The AI-Enhanced Library

I was asked to speak at the Cambridge (MA) Public Library’s annual staff development day a week ago Friday. Cambridge is one of the great centers of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics research. So, naturally, my talk was in part about AI and libraries, going back to another post a year ago, titled “Free The Library”.

First, I put this in context — the increasing percentage of people who are part of the knowledge economy and have a continual need to get information, way beyond their one-time college experience. They are often dependent on googling what they need with increasingly frustrating results, in part because of Google’s dependence on advertising and keeping its users’ eye on the screen, rather than giving them the answers they need as quickly as possible.

Second, I reviewed the various ways that AI is growing and is not just robots handling “low level” jobs. Despite the portrait of AI’s impact as only affecting non-creative work, I gave examples of Ross “the AI lawyer”, computer-created painting, music and political speeches. I showed examples of social robots with understanding of human emotions and the kind of technologies that make this possible, such as RealEyes and Affectiva (another company near Cambridge).

Third, I pointed out how these same capabilities can be useful in enhancing library services.

This isn’t really new if you think about it. Libraries have always invented ways to organize information for people, but the need now goes beyond paper publications. Since their profession began, librarians have been in the business of helping people find exactly what they need, but the need is greater now.

Librarians have many skills to add to the task of “organizing the world’s information, and making it universally accessible”. But as non-profit organizations interested in the public good, libraries can also ensure that the next generation of knowledge tools — surpassing Google search — is developed for non-commercial purposes.

Not surprisingly, of course, the immediate reaction of many librarians is that we don’t have the money or resources for that!!

I reminded them of the important observation by Maureen Sullivan, former President of the American Library Association:

“With a nationally networked platform, library and other leaders will also have more capacity to think about the work they can do at the national level that so many libraries have been so effective at doing at the state and local levels.”

Thus, together, libraries can develop new and appropriate knowledge tools. Moreover, they can — and should cooperate — in a way that is usually off-limits to private companies who want to protect their “intellectual property.”

And the numbers are impressive. If the 70,000+ librarians and 150,000+ other library staff in the USA worked together, they could accomplish an enormous amount. Individual librarians could specialize in particular subjects, but be available to patrons everywhere.

And if they worked with academic specialists in artificial intelligence in their nearby universities, such as MIT and Harvard in the case of Cambridge Public Library, they can help lead, not merely react quickly, to the future in a knowledge century.

The issue is not “either AI or libraries” but both reinforcing each other in the interest of providing the best service to patrons. Instead of being purely AI, artificial intelligence, this new service would what is beginning to be a new buzzword — IA, intelligence augmentation for human beings.

Nor am I the only one talking this way. Consider just three examples of articles in March and May of this year that come from different worlds, but make similar points about this proposed marriage:

I ended my presentation with a call for action and a reminder that this is a second — perhaps last — chance for libraries. The first warning and call to action came more than twenty years ago in 1995 at the 61st IFLA General Conference. It came from Chris Batt, then of the Croydon Libraries, Museum and Arts in the UK:

“What are the implications of all this [advancing digital world] for the future of public libraries? … The answer is that while we cannot be certain about the future for our services, we can and should be developing a vision which encompasses and enriches the potential of the Internet. If we do not do that, then others will; and they will do it less well.”

© 2017 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved @NormanJacknis

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