Print Page   |   Sign In   |   Register
TL v67n4: Technology
Share |

Viewpoint: Technology


Looking Ahead to Artificial Intelligence in Libraries

David Ratledge

When one experiences Siri on an Apple device, Alexa on an Amazon device, or Google Assistant on a Google device, it appears that the age of artificial intelligence (AI) is dawning. Note, however, this is not the full-blown type of AI where a machine is self-aware and able to think independently for itself in a way that is indistinguishable from a human. Instead, this is more accurately described as AI-like. There are many physical and programmatic limitations that would likely not exist in a fully artificially intelligent machine, but within their limitations they can seem very human-like and perform many useful functions.

It is hard to look at this type of rudimentary AI technology and not think about how it will advance and what it will mean for libraries. Libraries and librarians deal in facts, and AI and AI-like technologies are very well equipped to handle these kinds of inquiries. Imagine a library user approaching a voice-activated information kiosk and asking one of the following common types of questions: Where is the restroom? What time, and in what room, is the author book signing being held today? Do you have the latest Stephen King novel? How do I apply for a library card? Do you have information about the Pax Romana? Should someone ask a question that falls outside what the technology can handle, it could easily be managed by connecting the user to either an onsite or offsite human librarian.

One possible problem with this is the significant lack of human interaction. Libraries have always prided themselves on the level of personal service they provide. Replacing people at service desks with machines would be a very different approach. But have we not already started down the same path with self-checkout options? These are commonplace now and I never hear concerns that they are too impersonal. Perhaps it is just a matter of what you get used to. As long as the change is not too abrupt and people have time to adapt, eventually the change will become the new norm.

Besides providing library users with information assistance, AI, or even AI-like technologies, can also manage other aspects of operating a library. When it is time to open they can turn on the lights, set a comfortable temperature, and unlock the doors. When it is time to close they can shut it all down. During closed hours, they can monitor the security of the facility and send notification to the appropriate authorities when a problem is detected. During open hours, they can continue monitoring the security of the facility and be available to call for help for library users if needed. Going a step further, if robotics continues to advance, and it is safe to assume it will, combining it with AI and AI-like technologies will make the creation of a fully autonomous library likely. Other than maintaining the physical facility and the technology it houses, no other human involvement would be required.

Does this sound like science fiction? Yes, of course it does. But it is sounding less and less like it every day. Given the current state of technology, and the direction it is heading, it may not be long before this type of library becomes a reality. The question then is not if this type of library is possible, but should we build it once we are able to do so?

Libraries have always used technology to provide the best possible experience for users, but would an AI-based, robotic, fully autonomous library that runs itself be the best thing for us to do for our users? Or should libraries always be a human place, managed and run by people that only use technology to assist them in what they, and only they, do best?



David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Technology Infrastructure at The University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville. He can be reached at


creative commons attribution no commercial




Membership Software Powered by YourMembership  ::  Legal