies overcomplicate their apps, but with mobile’s tight form factors, you must make it easy for users to find what they want fast.

Queens offers a seamless discovery and access process for content, minimizing the number of steps a patron has to go through to download content. They’ve pulled in resources from tons of different publishers and made it easy for users to get all of the content they want in one place. With other library vendors, this takes up to 20 steps. Queens can do it in five.

3. Take Device Management Seriously
You might be wondering how Queens Library deals with shrinkage—the inevitable loss of loaned-out tablets. The answer is that they’ve partnered with Airwatch to implement an MDM (mobile device management) system that allows them to manage and secure almost every aspect of the tablet. They can remotely lock them or even erase the content to discourage theft or misuse.

What other companies should learn from this? All those things that could go wrong shouldn’t be deterrents from implementing a mobility program. MDM/MAM/EMM solutions are there to help you make sure you have the security, privacy and access controls that you need to make it work.

4. Go Beyond Just Building an App
Even with several very successful apps out there, Queens is hardly resting on their laurels. Instead, they’re looking for opportunities to turn their own success with mobility into a broader business opportunity. They’re exploring licensing their apps to other libraries, building MDM solutions specific to their industry or even offering access to their content to other institutions.

They’re also looking for opportunities to achieve other business-related goals, like cutting costs and driving revenue. Businesses of all kinds should look to mobile as not just a new way to interact with customers, but also as a potential avenue to boost the bottom line.

5. Think Cross-Platform
Queens recognized early on that their efforts wouldn’t adequately serve their patrons unless they offered their apps on multiple operating systems. But they didn’t want to waste resources writing and maintaining code for both iOS and Android. Instead, they chose to work with the Appcelerator Platform to provide cross-platform support from a single Javascript codebase. Next, they’re targeting the Windows platform.

Using the Queens Library apps and tablets, members of the community are able to not only read books, listen to music and access all kinds of digitized content; they’re also able to get internet in their homes. Queens is successfully closing the digital divide in their borough. One of the amazing use cases they’ve seen is people who are continuing their education via the content they can access through the library’s mobile apps.

This public library system, with limited resources and a vast, complex array of legacy data sources has managed to not just “go mobile” but to rethink the way their entire industry operates. They are working hard to bring these innovations to other libraries and education systems, but there’s also plenty that businesses and app makers of all kinds can learn from their inspiring story.

How are you rethinking content delivery in the age of mobile?

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