Beacons Shine Light on the Library

When it comes to using the library, even the physical materials, most primary interactions still occur within digital spaces. Navigating the physical space often requires navigating the library website first; this can be disruptive, since the site has information to address the needs of all the library users, not just you. Imagine, though, if you could move around the library and always have easy access to just the information you want. The physical objects themselves could provide fluid access to their digital equivalents, creating a seamless information experience for library patrons. The solution already exists, and it’s fairly simple: Bluetooth beacons.

Beacons are not the first to promise new and enhanced digital experiences, but previous ideas (QR codes, for example) have been complicated and messy for end users as well as for the organizations that have implemented them. Retailers have already been taking advantage of Bluetooth beacons to send advertisements to potential customers, museums are using them to create personalized interactions with art, and the city of London is using them to help blind people navigate the Tube system. Beacons operate by broadcasting tiny signals that can connect with Bluetooth 4.0-enabled devices within a set distance, anywhere from three inches to 150 feet. A library beacon could alert you that a book is ready to be picked up, send updates on today’s events at the library, auto-renew a book you already have that’s due soon, let you know that a room is available to reserve, or recommend ebooks that correspond topically to your location in the stacks.

The last example is where beacons get tricky. It’s easy enough to set up beacons to push notifications to patrons, but the user experience is difficult. There’s a fine line between useful information and spam, and it differs from person to person. Conducting thorough user research is key. Furthermore, though the idea of the Physical Web—an approach that would allow people to interact with any device at any time without having to download an app—is a project that’s gaining ground, users still have to download an app right now. Still, while there are limitations to beacon technology, they do offer a potential bridge between physical and digital space and are the latest step towards a back pocket app that lets libraries create seamless interactions for their patrons.

Jergefelt, M. (2015). An internet of pings: Enhancing the web user experience of physically present patrons with Bluetooth Beacons.Weave: Journal of Library User Experience, 1(2).