Disruptive technology: Robotics and artificial intelligence

Information professionals are well aware of all the opportunities around coding and robotics for teaching their patrons new digital skills. But what about their use in helping us to do our jobs in a more efficient and effective way?

There are lots of great examples of robots, and artificial intelligence systems, being used in libraries to save time and improve services. Older examples include technologies such as RFID, self-check machines and virtual reference services, many of which have now been accepted into the usual library order and seem quite common. But new technology is constantly disrupting the usual day-to-day work in libraries, and thus changing the focus of the librarian’s role. So let’s look at some new ideas for the future!


One great idea is an “autonomous robotic shelf scanning (AuRoSS) platform that can self-navigate through libraries at night, scanning RFID tags to produce reports on missing and out-of-sequence books.” (as reported in Phys.Org). This robot has been trialled successfully in Singapore libraries, and will hopefully come into more common usage in the future. Stock-take in a library can take many (tedious) days of scanning, think of all the extra time to spend on more valuable tasks!

Another amazing system is the Sydney University of Technology’s underground retrieval system. Around 325,000 library books have been stored underground at the Library (such a great use of space!) – a student simply orders the item online, and a robot reads the RFID tags to collect the item. New York Public Library has also installed a new robotic ‘book train’ to transport books throughout the library – watch a fun video and see the train in action on the Quartz webpage.

More complex systems involve artificial intelligence (AI)  rather than just simple robotics. Shivaranjini Mogali has written a conference paper that discusses AI application in libraries. For example, automated ‘expert’ systems for cataloguing and classifications, reference services and acquisitions, and natural language processing in searching catalogues. One example of AI in libraries is ROSS, a digital legal expert:

“You ask your questions in plain English and ROSS then reads through the entire body of recorded law, gathering evidence and drawing inferences about the materials it has evaluated. It then returns a relevant answer with cited references and topical readings from legislation, case law and secondary sources to get you up-to-speed quickly.” (Slaw Magazine)

Does this mean the end for legal research skills (and law librarians)?

Of course, there is always a fear that robots like these will mean less jobs in libraries (see generally ‘A White House report says AI will take jobs but also help solve global problems‘). Only time will tell whether this is the case, however perhaps these technologies will simply mean that the role of the information professional is evolving, and our focus will be on more complex tasks rather than circulation duties and the like. We must be ready to re-skill and up-skill (see ‘Humans need new skills for post-AI world‘) to adapt to these changes. While some jobs may be displaced, others will be created because robots and AI will never have a ‘human touch’, they can still malfunction, and they cannot help people to connect or to think deeply about the information which these systems access. 

  • Do you know of any other examples of robotics or AI in libraries?
  • Has your library used or considered any robotic or AI technologies?
  • Do you think this type of technology will cause unwanted consequences for the library profession?

You can discuss with your ILN partner or join in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook using #interlibnet.

Michelle De Aizpurua, ILN Content Officer.

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2016B and tagged , , , .

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