robotic librarian

The demise of the library is a tired refrain. A story cropped up on our state listserv. “A library without the books” spurred… actually, NO response, whatsoever from librarians and others who monitor the list. No community conversation bubbled and threatened to overrun my inbox. It’s likely because in Tennessee, we realize how important libraries and their resources are to the citizenry. Or maybe we’re just disengaged from the profession. Who knows? I’m offering possiblities for the silence.

Maybe, we librarians realize it. It’s like beating a dead horse. Or stating the obvious.

Those in power to better fund libraries don’t realize it. And so, stories such as these, that focus on dramatic weirdness in library services and buildings don’t faze us.  We try to prevent those injustices from happening, but cannot stop the spread of stupidity. It’s rampant.

We’ve hear the death knell of the library for decades. How many times will the boy cry wolf on this one?

While there will always be libraries I wonder, however, if there will always be librarians. Real people serving other people.

What if robots ran the library? Most companies want to replace their workers with robots. Robots are hassle-free. Right? They manage several library collections via robotic retrieval systems. Like at Chicago State University and UNLV.

A former colleague stopped by UNLV to gain a sense of that operation as a side trip on his main adventure in Vegas. That’s dedication. Would a robot divert from the primary objective of rest and relaxation to do a bit of professional development on the side? Nah. Robots don’t need R&R. Or do they? Robots don’t have a choice about professional development. They’re uploaded with updates each time they dock during downtime.

If you read the article about CSU, then you learn that the robots don’t replace librarians, they replace student workers, who cannot shelve books correctly. What if survival hinged on one’s ability to correctly shelve a book. Imagine the world that would be.

By the way, in that CSU example above, librarians physically carry the books that the robotic crane retrieves and hands them to students. Seems like they could get a robot to do that, too. But when the power goes out, whatever happens? The books are irretrievable.

There are robots at Georgia Tech. Students bring them in to tweak their machinations as part of class. Those robots aren’t normally there. They aren’t working for the library.

Libraries and librarians will exist in some form, always. Maybe you can chalk it up to nostalgia or sentimentalism, but there will always be a place for information and its facilitator.

Robotic librarians could be pretty cool. Imagine a Robot/Rosie/Iron Man hybrid serving all, doing it all, in the library. Imagine the productivity.

But then, if robots were ubiquitous, would anyone really want to interact with a robot librarian? I’d probably send my robot personal assistant to the library to pick up books and materials from the robot librarian. There’s some robot-on-robot action.

For instance, there are efforts afoot to robotize reference transactions at my library. We resist. The thinking is this: If most questions asked of librarians are routine such as “how do I find this book?” “where is the bathroom?” “may I borrow the tape?” then why not have a self-serve kiosk where students enter their question and an answer appears on the screen in front of them?

It’s simply this: It’s against the service philosphy of librarians to operate thusly.

If you learned the Maryland Model–and it’s probably called something else by now–then the essential bit of the reference interview is the close. The follow up.

Did this completely answer your question?

Because when I get caught in an infinity loop on a phone tree that never allows me to present my problem to a real human, for a real asnwer, that’s not helpful. I imagine that an information kiosk would burden students/users with the same level of frustration and rage that we’ve all felt while dealing with vile phone trees and and outsourced help desks.

Sure, let the robots answer standardized questions. But I won’t live to see a level a robot that can detect a level of nuance and respond to it as a human would, by asking more questions to arrive at the core problem.

Because I’m really more interested in connecting with other humans on a personal level. Not an impersonal one.

2 thoughts on “robotic librarian

  1. “While there will always be libraries I wonder, however, if there will always be librarians. Real people serving other people.”

    In 2009, it seemed as though the mainstream media boiled public libraries down to buildings with free access to computers & internet for job search, free collections of bestselling books and DVDs, and free programs for toddlers.

    My concern is that this makes highly trained/educated librarians vulnerable during these difficult financial times. Even reasonably informed residents may conclude that our libraries could be privatized, or staffed with lower wage employees.

  2. I see your point. We make delivery of information seem so seamless that the public doesn’t comprehend what goes on behind the scenes. Yesterday on twitter someone mentioned the libraries of the future as depicted in one of the Star Wars movies: It was a lone librarian. It could be for many reasons. Imagine a swine flue hit and 90% of the population died. Only one librarian remained. Its unfortunate that many people, not just librarians, are especially vulnerable now. Thanks for your comment.

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