Libraries, Beacons, and the Internet of Things

27 Feb

A while ago I tweeted this helpful graphic:

I know what you're thinking - it will be climate change that renders the debate on the future of libraries moot, not the singularity! And you're quite right, of course.

I know what you’re thinking – it will be climate change that renders the debate on the future of libraries moot, not the singularity! And you’re quite right, of course.


The Internet of Things will, hopefully, be a big deal in libraries. Some of the technology associated with it feels very far-away in terms of the resources it would take to implement it, but we’ve seen how these things work – what starts off as unattainable fantasy becomes cheaply available reality soon enough.

But what does it mean, though? I mean really mean, for libraries? I found this UX article on beacons very helpful in giving me an overview of the technology, and this post is an extrapolation of the ideas it presents, into a library context.

What is The Internet of Things?

In short, the Internet of Things refers to when objects are able to connect with each other online, because they can be uniquely identified.

We’re actually very familiar with this in Libraries, because we use RFID. You put the book in the cradle, and that book (due to its RFID tag) speaks to the issue-machine, which then informs the library management system that the book has been issued to your account. It’s the internet, but interacting with a Thing! Brilliant.

What are beacons?

Beacons are wireless devices which use Bluetooth (but an especially low-energy version which doesn’t drain battery) to broadcast to other Bluetooth objects around them. You may have seen wearable technology like Jawbone or Fitbit, which monitor your physical activity – these use beacons to ‘talk’ to your phone, allowing you to get information via your phone’s screen.

In physical terms, you can already get commercially available beacons – for example from Estimote – which are discreet physical objects (as opposed to something integrated into a Fitbit wrist-band) to put in physical locations, allowing smartphones to interact with them according to parameters you define.

Give me some examples of what Libraries could do

Here are some ideas to enhance the library user experience:

  1. Locate items from my books list. Most library catalogues have a ‘favourite’ function, where you can add items to a list. Imagine you make your list of books at home using this feature, then come into a library fully hooked up to the Internet of Things – as you walk in, you’re presented with a map and directions to each of the available items. You’d know before you got past the foyer if any books had already been borrowed, and you’d even be able to find them if they were misshelved.
    Wait, come back! I’ve got better ones, look…
  2. A self-guided virtual tour. Set up beacons at key points around the Library, and send users off on a tour. When they get to each location their phone plays them videos, or audio, and gives them more information on how to get the most from that area. Combine this with augmented reality to really knock people’s socks off.
  3. An enriched Special Collections experience. When you’re near the glass case displaying the rare and precious illuminated manuscript that you can’t touch, your phone or tablet can show you the whole document in digital format. It could even play you audio of expert analysis by the Special Collections librarian.
  4. Contactless fine payment. The Internet of Things knows how much you owe, and has the capability to let you pay it without you having to queue for a till or a card-reader.
  5. Availability of machines. Some library apps already show you which PCs are in use and which are actually free within the Library building, which users find invaluable. Beacons could easily extend this to printers (and 3D printers), scanners, study rooms, blu-ray players etc etc – all quick to check from your phone as you enter the Library.
  6. More details on items. In the same way you can put a QR Code on a DVD box which takes the user to the imdb entry on the film in question, or on a music score to take the user to an MP3 of the piece, you could give any manner of contextual information on items in your collection via the Internet of Things. If a user is in the vicinity of an item, she or he will be able to get information on it online via their phone.

My brain is not particularly wired to invention. When someone else lays out ideas I can spark off them, but I can very rarely think up anything from scratch – so with that in mind, the list above is quite small, and I’d be VERY interested to hear what you think we could do with this technology, via a comment…


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  • Dave February 27, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    I think what’s particularly interesting about a lot of these things is that the technology is already easy and cheap, it often just requires a small amount of time and some motivation.

    Take item 3, the special collections glass case. You could essentially buy NFC tags (commercially you can get them in small doses at around 30p each I think) and also make some nice QR code stickers for free (aside from the price of labels and printing), and then program them for each collection item to take the user to a website, download a pdf, show some information, play audio, or whatever. All the user would need to do would be to either scan the QR code or hover their phone/tablet near the NFC tag which is on the glass case (I generally prefer that option, no messing about with apps).

    Of course a lot of these things will require internet access, but you could also display an NFC tag and QR code to automatically allow users to connect to your wifi. All easy stuff, and not a big investment or risk, lots of places will already have the online data, the collections, and the wifi, they’ve just not bothered to connect them.

  • Simon Davis February 27, 2014 at 11:44 AM

    Great post Ned. Think there’s lots of possibilities to extend with defined / prescribed L&T activities (e-tivities). Eg Students are required as part of their course to summarise or rate key texts in the reading lists. Contributions form part of content that can be made available in location to others on the module as they browse the library, informing their selection of further texts, encouraging discussion, leading back into seminar activities etc…

  • thewikiman February 27, 2014 at 1:56 PM

    Hi Dave, yes it’s a good point. Once I’d published the post it occured to me that all of these, apart from contactless fine payment, are things I’d talked about in other ways in library technology workshops. All have existing technology that could help them be achieved – but hopefully what’s on the horizon will make it easier for us to implement, and easier for users to make sense of it.

  • thewikiman February 27, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    Hi Simon, yeah the feedback angle is always a tricky one because you’re ceding control – students can say anything, and it’ll be public – but generally I think that’s a good thing to do unless you’ve been given good reason to think it isn’t…

  • Wojtek Borowicz February 28, 2014 at 9:54 AM

    Hi Ned,

    This is Wojtek Borowicz, I’m a community evangelist at Estimote.

    Great post and thanks for mentioning us. I love the ideas you’ve presented. People are most often talking about retail appplications for Beacons (well, no wonder: that’s definitely the biggest market), but personally what I like the most, are the culture-related projects. There’s just so much awesome stuff that can be done with Internet of Things and technologies like Bluetooth Smart. It is a huge step forward from NFC and QR, and can actally bring ‘smart’ back into ‘smartphone’ for visitors of libraries, museums, galleries, theaters… well, the possibilities sure are endless :)


  • thewikiman February 28, 2014 at 9:58 AM

    Thanks Wotjek, I’m impressed that your comment manages steer clear of being one big sales pitch for Estimote specifically! :) I agree, it does make things actually ‘smart’, this is the key thing. It streamlines things which could previously have been possible via disparate and complicated means, and makes them simpler for the user. It could be great.

  • Wojtek Borowicz February 28, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    I’m actually eagerly waiting to see a library go public with its use of the Beacons. There are already museum around the world that are tinkering with this technology, but librarians are yet to follow :) I wanna check how it works out – might be really cool.


  • Dave February 28, 2014 at 10:36 AM

    thewikiman, yes, my original post certainly simplified things without considering the issues for users, and coming up with truly intelligent future solutions, so it’s great to see something thinking about how things may look with more recent solutions. It can just be a little frustrating to think how much can already be done! But then that’s easy to say for a casual observer…

    Wojtek, impressed with all the Estimote beacon stuff I’ve read up on. Only reservations would be that I’m not quite convinced it’s such a step up from NFC/QR. You seem to need always on bluetooth, and a dedicated app for each implementation. That in itself feels less enticing then using the standardised implementation of URLs in NFC, despite the great benefits of being location aware and not having to hover the mobile over anything. Maybe all these things just need time for standards to evolve.

  • Wojtek Borowicz February 28, 2014 at 11:31 AM

    Dave: of course you’re raising a valid point about the need to have BT on and a specific app installed. But what I’m getting at, is that the final user experience can be much better and frictionless in comparison to what NFC and QR could offer. With those technologies, you had to actually find the tag yourself and interact with it. Bluetooth Smart, thanks to much greater range, makes a 180 turn on that: the technology delivers relevant content to you, while you can enjoy your activities, instead of scanning a code :)


  • […] Le futur des bibliothèques selon Ned Potter : option 1, la race humaine est éradiquée par les imprimantes 3D devenue intelligentes ; option 2, les bibliothécaires investissent "l’internet des objets". […]

  • Shamprasad Pujar March 23, 2014 at 5:51 PM

    Thanks Ned for your thinking on application of Beacons for libraries. This new technology reminds me a TED talk named ‘Sixth Sense Technology’ (, how a wearable computer can help you to find more information about products displayed in super markets and books displayed in book stores. Great post!

  • thewikiman March 28, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    Thanks for this Shamprasad, I’ll take a look!

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