Computers in Libraries
Vol. 22, No. 3 • March 2002

Table of Contents Subscribe Now! Previous Issues ITI Home
Today's PDAs Can Put OPAC in the Palm of Your Hand
by Theresa A. Ross Embrey

Here's a primer on PDAs in General and on their emerging library usage in particular.
Handheld computing is here. Our patrons are coming into our libraries with those cellphones, personal digital assistants, Blackberries, and myriad other computing devices that are approximately the size of a human hand. But have you realized that some libraries have also begun using handhelds for their common tasks? These tiny devices have crept into our field, and here's a primer to get you up to speed.

I must admit that I am one of "those"people—I carry my Handspring Visor with me everywhere and I often also carry a cellphone. I live in Chicago, where wireless access seems to be everywhere. There are advertisements for hand-held devices and services on the el train platforms and on bulletin boards as you drive into the downtown area along the Eisenhower Expressway. The biggest ad (three stories) touting Handspring products is on the side of a building where the Eisenhower Expressway meets the Dan Ryan Expressway.

In Chicago, the ads are not just hype. I see a lot of colleagues using handhelds at meetings. Patrons carry them into our libraries, whether those libraries are special, academic, public, or school. And I can assure you that it's not just a big-city phenomenon. According to research done by companies like Forrester Research, mobile computing is big business, especially in Europe. Magazines like Mobile Computing Communications are dedicated to it.

As a dedicated handheld user and a regional consultant on automation for the Chicago Library System—a consortium of academic, school, special, and public libraries in the city of Chicago—I will try to share my knowledge of the world of ubiquitous computing with you. Hopefully this primer will help you navigate the emerging environment of handheld computing.

Hardware to Have and to Hold
There are so many choices when it comes to hardware. If you're choosing a device, you need to consider its features and also its operating system (OS). The Palm OS is the most prevalent one today. Both Palm and Handspring, which has licensed the Palm OS, have educational divisions. Handspring has also extended its academic pricing to libraries.

For professional use, there are combination palms/bar code scanners. Forexample, the CSM 150 Bar Code Scanner for Handspring Visor Handhelds is a module that slips into the Springboard expansion slot at the back of any Visor. Other combination devices are designed for use by librarians, like the Barcode Systems, Inc.'s Book Tracker 1500 and the Book Tracker 1550. Also, CASPR offers the HLT63, and Variant Microsystems has an SPT1700/1740 Palm Terminal. The great thing about these devices is they don't act just as PDAs, but they also let you check on items that mightbe lurking in your stacks, because you can scan a bar code into the handheld and then update the circulation status in your OPAC when the handheld is synced. All three of these vendors offer their devices in partnership with Symbol, Inc., one of the leading developers and providers of bar code technologies.

The most exciting of these combination PDA/bar code scanner devices, I think, is 3M's Digital Library Assistant or "Palm-on-a-Stick." When you've put Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags into your books, this tool can locate items in the stacks, so you can use it for shelf-reading and weeding, and for finding books and correcting circulation data. For instance, think of the classic case of a patron claiming that he's returned a book, but your system shows it's still checked out and overdue. You've checked the stacks and not found it, but perhaps it's only been mis-shelved. You can code the RFID number into the hand-held device, then go to the stacks and wave it across the shelves. When it reads the tag you're looking for, it will sound off to let you know. Book found, patron absolved. This product and the other pieces of the Digital Identification System have been beta tested at the University of Nevada­Las Vegas.

VTLS makes a similar product to 3M's Digital Library Assistant, which also supports the RFID technology, as part of its VTLS Radio Frequency Identification system.

Some handhelds have cradles, some don't. Cradles are docking ports that connect to your computer to allow syncronization or battery recharging. Cradles offer a great way to "sync," which means to update your handheld with a known computer. However, this is not a solution for a busy reference desk because cradles are not secure devices. Encourage your patrons to beam or transmit their data, using their devices' infrared (IR) ports for security reasons. Numerous products exist to make data transfer via the IR ports efficient and friendly. You may want to check out Clarinet Systems' EthIR LAN and EthIR STAR wireless access system, which is being used by St. Vincent Hospitals and Health Services of Indiana to allow staff and physicians to securely access their data as they make their appointed rounds.

A Handful of Software
The types of software vary as wildly as the hardware choices. Much of it is shareware. Both Palm and Microsoft strongly encourage developers who wish to build upon their operating systems.

The software that every library is likely to find a use for is Avantgo. Avantgo is both a software application and a service. It often comes bundled as part of bonus packs or business packs that accompany new Palm devices. The Avantgo service allows content producers to create channels, whichare branded information streams from a specified source. Currently, many of theseare news channels, like The Wall Street Journal and CNN.

In theory, any Web page can become a channel. The handheld user who wants to become a content provider needs only to have the Avantgo software running on her personal computer, Internet access, and a handheld. Then, following the prompts on the Avantgo service Web site, the user can create her own channel by adding a title and a URL.

However, not all Web pages are easily readable just by following these steps. Avantgo works to fill in this gap by helping content developers optimize Web pagesfor delivery via hand-held devices by posting tips and guidelines on the developer section of its Web site. At present, Avantgo is not charging people to create channels, and is encouraging Webmasters and other content producers to become content developers via Avantgo's Content Provider Program ( I have created personalAvantgo channels of CLS Web sites that I need when I am consulting with CLS member libraries. I also carry my favorite newspapers and news sources as channels. Thus, I can read The Wall Street Journal or the latest from Reuters whenever I end up waiting for a meeting or a train. Other ways to use Avantgo beyond making your library's Web site available could include creating specialty newsletters for different reading groups or literary genres.

iSilo is a document reading software that is very similar to that of Avantgo. It allows you to read your documents on your handheld. It currently comes in a freeware version and a more robust professional version. iSilo also supports the Windows and Macintosh operating systems. While working on program planning for the ASIST conference (American Society for Information Science and Technology) held this past November, I learnedfrom a colleague that Mari Stoddard of the University of Arizona's Health Sciences Library uses it for making its electronic journals readable on hand-held devices. The University of Arizona Health SciencesLibrary has a great Web site that you can visit to see how it works.

Then, there is software for keeping track of due dates. Lib Assistant, a shareware program for library patrons, can be used on Palm OS handhelds to keep track of the books that patrons have checked out. It can be downloaded from the Palm Boulevard PDA at The only downsides to using this reminder program are that it doesn't link directly to your handheld's calendar, (i.e., the ability to see due dates is only available within the Lib Assistant program), and all the data has to be input manually into the device. It sure would be nice if our OPAC vendors could include wireless capabilities in the future releases of their Web-enabled OPACs.

Some of the vendors have already started trying. Innovative Interfaces, Inc. has two wireless products, according to III product manager John McCullough. The AirPAC is a stand-alone alternate OPAC product, designed for users of wireless devices. It is in its last round of testing and is being used by Boulder Public Library to provide services for patrons with cellphones that use the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). In addition, Innovative Interfaces is currently developing an infrared beaming product to help patrons of libraries that use Innovative's Millennium product line. This upcoming product will probably be available sometime after the fall of 2002. We can probably expect to seemore of these kinds of add-on software programs in the future.

ePocrates provides medical reference informational products for hand-held devices. These reference sources are designed primarily with physicians in mind. Some of the products are free, while others are not. The libraries at OSF (Order of St. Francis) Saint Francis Medical Center Library and Resource Center ( and University of Illinois at Chicago's Library of the Health Sciences in Peoria ( both circulate handhelds preloaded with ePocrates products, and they provide additional training and support for the physicians, residents, nurses, and other patrons who use their libraries.

For law librarians, Westlaw Wireless allows Westlaw subscribers who have wireless access to check a KeyCite or find a case wherever they are. This service is billed by the transaction.

Then, there are e-books. Many law resources as well as other e-books are available at And today, many publishers make e-books available in formats for devices that operate on the Palm and WinCE platforms.

As with most technologies, new products and services are constantly being introduced. So how can you stay up to speed?

Let Me Give You a Hand
There are numerous resources for librarians ranging from electronic mailing lists to Web rings and Weblogs. I'll tell you about two popular electronic mailing lists for PDAs in libraries.

One listserv is LIBRARY-PDAS (Library Support for Palmtops and PDAs). To subscribe, send a message to LISTSERV@LISTSERV.ARIZONA.EDU with the content of the message saying "Subscribe LIBRARY-PDAS [your name]."

Another list is To subscribe to this pdalibraries list, you must first be a member ofYahoo! Groups ( If you are not, the sign-in/registration for new members is on the entry page on theleft side. If you are already a member, then at the Yahoo! Groups Introduction page, put the group's name (pdalibraries) into the search bar in the upper middle of the page.

In addition to these mailing lists, there are many others sponsored by the vendors of hand-held devices. For instance, Palm's mailing list/newsletter comes out about once a month and is called "InSync Online."

My favorite general hand-held news source is the online newsletter and forumsat The PDA Street Web ring and Handango have oceans of content (news, reviews, etc.) and software available for downloading as well as other products that I have yet to fully explore. The resources really are that vast!

What About Policies?
As with any new service or system that your library plans on supporting, you need to have policies to guide its use. In the case of PDAs, the first thing you need to consider is whether you will check out the actual hand-held devices or just add-ons for the devices. OSF Saint Francis Medical Center Library circulates both ( Or will you just provide the ability for your patrons to beam and sync within the library?

Wireless products may eventually change the way we provide our services. Yale's Harvey Cushing John Hay Whitney Medical Library lets patrons update their Avantgo and ePocrates settings and services from the library, and also uses a Wireless EthIR LAN Port ( As time goes on you'll have to decide whether to provide a WML (Wireless Markup Language) version of your Web site for handheld users. And how will you evaluate patrons' use of wireless products and then relate that to your own services?

Getting Your Hands on One
If you want to buy a PDA for yourself, that's a great way to become comfortable with using the devices. But how do you begin shopping? Well, do you want to carry a Handspring Treo, which is a combination cellphone and personal digital assistant using the Palm OS? Or are you a dedicated Windows user and need a device that has the look and feel of Windows? In that case, a Casio Cassiopedia or a Hewlett-Packard Jornada 560 might be the right tool for you (both use the WinCE operating system). It's also good to remember that these can be customized with add-on accessories.

Many hand-held devices have expansion slots just like PCs. Handspring allows its Palm OS to be expanded via Springboard modules ( These add-ons are interchangeable and also allow you to do lots of neat things: You can add wireless connectivity, add a modem, add extra memory, or even download e-books. With the right add-ons, your handheld can even become a camera! Palm has a similar expansion slot for its devices. My own favorite peripheral is a full-sized Targus keyboard for my Handspring Visor. (Targus also makes them for other hand-held devices.)It folds up like an accordion, to be smaller than my hand-held device, so it's easy to slip into a purse, briefcase, or pocket.

Hopefully, now you feel like you have a better idea about the current PDA scene. And when you're ready to learn more, you can check out all the resources I've provided.

A Basic Glossary for Today's PDAs

Beam: The informal term used by handheld users when they employ their hardware's infrared port to beam data from one hand-held device to another. This is one of the safest ways to move data between them.

Blackberry: A combination pager/mini PDA, manufactured by Research in Motion (RIM).

Cradles: The informal term used to describe the docking/recharging stands that accompany many hand-held devices. Cradles are often used when synchronizing a handheld with a known computer.

Handhelds: Small computerized devices that fit into the palm of the hand and are designed for mobile computing applications.

IEEE 802.11 standard: The standard that gives the specifications for a wireless LAN.

Palm OS: The operating system used by Palm Pilots and by other handhelds that have licensed this operating system from Palm, Inc.

Palms: The informal term used to describe Palm, Inc.'s handheld devices.

PDA: An acronym for Personal Digital Assistant, which is a particular type of handheld.

RFID: An acronym for Radio Frequency Identification. RFID tags are an alternative to bar code technologies. Their signals can be picked up by certain hand-held devices.

Sync: Shorthand for synchronizing or the act of synchronization.

Synchronization: The process by which your personal computer and handheld update the information that resides on one or both of the devices.

WAP: The Wireless Application Protocol is the standard protocol that describes the display interface for many handhelds.

WinCE: The operating system created by Microsoft for its line of hand-held devices, especially its personal digital assistants.

WML: Wireless Markup Language, an XML-based language for creating Web sites and documents for hand-held devices.

Wireless: A method of computing that is accomplished without wires or cables. It is most often used to refer to work with laptop computers, hand-held computers, and cellphones.

To Contact the Companies
3M Library Systems
Digital Library Assistant
3M Center Bldg. 225-4N-14
St. Paul, MN 55112-2813
Phone: 800/328-0067
Fax: 800/223-5563

Avantgo, Inc.
25881 Industrial Blvd.
Hayward, CA 94545
Phone: 510/259-4000
Fax: 510/259-4499

Barcode Systems, Inc.
Book Tracker
15665 Medina Rd.
Plymouth, MN 55447
Phone: 612/577-0007
Fax: 612/577-0707

Casio Cassiopedia
Casio Customer Help Center
570 Mount Pleasant Ave.
Dover, NJ 07801
Phone: 973/252-7570

HLT63 Barcode scanner/PDA
Phone: 800/852-2777

Clarinet Systems, Inc.
and EthIR STAR
wireless access systems
41539 Albrae St.
Fremont, CA 94538
Phone: 408/468-0400
Fax: 408/468-0401

ePocrates, Inc.
ePocrates Rx 4.0,
ePocrates ID 1.0,
120 Industrial Rd.
San Carlos, CA 94070
Phone: 650/592-7900
Fax: 650/592-6995

various software for hand-held devices
305 Northeast Loop 820, Suite 200
Hurst, TX 76053
Phone: 817/280-0129
Fax: 817/280-9628

Handspring Treo, Handspring Visor, Handspring Springboard modules
189 Bernardo Ave.
Mountain View, CA 94043
Phone: 650/230-5000
Toll-free: 888/565-9393

Innovative Interfaces, Inc.
5850 Shellmound Way
Emeryville, CA 94608
Phone: 510/655.6200
Fax: 510/450.6350


E-books and other
public domain documents

Microsoft, Inc.
WinCE operating system
One Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA 98052-6399
Phone: 425/882-8080

Mobile Computing

Palm, Inc.
Palm OS, Palm V,
Palm III, Palm peripherals
5470 Great America Pkwy.
Santa Clara, CA 95054
Phone: 408/878-9000
Fax: 408/878-2750

Newsletter and discussion forums

Lib Assistant and other shareware

Research in Motion
RIM Blackberry
295 Phillip St.
Waterloo, ON
Canada N2L 3W8
Phone: 519/888-7465
Fax: 519/888-7884

Sony Corp.
Sony Clie

Symbol Technologies, Inc.
bar code technologies
One Symbol Plaza
Holtsville, NY 11742-1300
Phone: 631/738-2400
Toll-free: 800/722-6234
Fax: 631/738-4910

Targus, Inc.
Targus Stowaway
Portable Keyboard
1211 N. Miller St.
Anaheim, CA 92806
Phone: 714/765-5555
Fax: 714/765-5599
Toll-free: 800/283-6325

Variant Microsystems
SPT1700/1740 Palm Terminal
4128 Business Center Dr.
Fremont, CA 94538
Phone: 510/440-2870
Toll-free: 800/827-4268
Fax: 510/440-2873

VTLS, Inc.
1701 Kraft Dr.
Blacksburg, VA 24060
Phone: 540/557-1200
Toll-free: 800/468-8857
Fax: 540/557-1210

Westlaw Wireless access
P.O. Box 6292
Carol Stream, IL 60197-6292
Phone: 800/328-4880
Fax: 800/340-9378

Theresa A. Ross Embrey is the automation coordinator at the Chicago Library System, a regional library consortium. She holds an M.L.I.S. degree from Dominican University (formerly Rosary College). She consults with libraries on technology issues and has had articles published on various library technology topics. Her e-mail is
Table of Contents Subscribe Now! Previous Issues ITI Home
© 2002