The Ibeacon : the physical library experience goes digital

An example of Ibeacon technology. Image from

An example of Ibeacon technology.
Image from

The Ibeacon is an example of a technology that can augment the experience of patrons in our physical library space. As the name suggests, the Ibeacon beams out a stream of information around the device, which users can tap into with their mobile devices (“ibeacon” is the Apple version of the technology, with other versions simply called “beacons”).

Originally adopted by retailers as new way of advertising and even paying for goods, a number of articles and blogs have promoted the technology as a way in which libraries can deliver focused and personalised experiences to their users. Proquests’ blog including the ibeacon in the 2015 article “What’s New in Library Technology for 2015″  and Victoria University publishing the article Using iBeacons to create location-based learning zones are just two examples of this.

According to ibeacon Insider, the ibeacon uses Bluetooth technology to communicate with your device when it is in close proximity. With the installing of a corresponding app, it will allow users to receive content that is tied to their location.

The beacons themselves are small and unobtrusive – around the size of the palm of your hand, and would therefore be easy to integrate into the physical library collections. They don’t even need to be plugged in as they have a battery life of around 2 years. The physical hardware is also relatively cheap, valued around $50 (US) (Using iBeacons to create location-based learning zones). The real cost is doubtless in customizing the technology to the specific library needs; building an app and keeping this updated.

Capiratech is a company that provides “ibeacon library app integration”, which integrates the libraries existing app so that it works in tandem with the beacon technology. According to the website this became commercially available in January 2015. Features listed on the website include the ability to inform patrons of any overdue or reserved items as they enter the library, imminent events that may be of interest to the patrons and information about the different sections of the library. The patron is even able to get a snapshot of what’s on the shelves around them. The ability to track the way in which patrons move through the library could aid in gathering statistics about popular areas or neglected areas.

This technology is still relatively new, so we don’t have many examples of how it has worked in New Zealand.  However, from the evidence available, this app does seem to be have potential for our students. The ability to give virtual tours could be a great way of introducing our library to new students (or even those who haven’t used the library before), and with help potentially available at the touch of a button (or a swipe of the screen) could free up staff time.

However, there are some aspects of the app that raise some questions: the privacy implications of being able to track a user throughout their time in the library, for example.  And do we really need our phone to tell us what is on a shelf when we are standing right next to it?

These concerns aside, however, this could be the push we need to get students back into the physical library space, as with the digitization of library resources  it is entirely possible for our potential patrons to avoid the library altogether. The ibeacon could be the perfect fit for patrons who are increasingly seeing their information, and indeed the world, through the lens of their mobile devices.


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