Free The Library

In our post-industrial, Internet world, an ever increasing percentage
of the population has an ever increasing need for knowledge to make a
living.  This is why people have used the Internet’s search engines so
much, despite being frequently frustrated by the volume and irrelevance
of search results.  They may also be suspicious of the bias and
commercialism built into the results.  Most of all, people intuitively
grasp that search results are not the same thing as the knowledge they
really want.

Thus, if I had to point to a single service that
would dramatically raise the economic importance of libraries in this
century, it would be satisfying this need in a substantive and objective
way.

Yet, if you go to most dictionaries, you’ll find a
definition of a library like this one from the Oxford Dictionary:

“A
building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and
sometimes films and recorded music for people to read, borrow, or refer
to”.

While few people would say that libraries
shouldn’t provide books, as long as people want them, most librarians
would point to the many services they have provided beyond collecting
printed material.

Nevertheless, the traditional definition
continues to limit the way too many librarians think.  Even among those
who object to the narrow definition in the dictionary, these two
traditional assumptions about libraries are usually unquestioned:

  1. Library services are mostly delivered in a library building.
  2. Library services are mostly delivered by human beings.

My
argument here is simple:  If libraries are to meet the public needs of a
21st century knowledge economy, librarians must lift these self-imposed
constraints.  It is time to free the library and library services!

This
isn’t as radical as it sounds.  If we look deeper, more conceptually,
at what has gone on in libraries, libraries services are about the
community’s reserve of knowledge and sharing of information — and
helping members of the community find what they need quickly, accurately
and without bias.  I’m proposing nothing different, except expanding
the ways that libraries do this job.

The first of these two
assumptions is the simplest one to abandon.  Although the library
building remains the focus for many in the profession, in various ways,
virtual services are available through the web, chat, email or even Skype.  (I’ve written
before about the ways that library reference services could become
available anywhere and be much improved through a national
collaboration.)

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The second assumption – the necessity for a human librarian at almost all points of service — will be a tougher one to discard.

Consider,
though, one of the most important of the emerging, disruptive
technologies – artificial intelligence and machine learning – which can
supplement and enhance the ability of librarians to deliver information
services well and at a scale appropriate for the large demand.

My hope is that, working with software and artificial intelligence experts, librarians
will start creating machine learning and artificial intelligence
services that will make in-depth, unbiased knowledge guidance and
information reference universally available.

Doing that
successfully as a national project will enable the library as an
institution, if not a building, to reclaim its role as information
central for people of all ages.

By the way, the use of artificial
intelligence in libraries is not a new idea.  In 1991, Charles W. Bailey
wrote an article titled “Intelligent Library Systems: Artificial Intelligence Technology and Library Automation Systems”.

During
the last several years, there have been a few experiments in using
artificial intelligence to supplement reference services provided by
human librarians.  In the UK, the University of Wolverhampton offers its
Learning & Information Services Chatbot”.

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A few weeks ago, the Knight News Challenge selected the Charlotte Mecklenberg Public Library’s DALE project with IBM Watson and described it as “the first AI enabled search portal within a public library setting.”

In a note that is very much in accord with my argument, they wrote:

“Libraries
are the unsung heroes of the Information Age.  In a world where
everyone Googles for the right answer, many are unaware of the wealth of
information that libraries have within their physical and digital
collections.…  DALE would be able to analyze the structured and
unstructured data hidden within the public library’s vast collections,
helping both staff and customers locate the information needed within
one search setting.”

Despite the needs of library patrons, so far these examples are still rare for a couple of reasons.

Some
people argue that libraries shouldn’t and maybe can’t compete with the
big corporations, like Apple and Google, in helping people find the
knowledge they need.  As I’ve already noted above, many users experience
these commercial services as a poor substitute for what they want.

In
any case, abdicating its own responsibility is a disservice to library
patrons and the public who have looked to libraries for objective,
non-commercial information services for a very long time.

There is
also a fear that wider use of artificial intelligence to help provide
library services might put human librarians out of work.  While that is
not a concern that librarians generally discuss publicly, Steven Bell,
Associate University Librarian of Temple University, wrote last month in
Library Journal about this very subject – the potential for artificial
intelligence to diminish the need for librarians.  He called it the “Promise and Peril of AI for Academic Librarians”, although the article seemed to focus more on the peril.

This
is the fear of every worker faced with the onslaught of technology and
the resulting prospect of delivering more output in fewer hours.  With
artificial intelligence and related robotics, workers in industries
where demand is not accelerating – like cars – may very well have
something to worry about.

But the reality for librarians is
different.  The demand for information services is accelerating so that
even in the face of greater productivity per person, employment
prospects shouldn’t diminish.

Indeed, if these library services
become real and gain traction, increasing demand for them and for the
librarians that make them possible will also increase because the
knowledge creates a demand for new knowledge.  To use an ungainly and
somewhat distasteful analogy, it is like an arms race.

My concern
is neither about corporate competition nor unemployment.  Rather my fear
is that the library profession will not easily abandon its self-imposed
limitations and will not expand its presence and champion new
technology for its services.  If those limitations remain, the public –
having been forced to go elsewhere to meet their needs – will in the end
devalue and reduce their support for libraries.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

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