Why should libraries have iPads? Sure, law librarians are awesome, and iPads are awesome. It seems like a natural fit! But sometimes individually awesome things, when combined, do more harm than good, so we need to think about this more carefully. How can law libraries use iPads?1
One idea is roving reference. Roving reference has been discussed in library literature for many years (for instance here, here, and here). The iPad is ideal for roving reference given its light weight, good display, and internet connectivity. I’m not sure iPads have the same kind of “ooh” value that they did when they first came out, but they could still get a little attention from patrons. Students and faculty might ask you questions specifically about how worthwhile an iPad really is. I think librarians should be able to answer the question “I’ve been thinking of getting an iPad. Would it be useful here in law school?”
The second idea is to help patrons with their iPads. Some students have either already answered the usefulness question in the affirmative, or they just didn’t think about it and already purchased one. My unscientific eyeball survey indicates there are already a couple of students who bring an iPad to school, and I’ve seen even more faculty using them. If a patron comes with a question, and has already started research on an iPad, we should be able to help her in the same format – unless a format change would help, of course. I am already envisioning taking a patron over to the hard copy statutes, and searching with a print index in one hand and a legal database in the other.
Finally, while not a reference issue per se, librarians should not discount the idea of lending iPads to patrons. There are still licensing issues you’ll have to think about with lending them out, especially if you are putting ebooks on them. However, these programs are being explored at some libraries. A lending program could be a way to increase overall patron engagement by giving them new ways to explore legal research material, perhaps enlisting a librarian as a guide.
There are reasons not to deploy the iPad as well. One, they are not cheap. There is the initial outlay, and then there is cost in time and money to develop policies about upkeep and maintenance. Also, in a time where budget cuts, or at least budget austerity, are the norm, having the library staff walking around with new iPads may not give the best impression to the rest of the organization. Librarians will at least need an elevator speech justification prepared. Secondly, they are not open devices – as librarians, are we willing to rely on a company, Apple, which can pull an app or totally change a device’s functionality at will?
There may be some gray area in assisting students with their iPads between an information technology department’s expertise and library expertise. However, given the limited amount of troubleshooting one can do for iPad problems, I think that librarians can be trained to handle almost any technical iPad issue that arises.
With all of those potential drawbacks, I am still enthusiastic on law librarians using iPads in reference and instruction. How are you using iPads now? Does your library provide you with an iPad or do you own one as a personal device?
1 When I say iPad, I specifically mean an iPad made by Apple and not some other tablet, although some of these ideas are applicable across all tablet devices. At some future point, the iPad may not be the dominant tablet, but for now, the market has spoken.