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Robots are headed out of Makerspaces and into the stacks

by Dorothy Ogdon


Robots are automated machines usually intended to replace or lessen human effort in tasks. Cobots are automated machines designed to work collaboratively alongside humans. Twenty-one years past the start of the 21st century, robots and cobots of all kinds are present in libraries, as a popular feature of STEAM, STEM, and Makerspace activities. In addition to their popularity as part of literacy and learning activities in the library, robots are increasingly becoming integrated into the daily operations of libraries. This new form of library automation presents an exciting new opportunity to explore ways to expand and improve library services. Early robotics projects in libraries have produced several positive outcomes, such as the creation of the Bibli robots from the City Of Longmont Colorado Public Library. In 2014 Connecticut’s Westport Library offered access to the robots Vincent and Nancy. In 2018 the Roanoke County Public Library integrated the humanoid robot Pepper to its service offerings. Pepper is the first humanoid service robot deployed in a service role in a public library in the United States.

Pepper isn’t the only robot providing library services in human-oriented environments. Robots now in service Singapore carry out automated RFID-driven inventory of open stacks while patrons are present in the library, and several projects have investigated the use of cobots for patron-driven wayfinding and circulation tasks. Larger-scale robots are being used to manage physical library collections and to automate physical item retrieval. Several robots of this type are currently in use at the New York Public Library, North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library, University of Chicago’s Mansueto Library, and the British Library.

These robots and cobots are one of several manifestations of artificial intelligence in contemporary libraries. Artificial intelligence is an evolving field uniquely suited to drive the next evolution of library technology as many activities in this area utilize automated information curation and classification techniques. Though many different artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques may be utilized to create autonomous robots and cobots, natural language processing and computer vision are two of the tools commonly found both in service robots like Pepper and in larger automated inventory management systems.

In the coming decade librarians will apply artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to reimagine information search and retrieval, improve services for patrons, and identify new ways to explore digital and physical collections. While the rhetoric around artificial intelligence and machine learning is sometimes negative, humans working in libraries should keep an open mind when evaluating these technologies, as they have the potential to improve services and the quality of library experiences for patrons, rather than destroy opportunities for human employment.

After the last decade of rhetoric framing librarianship as a dying profession, it is refreshing to discuss potential new evolutions of the profession through the application of an expanding set of computational tools. As in so many other areas of work, the only constant humans working in libraries can depend on is change. In the next decade, we will have a fantastic opportunity to help shape the takeoff of the next evolution of library operations and services.