“ I can’t help wonder if one could use machine learning to identify title text from the image, thus…

That’s funny, because in my experience, people often refuse to automate anything because they can’t automate everything. For example, in this case, just having the images would tell me what books are available, and I could call to find the rest of the information. I don’t (usually) care about editions; I’m not an antiquarian, just a passionate reader. Custom automations are often built in stages, and the stages are connected by human processes.

And of course, automation makes fewer mistakes than humans — that’s why so much is being automated. But truly, that is dependent on the quality of the automation, and the usability of the application. Training on data entry and having automated systems that are intuitive and easy to fix is really the issue there. I don’t think anyone in a modern library wants to go back to card catalogs, as much as they wrestle with their databases.

You might be interested to know that as an engineer working with automations to allow companies to massively scale, I ‘capture’ the manual process… automatically. This can be done by photographing or videoing people on the job, or copying the input to a terminal, when it happens that way. Sysadmins who work all day on the command line can toggle their shell inputs to capture their processes, then see several other approaches and decide how to automate. It’s depressing to hear that people deal with poor quality automation that costs more time than it’s worth. But that’s about automation quality, not automation. If it’s not done by examining the human process, it’s probably going to be poor quality. Sadly, this is probably out of reach for most organizations now. The real bottleneck is a capture process that’s affordable, standardized, and simple to use. Capturing process currently involves having long conversations and lots of information from people who are in the domain. On the other hand, everyone could automate better if they just realized that much: the guy who is doing the work is the one to ask how it’s done.

Having good automation allows the humans to do human work, which in the case of the bookstore is telling me what to read! And building community around reading. Ultimately, this might come to pass as systems become more sophisticated. I hate to think that the brick and mortar will ever die, and the experience of a bookstore is really an important part of being a diverse reader.

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