Public Libraries Embracing Technology and Shaping the Future

“Hey Siri, what’s the future of the public library?”

Siri: “I don’t have that information in future of the public.”


Computer assistants, such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, and other Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs are becoming commonplace. If you need directions, want to buy groceries, or are looking for suggestions for a new wardrobe, technological help is just a request away.

Judging by the nonsensical answer that Siri gave when asked about libraries, technology isn’t yet equipped to answer all of our questions. However, there is no doubt that computerized assistants and Artificial Intelligence are impacting every facet of society.


Examples of AI

Already, thanks to Artificial Intelligence one can:

  • Walk into clothing store Uniqlo, where an AI-powered kiosk shows products and measures the customer’s response through neurotransmitters and then makes suggestions. Customers don’t even have to press a button to indicate likes and dislikes as the kiosk knows the answer based on how the consumer’s face reacts.
  • Place an order with voice or text through the My Starbucks Barista app, and then drive to the nearby Starbucks to grab the drink.
  • Visit an Amazon Go store, take items off the shelf and leave, all without stopping at a cashier. Sensors track the purchase and charge your Amazon account. This details Amazon and other retailers’ attempts to go high-tech in grocery retail.


Read about other interesting examples of what AI is doing in this Fortune article.


How Libraries Can Use AI

As we as a society try to manage this new technology, people are calling on the library community to lead the way.


One way AI and libraries already work well together is through collection development. ESP (Evidence-based Selection Planning) incorporates sophisticated machine learning to pioneer the use of behavioral analysis and data to help librarians make more informed selection decisions. With ESP, librarians are still very much integral to the library’s workflow, with the tool simply designed to complement the librarians’ experience and knowledge. After all, as stated in a 2018 blog from IFLA “a search is only as good as the search terms put in”.

Another way libraries can support new technologies is by providing a communal space for people to gather, work and play. Libraries can boost technological literacy by sponsoring informational seminars or holding technology-focused makerspaces that let people learn and experiment. This is especially important to support patrons who don’t have internet access in their homes.


Technology also holds great promise to assist librarians by freeing them up from back-office duties. As machine-learning technology enables computers to do more sophisticated tasks that once required human thinking, librarians will have more time to work hand-in-hand with their communities, focusing on programming and other value-add activities.


The Role of the Librarian

Importantly, librarians are required to educate people about AI, helping them understand how to use it in order to enhance daily life and develop their career, while learning of potential pitfalls and how to protect personal data online.


“AI is happening faster than most people think, and the public is not adequately prepared for it,” Palo Alto City Library Department Director Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne told the Urban Libraries Council.  “Everything we do will somehow be impacted by AI. The public library, in our teaching role, can play a very important part in preparing the public for what’s ahead.” (In October, le Conge Ziesenhenne was chosen to serve as Palo Alto’s assistant city manager.)


It’s certain, the spread of Artificial Intelligence technology brings with it a combination of exciting opportunity and change. However, with forethought and planning, libraries can ensure they are not only prepared for the changes AI will bring, but that they are positioned to shape and then lead the world that AI is helping to create.



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