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From books to bots: digital innovation essential for libraries’ survival 

Simon Jones, Managing Director of Libraries and Education Solutions 

This article appeared in iTWire in June 2019

When libraries started moving online in the early 2000s, many experts assumed they would become ancient history. Instead, libraries transformed their spaces and services to better meet the needs of our digital world.

It’s little surprise then that libraries are still at the forefront of change, and still using technology to improve the services they provide to the public. New developments such as artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain have dominated new headlines with the potential to revolutionise our lives. Their impact on libraries will be no less significant. 

Libraries have been known as a space of innovation. The challenge is to ensure they keep up with technology to not only retain this reputation but to ensure they’re best placed to serve their communities. The following technologies will likely be a focus of libraries now and in the near future as they work to this aim. 

AI 

With the proliferation and advancement in AI in recent years, libraries are getting excited at what the future may hold, particularly when it comes to customer interactions and operational efficiencies. Libraries, with their large amounts of data, are natural innovation hubs to test and experiment with AI.

Personalisation 

In our everyday lives we’ve come to expect technology to deliver a personalised experience based on our preferences. Spotify is delivering music to our unique tastes, Netflix can recommend a new TV series we’ll enjoy, and Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri can deliver personalised information based on our interactions.

The intelligent use of data and machine learning is already enabling libraries to improve decisions and continuously shape products and services for each customer. The rich data in library systems easily enables recommended reading, as well as listening and movie streaming, based on previous activity. The potential to improve user satisfaction with unique and personalised experiences for library members is an exciting development we expect to see increase through 2019.

Chat bots

They’re already common place in other sectors, but we think chatbots are next in line to become a standard library offering. Recent research found that library users want two-way communication when they’re online, just as they would expect in a physical library.

Already, AI can be used for image processing to extract additional metadata and streamline the asset management process. In practice, it allows chatbots to answer routine library related questions such as; “can I renew my reservation”, “where can I pay my overdue fines”, “do you have the latest Jack Reacher novel?”. In doing so, AI chat bots can free up library professionals to deliver more value-laden library services and programmes for their communities. AI has also powered automation in libraries, including automated book renewals and automated insights.

Analytics

Analytics platforms have transformed how businesses generate insights, and this trend also continues to remain high priority for libraries. 

Where once a librarian would base their decisions on guesswork, data can now quickly and accurately inform actions, enabling library staff to focus on their core tasks. These tools can be used to help staff easily and effectively manage their workloads. Further, as the administration burden for many professions increases with new reporting requirements, personalised dashboards are a simple way to provide staff with the tools their need to complete tasks.

Immersive technologies

Immersive technologies are set to be a key growth area for technology with Gartner predicting it “will change how users interact with the world.” For libraries, it represents a huge opportunity. Already, many libraries are offering their customers access to various augmented reality (AR) devices such as Oculus Rift and other consoles which bring an immersive experience for participants. But soon it will be able to be tied directly into the library experience.

Recently, the National Library of Singapore (NLB) introduced immersive storytelling for children, which allowed participants to experience the narrative, with an incentive to act and respond to the events they encounter. This is changing the game for not only libraries but for reading in general.

Connected Data

Connected data means sharing operational data and information effectively to provide greater service efficiency and customer service delivery. In a library context, it’s important that any library systems are streamlined to make it easy for both staff and customers to use. 

Connected data also means making library resources discoverable in the standard places where people interact, as well as bringing the library to new audiences. As an example, this means that users no longer have to search the library catalogue for resources, they can find items in common search engines like Google.

It also has an application with the Internet of Things (IoT). The benefits here are endless; door counting systems can connect with library systems to determine staffing levels, or book vending machines in public spaces to be monitored by library staff and alerted when it needs refilling. Already, QR codes can be used in catalogues providing additional information, and smartphone transactions can be used to borrow books with ease.

Digital ethics and privacy

With the massive amounts of data collected by the many systems we use in our lives, there has been heightened concern about the use of our personal information.

In last year’s tech outlook, we suggested that librarians are questioning the need to collect data that used to be collated, and this trend continues strongly. For libraries to remain the traditional spaces of democracy, freedom and trust, many organisations are choosing not to collect data such as gender or age. Where there is a specific requirement for personal information, such as address and contact details, systems can be used which provide control through encryptions and restricting access.

Given the media attention on data breaches the conversation about the value of data will continue. Libraries will remain as leaders in this field by ensuring that their data is kept secure to maintain trust with their customers.

Summary

Looking at the trends we are seeing in libraries, most reflect what is happening in the commercial world. However, there are some things we are yet to be convinced of. For example, does blockchain really have a place in libraries when the existing checks and balances are seemingly sufficient? 

In any case, we look forward to seeing how the year unfolds and the impact these technologies have on libraries. One thing is certain, for libraries to remain relevant in a digital and connected world, finding new applications of technology will be key.