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Librarian, Robot

Submitted by Kate Sheehan on October 4, 2011 - 7:08am

 I’ve got robots on the brain lately. Slate.com ran an interesting series about robots replacing even highly educated knowledge workers. No sooner did I finish the last piece (about robots replacing scientists) than I picked up the September 15 issue of Library Journal, featuring a library robot on the cover. Clearly, the robots are coming.

The Slate series made me a little nervous. I’ve spent most of my library career working on automation. I like to talk to people about their jobs, figure out what can be automated, and free them up to work on that thing they really want to do. Invest a little time on the front end, and you save all kinds of time over the long haul. It doesn’t always feel like that of course – how often have we all had the “computers, eh? They’re supposed to make things faster, but we spend all this time fixing ‘em!” conversation? But the end result is a net gain in time. Ideally, we’ll spend that time doing things computers can’t. Human things. Thinking, feeling, big picture things. Farhad Manjoo has me worried that the only reason people are better at, say, reader’s advisory is because we haven’t spent enough money on our robots (yet).
 
Colgate’s library robot seems to be automation in the vein that we’re used to. The robot frees staff up to work on other things, it keeps the collection at hand without sacrificing space for students, and it’s a bright yellow robot. The cheerfully hued machine does something that’s sort of boring for people to do, but it does so at the behest of its human overlords. That’s the kind of robot we like. But that’s not what Manjoo is talking about.
 
this robot is very relaxed about his future career pathThe internet didn’t kill reference, but it did change it quite a bit. Ready reference has dropped off because people can look a lot of information up on their own. Most reference librarians have been asked to settle a bar bet or two and we certainly help people who have not mastered searching. One could argue that the basic information retrieval part has dropped off, since computers are so good at that, and now we’re focused on more intensive educational goals. Someone coming in and asking for the names of the Seven Sisters is no longer asking us for an answer, they’re asking to be taught how to search online.
Digital assistants may make this learning curve even shorter, for those who can afford gadgets with voice control. Why learn to search the hard way when a robot librarian can help you? Manjoo argues that robots might soon be doing the jobs of even creative-types like him. If a robot can write a news story, why not a blog post for your library?
 
Lest you think I’ve been overtaken by robot paranoia, let me tell you about another thing I did this week. I installed Ghostery, a browser extension that shows which data tracking companies are present on a website. Here’s something robots (or ghost robots, as the case may be) are wonderful at. What they’re not so good at is explaining why we might want to know who’s watching us browse. Or why we might want to block them.
 
This is an area that’s surprisingly tricky for librarians. We’re for privacy, but patrons like neat features that aggregate their borrowing data into “patrons who like x also like y” lists. Patrons also ask us all the time if they’ve already read a particular title. It’s hard to advocate for something people don’t seem to want. So we very carefully figure out ways to create these features without keeping identifying information. Aggregated anonymous patron data and reading histories only visible from the OPAC side of the ILS have worked pretty well for us. Still, many people are surprisingly OK with giving their personal information to machines.
 
Anyone who has worked at a library with self check machines has seen how happy patrons are to check potentially embarrassing or personal titles out at a machine instead of with a person. They trust the library but don’t want to look someone in the eye as they check out that medical self-help guide. However, as Mike Kelley elucidates so well on the LJ Insider blog, more of the library’s contact with patrons is intermediated by companies, which may or may not have the same guiding principles that libraries do.
Libraries have a long history of defending principles that don’t always seem important to our patrons, and Kelley’s point is well taken. As we replace paper with computer and human with machine, we speed up quotidian tasks, but we also open ourselves to tremendous data gathering and retention. As consumers, we have come to assume that the companies we buy from know everything we have ever purchased from them.
 
Libraries are held, at least by librarians, to a higher standard in part because we are non-profit entities and in part because we peddle in intellectual goods and services. I have to show my ID when I buy cough medicine to ensure that I’m not buying meth lab-level quantities of it, but should be able to anonymously look up how cough syrup is transformed into an addictive illegal substance (which I have, because I watch Breaking Bad).
 
Just as we are now responding to ready reference questions not just with the answer, but also with a search tutorial, we are in a position to advocate for awareness of issues near and dear to our hearts like privacy and intellectual freedom. Ghostery reminded me that there are companies online that know what I read, what I think about, what I’m interested in. That’s more startling to me than CVS knowing that I occasionally buy the heavy-duty decongestants or Stop and Shop knowing which brand of mouthwash I prefer (though I’m not wild about that either).
 
Should the robot uprising be upon us, this is something we can offer. We may not be able to process or retain information as well as a machine, but we can remind people that their information is their own until they allow it to be commodified and sold.