The Use of AI in Public Libraries

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

Siri: “Sorry, I don’t have that information about the future of the public”


The use of technology – in particular Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs – is becoming more commonplace everywhere. Whether you need directions, want to buy groceries, or collect a cup of coffee, help can be found with the click of a button.

Judging by the nonsensical answer that Siri gave when asked about public libraries, technology can’t answer all our questions yet.

As we try to manage this new technology, people are calling on the library community to lead the way. In an ever-changing world, keeping up with patron expectations and creating a positive experience for all readers is key.

New examples of AI

Technology is becoming more sophisticated, and AI is impacting every facet of society.

Here are a few different innovative applications of AI:

  • In Healthcare, machine learning is integral in early disease detection, more accurate diagnoses, and customized medical treatment plans that are targeted to each patient.
  • In Retail, visual search technologies have become an integral part of the online shopping experience, enabling users to upload images to find products, along with similar items that are available for purchase.
  • In Logistics, DHL uses AI algorithms to analyze traffic levels and the weather to optimize delivery routes.

With so much opportunity available, how has it been implemented in libraries so far?

The role of AI in libraries

AI has become integral to many of the daily operational tasks in libraries.

One example 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.

Librarians are still central to the library’s workflow; the tool is 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”.

AI can also assist librarians with back-office duties. Computers can now complete regular tasks, such as:

  • Inventory and catalog management
  • Holds and reservation management
  • Circulation and check-out
  • Fine notifications and fee collection

The use of virtual assistants and chatbots has also become more commonplace in public libraries, acting as a guide for library services and answering frequently asked questions. Having this round-the-clock assistance reduces pressure on library staff, freeing up time to focus on programming and other value-added activities.

The future of AI in public libraries

1. User-generated recommendations

Although many processes are becoming more automated, the desire for hyper-personalized experiences has never been greater.

Libraries can use AI to predict not only future needs and preferences, but also to recommend personal suggestions for reading materials to individual users based on their preferences, borrowing history, and previous browsing and interests.

2. Improved digital education

Public libraries have always played an essential role in providing digital access for all. The use of free Wi-Fi, computers, and e-readers is complemented by user-friendly and accessible online platforms and resources and training around digital literacy.

Many libraries are now using AI to provide greater educational opportunities to their patrons, including workshops around creating multimedia content.

For example, as stated in the Urban Libraries Leadership Brief, the Palo Alto City Library recently hosted an event that included a workshop on how to generate short stories and poetry using AI technology.

Other uses of AI in library education initiatives have included lesson planning for language classes, and within workforce programs to assist patrons with career mapping, writing a resume, and designing a cover letter.

3. Increased concerns around bias

AI technology learns through data. The output will only ever be as good as the input. Libraries must be careful to ensure that the recommendations and results are not based on biased information.

This is a complex issue – but ensuring that collections are fair and unbiased is critical to serving all library users. collectionHQ’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Analysis helps you to analyze your library’s Fiction and Non-Fiction collections against industry-accepted DEI Topics, identify gaps at a system-wide and branch level, and aid representation of diverse populations both in print and digitally.

The role of the librarian

AI can play a critical role in helping librarians make key decisions that impact the future of the library.

By analyzing data on usage patterns, librarians can collect insights that will help with event planning, budget allocations, service development, and building collections that will engage library users.

With this technology continuing to become more prevalent, librarians are also required to educate library users on Artificial Intelligence, and how it can enhance their daily life.

This includes the downside of AI too. There are concerns that increased use of AI could lead to the spread of disinformation and misinformation, not to mention security and privacy issues.

Librarians can play a pivotal role in championing the responsible use of AI and must learn how to discern AI-generated text and images to pass these skills on to users.

The spread of Artificial Intelligence certainly brings with it a combination of exciting opportunity and change.

With forethought, planning, and consideration of the risks, libraries can ensure they are not only prepared for the changes that AI will bring but they are positioned to shape and then lead the world that AI is helping to create.

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