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Wake up sheeples, the bots are coming for your jobs!

The Robot Apocalypse in Libraries

By IGI Global on Mar 24, 2015
The Robot Apocalypse In LibrariesContributed by Edward Iglesias (Central Connecticut State University, USA)

In the book I edited a while back, Robots in Academic Libraries: Advancements in Library Automation, I made the case for libraries inevitable change from people-centered institutions to mostly robotic or algorithmic institutions. This trend is by no means unique to libraries but almost universal in the job force.1 When thinking about robots and automation in general the tendency is to envision single purpose beasts that make cars. Nowadays these arm robots are simple enough that they can be built for around 50 dollars with the aid of a 3D printer2. It won’t be lifting anything heavy, but the point is what used to be the most specialized and expensive type of automation is now cheap and easy to produce.

In library land, this trend towards automation has always been there with Systems Librarians being part of “Library Automation” departments. We have automated cataloging, circulation, and acquisitions to a greater or lesser extent. Hardly anyone creates marc records from scratch, instead relying on copy cataloging. Indeed many libraries have simply outsourced cataloging and get shelf ready books. There is no need to have trained staff when all you need to do is look at the list you sent the vendor and compare it to what you received. Then it is just a matter of uploading it into you ILS. This is all student labor grunt work. While large research libraries still need to preform original cataloging for most libraries, this is not something that makes fiscal sense for smaller libraries. That said, catalogers aren't going anywhere yet. Neither are truck drivers or journalists or any of the other professions that can be replaced by robots. Given time the replacement process is inevitable, but for now cultural norms and Unions prevent this.

Circulation is an area where automation hit several years ago with self check machines provided primarily from 3M. The main activities that cannot be outsourced in Circulation are problem resolution (fines), physical shelving, and security. Market forces are winnowing away at this as we have elaborate systems that take books that are turned in and separate them according to section. At that point, someone still has to physically place the book on the shelf, but there are libraries that have overcome this limitation. The University of Chicago now has completely closed stacks located beneath the building. The books go into bins that are robotically retrieved. Arrangement on a shelf does not matter since the system can easily find any book without having to organize it.3 It is only a matter of time before circulation becomes almost entirely “self serve”. Currently the model most closely resembles an automatic checkout at a grocery store where you still need a human in case something goes wrong.

Acquisitions has quite a lead on other areas of the library. It is now possible to have an account with a book vendor who simply sends you books according to your profile. So if you are an urban public library with a demographic that includes children, the elderly, young adults, and immigrants from Bosnia, you will get different books than an academic library serving first generation college students.4

Up until this point, it may seem that automation only applies to “back room” activities. This is not the case. As more and more public libraries become outposts with increasingly smaller budgets, new artificial intelligence agents are starting to offer some limited reference services. Michelle McNeal and David Newyear successfully implemented a chatbot, an online robot that answers questions you ask it. Using open Source software and Natural Language programming they created Emma, a cartoon cat that answers reference questions. With “a correct response average of 60%” this was good enough to have the chatbot take over reference duties when the alternative was to have no one.5

These changes are inevitable like self-driving cars. The only factors mitigating against these changes are outdated institutional priorities, preexisting labor agreements, and tradition. All of these will fall before shrinking budgets and the desire for perceived efficiency. There is no question that for now humans can do many of these jobs better. The question is whether “good enough” will do.


1 See Race Against the Machine
2http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:225513
3http://mansueto.lib.uchicago.edu/shelving.html
4 See Kathleen Spring, Megan Drake, and Siôn Romaine, "How Is That Going to Work? Rethinking Acquisitions in a Next-Generation ILS" (2013). Proceedings of the Charleston Library Conference. http://dx.doi.org/10.5703/1288284315289
5 McNeal, Michele and David Newyear. "Chatbots: Automating Reference in Public Libraries." Robots in Academic Libraries: Advancements in Library Automation. IGI Global, 2013. 101-114. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-3938-6.ch006




Edward Iglesias was born in Laredo, Texas and lived there much of his life. The environmental bias caused by living in a bilingual, bicultural society has permanently affected his outlook on life. As a result he is drawn to subjects that don’t easily fit description or are a blend of many things. His latest book Robots in Academic Libraries is a good example as the field of library automation and technology is always in flux.

After leaving Laredo, Mr. Iglesias taught English at various colleges in Houston before deciding to venture into the world of libraries by getting his MLIS at the University of Texas. From there he quickly settled into academic libraries and has worked in the field ever since. Currently Mr. Iglesias is researching the role of maker spaces in libraries as a way for libraries to continue to be relevant and provide communities of creation for their users.

Edward Iglesias is editor of the title Robots in Academic Libraries: Advancements in Library Automation, a cutting-edge reference source that provides an overview on the current state of library automation, addresses the need for changing personnel to accommodate these changes, and assesses the future for academic libraries as a whole. Part of the Advances in Library and Information Science (ALIS) book series, this book is essential for library leaders, technology experts, and library vendors interested in the future of library automation and its impact on the decline of human interaction in libraries. Visit the IGI Global Bookstore for more information on this title as well as other titles in robotics and library science.
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