Your Library Needs to Speak to You

Getting ahead of the voice assistant hype

June 3, 2019

Students at North Salem (N.Y.) Middle School and High School interact with a Google Home smart speaker. (Photo: North Salem (N.Y.) Middle School and High School)
Students at North Salem (N.Y.) Middle School and High School interact with a Google Home smart speaker. Photo: North Salem (N.Y.) Middle School and High School

Paige can recommend a book and tell you about resources available at her school library. And she’s always ready with a joke if you need one. Included in her comic cache: “The past, present, and future walked into the library. It was tense!”

Paige isn’t a librarian. She’s not even human. She’s a chatbot—a basic virtual assistant, ­programmed with a decision tree of potential questions, their answers, and code telling the bot how to respond. Cynthia Sandler, library media specialist at North Salem (N.Y.) Middle School and High School, ­created Paige in 2017 to help her students interact with the library through its website.

At the end of 2018, about 41% of US consumers owned a smart speaker—almost twice as many as in 2017—most of which were equipped with Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa. Still more have access to voice assistants on their phones with Siri and Google Assistant. As the number of people interacting with their devices by voice grows, some libraries are exploring ways to build their presence on voice platforms. Customized apps—which Alexa calls “skills” and Google Assistant calls “actions”—allow the virtual assistants to answer queries and find information in specialized ways. Libraries are using these voice assistant functions for event calendars, catalog searches, holds, and advocacy.

At North Salem, Sandler began experimenting with chatbots and virtual assistants after Gary Green, the district’s technology director, noticed his 3rd-grade daughter was using the family’s Amazon Echo to ask Alexa for answers to her math homework.

“Gary and I are always looking for innovative things to do,” Sandler says. “[Voice assistants are] something that the students are so familiar with that we as adults might still be blown away by.”

The duo has since built chatbots for professional development events and to collect feedback and reflections after classes. And they’re now teaching students to build their own.

Students have asked for virtual assistants that will give homework help, guide test prep, and even provide emotional support. When Sandler and Green polled them, one of the top requests was for a voice assistant that could talk to them when they’re stressed. “A group of middle schoolers said they love talking [to Paige] because it’s nonjudgmental,” Green says.

“That’s why I added the jokes to Paige,” says Sandler.

It takes library skills

In many ways, the current landscape for voice technology is similar to the advent of mobile apps, according to Nicole Hennig, e-learning developer at University of Arizona Libraries and author of Siri, Alexa, and Other Digital Assistants: The Librarian’s Quick Guide (Libraries Unlimited, 2018). Voice search has “a lot of promise for people with disabilities, for elderly people, or opening up our skills to more people,” Hennig says. With the ever-growing popularity and use of these devices, she says librarians should become familiar with this technology and try it for themselves: “Now is a good time to experiment and gather data about what works and what doesn’t work for your community.”

Spokane (Wash.) Public Library installed Echo Dots around the building so users could ask about the library’s upcoming bond election. Photo: Spokane (Wash.) Public Library
Spokane (Wash.) Public Library installed Echo Dots around the building so users could ask about the library’s upcoming bond election.Photo: Spokane (Wash.) Public Library

For Paige’s next iteration, Sandler is migrating her onto a new platform to give her a voice and allow her to respond to spoken commands with Google actions. “If you’re looking to get into this, there are many, many tutorials out there on the web,” Sandler says.

Sandler believes that this technology is here to stay. People will “continue to seek immediate, personalized information in conversation,” she says. As a result, having tailor-made information accessible on voice platforms is important, Sandler says: “We can develop skills that our particular students need answers to. That will be the key: to find out what information is unique to a place that generic Alexa won’t be able to address.”

In 2018, Spokane (Wash.) Public Library (SPL) staffers were brainstorming ways to get the word out about the city’s upcoming bond election, which had the potential to fund three new library buildings and remodel four others. SPL’s IT team stepped up with an unusual suggestion: What about an Alexa skill?

A few days later, SPL users could install the “Imagine the future of Spokane Public Library” skill and ask Alexa for information about the bond: proposed branch changes, how to comment, and where to get more information. “It wasn’t an advocacy campaign,” says Amanda Donovan, communications director at SPL. “It was a campaign to educate the public on what would happen if it failed and what would happen if it passed.”

Staffers placed Echo Dots—the smallest Alexa-enabled speakers—in each branch with signs that prompted patrons to ask “Alexa, imagine the library.” “It was a novelty, and it was a really fun thing to do,” Donovan says. People interacted with Echo Dots in the libraries, and others downloaded the skill to their own smart speakers. Patrons queried the skill 90 times.

“We did a lot of work to get information out to the public,” Donovan says. The bond passed in November, “and I like to think that the Alexa skill was just a small part of that.”

Adding complexity

In 2017, Iowa State University (ISU) Libraries in Ames developed its own skill, IowaStateLibFacts, to share information on collections, art, library spaces, and library history. “It was a pretty simple skill, but it gave us some experience in terms of what it takes to actually develop an Alexa skill,” says Greg Davis, assistant director for information technology at ISU. “It’s not the hardest thing in the world to do. But it also isn’t trivial.”

While there wasn’t much demand at the time for this skill, Davis and his colleagues wanted to get ahead of the trend after reading reports on the growth of smart assistants. With incoming students, they thought, “it’s going to be a matter of time before they wanted to have access to library information through their smart systems as well,” Davis says.

Last year, ISU Libraries expanded the skill. But in trying to create all the various ways a user can ask a question and then convert that data so the software can find the requested information, Davis says they encountered a roadblock. “That’s where it got beyond us in terms of trying to anticipate all those different ways someone may ask the question,” he says. So ISU Libraries turned to ThickStat (now known as, a company that specializes in voice search skills. The new skill, Parks Libro, allows Alexa to answer more complicated questions, including catalog searches by title, author, or genre, as well as event searches.

When it comes to more complicated skills—such as using voice assistants to conduct a database search or enter information, like placing materials on hold—the research and development necessary can be beyond a library’s means.

Davis predicts that library vendors will eventually “provide these types of capabilities out of the box.”

Public libraries already have some voice options for digital offerings through vendors. For instance, users of OverDrive’s Libby app can ask questions via Google Assistant; they can query the app for recommended titles, search the catalog, or reserve materials. The company is planning to expand the platform in the near future to make voice search services more accessible for libraries, according to Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive.

He acknowledges that companies like OverDrive have the resources and scale to tackle these types of technological innovations more easily than individual libraries can.

“We have the opportunity to do some [research and development] with holdings outside the library, such as major open educational resource materials,” Potash says. “In some cases, these are things that the libraries themselves would be doing if they had the resources. In some cases, we become a willing agent.”

Community skill set

For libraries that lack time or expertise to build their own skill or a budget to hire a developer, Hennig suggests they turn to experts within their communities. “Get in touch with people who are making informal skills and chat with them,” she advises.

For example, there are skills in the Alexa Skill Store for Houston Public Library and Los Angeles Public Library made by people who are unaffiliated with either library.

And in 2017, a patron approached Delaware County (Ohio) District Library (DCDL) about creating a voice assistant skill. Avneet Sarang, a local app developer, creates Alexa skills for his family as a hobby. When Sarang asked Alexa what was going on at the library, “of course she had no idea because nothing like that had been programmed,” says Nicole Fowles, communications manager at DCDL.

Sarang then brought the idea of creating a skill to the library. DCDL staffers surveyed other patrons to gauge interest and soon agreed to partner with Sarang’s consulting company to build it.

At first it started out small, providing branch hours and events information, but it has plans to evolve: “It would be very easy to say ‘Does the library have this book? Can you reserve it for me?’ That’s our next step,” Fowles says. “We’re very excited about just how the overall scale continues to grow and suit our patrons’ needs.”

Engagement within the community has been strong. Fowles says the library initially promoted the skill through press releases, the library website, and staff members, but patrons are now recommending it to one another.

Part of the appeal, too, is the ability to support a local entrepreneur. Sarang has gone on to develop Alexa skills for other libraries in the area as well.

Voices of concern

As with any new technology, working with voice computing presents challenges. Most voice assistants run on third-party platforms, and many—including Alexa and Google Assistant—store recordings of requests until a user deletes them.

In New York, the state’s board of regents is considering an amendment that could limit the use of voice assistants in schools because of the potential risk of exposing students’ personally identifiable information. Hennig says that understanding these possible risks is key. “It’s a good idea to keep up with all of those issues and educate yourself about it,” she says, “rather than dismiss it out of hand.”

For Sandler and Green, it comes down to conscious design. “We’re not so concerned if Google knows that somebody wants to know what’s for lunch every day,” says Green. “When we’re doing the design or predesign, we’re constantly thinking about ensuring that there’s no personal information.

Another concern is that the systems sometimes stumble with proper names. SPL had trouble sharing information on its Shadle branch. “Alexa was having a hard time with the way [it’s] pronounced [SHAY-dole],” Donovan says. “You had to know how to pronounce it the wrong way, I guess, to talk to her about it. So that was a little tricky.”

“There are a lot of mispronunciations,” agrees Potash. “All of this natural language processing and AI is based on having giant data sets that keep correcting and improving.”

Fowles says DCDL will “need to stay on our game” with development. “It’s not something that can just sit there and run in the background.” While she acknowledges this could be daunting for some libraries, she remains enthusiastic. “For me it’s exciting.”

“So many experts are saying that this is the next big wave of computing,” Hennig says. “It’s up to us to learn everything we can about these technologies and try to find good uses for them, and try to solve some of the privacy and security issues. We should try to be involved in making them go in a good direction.”


Dewey Decibel: AI in Academic Libraries

Dewey Decibel Podcast: AI in Academic Libraries

Episode 37 looks at libraries working with artificial intelligence

Dispatches, by Jason Griffey

AI and Machine Learning

The challenges of artificial intelligence in libraries