Emerging Tech: Bluetooth Beacons and the DPLA

Posted on     10 minute read

× This article was imported from this blog's previous content management system (WordPress), and may have errors in formatting and functionality. If you find these errors are a significant barrier to understanding the article, please let me know.

This is the text of a talk that I gave at the NN/LM Greater Midwest Region tech talk on January 29, 2016. It has been lightly edited and annotated with links to articles and other information. The topic was "Emerging Technology" and Trisha Adamus, Research Data Librarian at UW-Madison and Jenny Taylor, Assistant Health Sciences Librarian at UIC LHS in Urbana presented topics as well.

Bluetooth Beacons

Libraries of all types face challenges bridging the physical space with the online space. I'd wager that we've all seen stories of people walking around with their eyes glued to their mobile devices; you and I might have even been the subject of such stories. We want users to know about new services available in our spaces -- both the physical and the online -- yet it is difficult to connect to users.

Bluetooth Beacons, along with a phone and applications written to make use of beacons, can turn a user's smartphone into a tool for reaching users with information tailored to your library. Some examples:

Facebook Bluetooth Beacons

Facebook is one company experimenting with Bluetooth beacons. In a trial program underway now, Facebook will send you a beacon that you can tie to a Facebook Place. When a patron uses Facebook in range of the beacon, they see a welcome note and posts about the place and are prompted to like the associated Facebook Page and check in at the location. Facebook Bluetooth Beacons are in limited deployment now, and there is a web page available for you to sign up to receive one.

Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn Museum experimented with indoor positioning with beacons in 2014 and 2015. They scattered beacons throughout the galleries and added a function to their mobile app to pinpoint where the user is as they ask questions about artwork. They have a blog post on their website where they describe the challenges with positioning the beacons and having the beacons fit into the aesthetics of their gallery spaces.

University of Oklahoma NavApp

As described by the University of Oklahoma Libraries, its NavApp guides users throughout the main library building including various resources, service desks, and event spaces. The app also includes outdoor geolocation to guide users to the libraries' branches and special collections. When a student is standing in front of a study room, the app show how to book the room. The library also has about 100 beacons in its museum space to show more information and videos about artworks.

How Bluetooth Beacons Work

The foundation of Bluetooth Beacons is the iBeacon protocol. As with anything that has an 'i' in front of it now-a-days, you would rightly guess that this is something created by Apple. Announced in 2013, Apple defined a way for an iPhone to figure out its location in an indoor space. (When outside, a device can receive GPS satellite signals, but those signals do not penetrate into buildings.) The iBeacon technology has been adopted by many companies now; it isn't something limited to Apple. A beacon continuously transmits a globally unique number to any device within range -- typically up to 30 feet or farther. An app on the device can then take action based on that unique number.

Say, for instance, you have your library's app on your phone when you walk into the library. The beacon at the entrance is transmitting its unique number, and your phone wakes up the app when it gets in range of the library's beacon. The app can then decide what to do -- maybe it connects to the library's web server to get the time when the building closes and displays an alert with that information. Or the app can retrieve the events calendar and let you know what is happening in the library today. Maybe the app checks your hold queue to see if you have items to pick up.

Once inside the library, the smartphone starts receiving unique identifiers from beacons scattered around the space. The smartphone app has a built-in map of where the devices are located, and based on which identifiers it receives it can figure out where in the space the phone is. As you move with your smartphone around the space, it sees different identifiers and in that way can track your movement. So when you get that notification about an item to pick up from the hold queue, a map in the library app can guide you to the hold pickup location.

It is important to note, that all the intelligence is in the smartphone app. The beacon itself is just a dumb device that is transmitting the same unique number over and over. The beacon is not connected to your wired or wireless network, and it the beacon doesn't receive any information from the smartphone. It is up to the smartphone and the apps on it to do something with the unique number from the beacon. This means that the beacons themselves can be really cheap -- sometimes less than $5 -- and can last a really long time on one battery -- months or years. That's why Facebook can give them away for free and why retailers are installing dozens of them per store.

Concerns about Beacons

You might think all of this sounds great -- a futuristic science fiction world where machines know your exact location and can serve up information tailored specifically to where you are. There are some not so nice aspects, too.

Privacy is one. Your position within a building -- whether it be in front of a shelf full of books or a shelf full of flu remedies -- can be recorded along with the exact date and time by any number of third parties. The vendor that is supplying the Rite Aid pharmacy chain with beacons for its 4,500 stores is also partnering with publishers like CondeNast and Gannett, so apps from those companies will also be listening for the unique beacon identifiers. Now apps like Epicurious, Coupon Sherpa and ScanLife will know when and where your phone has been in a store.

Security is another. In the basic iBeacon protocol, there is nothing that validates a beacon's signal, so it is possible to fool a smartphone app into thinking it is near a beacon when it isn't. There is a story of how the staff at Make Magazine hacked a scavenger hunt at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. They showed how they could win the hunt without ever being in Las Vegas.

If you are interested in hearing more about Bluetooth Beacons, check out the article on my blog that will have links to the things I've talked about and more.

For More Information...

Digital Public Library of America

One of my fondest themes in the evolution of library services is how libraries have dealt with massive waves of information. In fact, I think we are in the third such wave of change. The first wave came with the printing press. It gave rise first to bibles, then to all sorts of commercially published tomes of fact and fiction. Libraries grew out of a desire to make that information more broadly accessible, and that was the first wave -- commercially produced physical material. The second wave came just a few decades ago with commercially produced digital material. You know what this looks like: journal articles as standalone PDF files, electronic books downloaded to handheld devices, and indexes first on far away computers with the Thompson-Reuters Dialog system -- then on CD-ROMs -- and then spread all over the world wide web. For a time, libraries tried to collect and curate the wave of commercially produced digital material themselves, but for the most part this has been seeded to commercial providers.

And now we are in the third wave: local, digital materials. Libraries are taking on the responsibility of stewardship for article preprints, reports, datasets, and other materials for our users. This is not necessarily a new thing -- through both the first and second waves of commercially produced information, libraries have been a place for local, unique material. What has changed is that libraries have become a publisher of sorts by offering that information to a community more broad than could be reached by those that could physically come to the library. We're taking not only born-digital materials in this third wave, but we are also reaching back into our collections and archives to digitize and publish that material that is unique to our holdings.

This dispersion of library activity was becoming a problem, though. How could users find the relevant material published by the library down the street, across the state, or on the other side of the country? The European Union, faced with this same question last decade, formed Europeana -- an internet portal that provides pointers to the collective digital information of Europe. In 2011, libraries in the U.S. took on the task of forming our own solution, and it is the Digital Public Library of America.

DPLA Portal

Perhaps the most well known aspect of the DPLA is its search portal, and the URL to it is very easy to remember: dp.la. If you can remember "Digital Public Library of America", you can remember this web address. The portal has several ways to search for content: you can look at curated exhibitions of content pulled from all the DPLA partners, you can explore by place through an interactive map, and you can look at a timeline of material. There are apps that use the DPLA application programming interface to search for material in innovative ways or to integrate material from the DPLA into other systems.

The DPLA Portal is just that -- it is an aggregation and a view of metadata harvested from hubs across the country. The DPLA Portal doesn't store information, it just points to where the information is stored. A series of content hubs and service hubs provide metadata to DPLA. Content hubs are large standalone units such as ARTstore, the Government Printing Office, and the Internet Archive. Service hubs gather metadata from a libraries in a region and provide a single feed of that metadata to DPLA. Service hubs are also a gathering point for professional development, expertise on digitization and metadata creation, and community outreach.


The most difficult part of this library-to-hub-to-portal arrangement is at the local library. At this point in time, it is tricky to publish information to the web in a way that can be harvested by a service hub and maintained for the long term. Your average digital asset management system has a lot of moving parts and requires complex server setups. The Hydra-in-a-Box project aims to reduce this complexity so a library won't need developers to install, configure and run the application. The project launched last year and is nearing the completion of the design phase.


Since the early formation days of the DPLA, one of the most desired streams of activity is around ebooks. Ebooks have not yet been a good fit into library service offerings. We've seen problems ranging from purchasing and licensing models that don't work well for libraries to electronic book platforms that have limited or no integration with existing library systems. DPLA has a number of ebook initiatives where librarians and publishers are working through ways to smooth the rough edges. One is the Open Ebooks Initiative, a partnership with DPLA, the New York Public Library, and the First Book organization. This initiative is offering public domain and current popular books for free to low-income students. DPLA is also the host of working groups that aim to develop a national library ebook strategy.

DPLA Community Representatives

If you are interested in getting involved with the DPLA, one of the best ways to do so is to join the community reps program. These volunteers are a two-way conduit of information between users of DPLA services and the DPLA staff. Community reps organize regional activities to promote DPLA and provide feedback with a local perspective to other reps and to the staff. Applications for the next class of community reps are due on February 19th.