Intelligently transforming libraries with AI

Iain Finlayson, Managing Director, Library and Education Solutions, Civica ANZ

This article first appeared in The Australian in February 2020

There’s something a bit incongruous about artificial intelligence (AI) in cultural institutions like libraries. In the minds of many, libraries are old-fashioned repositories of books and history; a symbol of a more traditional past rather than a high-tech future.

But this is far from the reality. AI is emerging as a top priority for library leaders, who want to ensure their spaces remain relevant and exciting places where people can learn, reflect, engage and explore.

Like almost all organisations today, libraries are challenged to use emerging technology to optimise their customers’ experiences and strengthen engagement. They must defend their role in the face of disruption and competition for attention spans from almost every quarter, right at their users’ fingertips. And like many organisations today, libraries must move with the times while meeting expectations to do so under tight budget constraints.

Then there’s the trust factor. A Digital 2020 report released by Kepios last month found that some 62 per cent of Australians over the age of 18 say they’re concerned about what’s real and what’s fake on the internet. Globally the figure is 56 per cent. At a time when trust is at a low, libraries are in a unique and valuable position to act as a counterweight to this uncertainty - as a source of reliable information.

To stay relevant and viable, libraries need to get better at providing high quality information faster, in places where people expect to find it. AI is at the heart of this transformation.

Today libraries are exploring how AI can help them make vast amounts of information from sources that were not readily searchable - photos, videos, artefacts, newspaper clips – more accessible and discoverable.

In Stonnington Library Service in Melbourne, for example, they can now record a new item in minutes, making it instantly available. An AI-based pilot program provides users with more than 10,000 images which have been analysed by Microsoft’s cognitive services. Beyond simple images of trains, for example, the system can retrieve pictures that contain keywords such as brand names or local points of interest.

This rapid and accurate tagging could also improve engagement with the public, as libraries call on communities to supply their own information that can be more easily collected, tagged, organised and digitised. In Stonnington, for example, they envision a future in which a 30-minute oral history will be transcribed by AI within minutes, automatically catalogued and made available for discovery.

With more information becoming digitised, AI can help libraries enable users to discover patterns and trends across library collections in Australia and worldwide, potentially unlocking valuable insights that could never have been realised by humans alone. It can empower library systems to answer abstract questions that users might have, such as “what is happening in this photo?”.

Looking further ahead, AI will increasingly help these institutions to deliver personalised recommendations based on our preferences, or those of people ‘like us’, just as Netflix or Spotify do today. There’s the potential for users to find answers to questions in library resources served up by common search engines such as Google.

AI is also opening up possibilities for libraries to evolve the overall suite of services they offer to the public. Gone are the days when customers would simply pop in to browse and physically borrow a book. As our societies and communities change, AI will enable libraries to predict trends that will support proactive action to ensure they meet the needs of their communities, more efficiently.

Libraries can pre-empt demand for certain services or products just as retailers are starting to do today, by using analytics that can detect patterns of behaviour among users and find correlations with shifting local socioeconomic data, for example.

Library staff’s manual tasks can be relieved through the use of AI-based automation, allowing employees to focus on providing better services to library users and new ways to engage their communities.

In the future, we anticipate AI-based chatbots answering routine queries from library customers, such as “Can I renew my book?” or “Do you have the latest James Patterson novel?”.

The knowledge and inspiration that libraries hold is a vital resource. Protecting it and making it more discoverable by communities today and in the future is a fundamental challenge of our time and one that becomes more critical in times of mistrust and concern over what’s real and what’s fake.

Artificial intelligence will play an increasingly important role in ensuring our most precious institutions are able to serve citizen’s and society’s needs and that we’re able to more quickly find accurate and insightful answers to challenging questions.

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