Exploring AI

How libraries are starting to apply artificial intelligence in their work

March 1, 2019

Loida Garcia-Febo

I have recently started to hear more phrases such as, “I don’t have to visit a library; I just ask Alexa [or Siri or Google Assistant] and it tells me everything I need to know. I speak to it all day.”

The impact of even this early wave of artificial intelligence (AI)—including voice assistants and machine learning (ML)—is still uncertain in many fields, but it is time to include AI on our professional agenda and in our national conversation.

In talking with librarians working in this area, it’s clear that while AI can be useful, it also raises
familiar concerns about privacy, intellectual freedom, authority, and access. And there are diversity considerations, as well, including access for people with different linguistic styles or abilities.

Fortunately, librarians are looking at AI from several perspectives. Some are using it to teach
information literacy and critical-thinking skills to help patrons formulate questions for these devices
and learn how to evaluate responses. University of Rhode Island, for example, is housing its collaborative efforts around AI in the library. Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library (CPL) partnered with MIT Libraries and Harvard metaLAB to host the installation “Laughing Room,” in which participants enter an artificially intelligent room that plays a laugh track whenever something is said that the room’s algorithm deems funny. CPL Director Maria McCauley says this helped people to consider the impact of surveillance and AI on their lives. To further engage library users with big issues in science and technology shaping our society, the library will host a public dialogue about humor, culture, and AI with Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic this spring.

At MIT, Chris Bourg, director of libraries, is focusing on building a technical infrastructure so its collections are accessible by APIs and therefore can be used by machine-learning algorithms. MIT Libraries is working with AI/ML researchers at the university to analyze various library tasks and workflows that might be enhanced by AI. As Bourg says, it is important for academic libraries to make their collections accessible to AI tools like Alexa so that when someone asks a voice assistant for information, reputable scholarly literature is available. To make this successful, libraries will have to work to ensure scholarly information is openly accessible, not locked behind paywalls.

All this may be a lot of new information to process. But Catherine Nicole Coleman, digital research architect at Stanford Libraries in Palo Alto, California, has a good approach: Last year, Coleman conducted “Library AI Conversations” to help library workers familiarize themselves with the latest research and issues. She also worked mostly with bibliographers, archivists, and catalogers to explore the possibilities of AI for metadata and collection development. Additionally, they are collaborating with computer science faculty and faculty in the humanities and social sciences to explore human–machine collaboration, interaction, and interface.

At ALA, we have resources to help library workers understand AI, these new devices, and the role of libraries. The Center for the Future of Libraries has written about voice-control devices; the January issue of Library Technology Reports explores AI and ML; and many of our conferences—including the Library and Information Technology Association’s forum and the Association of College and Research Libraries national conference—include sessions on AI.

My fellow library workers, the future of libraries will continue to be about the communities we serve. Librarians and library professionals will need to be at the forefront to support communities as these technologies transform our world. Let’s continue the conversation and learn together.


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