Free The Library

Norman Jacknis
Jun 1, 2016 · 5 min read

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.)

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.

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”.

A few weeks ago, the Knight News Challenge selected the Charlotte Mecklenberg Public Library’s DALE project led by Seth Ervin 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

Norman Jacknis

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Senior Fellow, Intelligent Community Forum; Columbia University Faculty. Former Director, Cisco IBSG Public Sector & CIO Westchester County, NY