A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Working Alongside Robots at the Library

by on April 5, 2019

For students currently in library science programs, the prospect of getting a job after school can be daunting. Though job growth is predicted to be average about 9% from 2016 to 2026 – it can still be an incredibly competitive market. It is difficult enough to compete with other qualified candidates who are human – but, with increasing automation, do librarians have to worry about being replaced by robots?

Some estimates say that one quarter of American jobs are at a high risk for automation.  However, that is not a precise, or fair, picture of the reality.  While it is likely that the number of jobs will be reduced, automation replaces specific tasks. Most of these tasks are done by rote: physical labor, information collecting, and similar routine job activities. Tasks that require skills like abstract thinking will still need to be done by humans. This presents new opportunities. Automation can bring lower costs and more efficiency, which can be a benefit for workers. This can lead to shorter working hours and higher wages. We’re moving towards working alongside machines rather than being replaced by them.

For librarians, automation may not bring about many big changes. Many of the skills public librarians use are similar to those possessed by teachers and social workers, jobs with a low risk of automation. This is because jobs like these are often made up of non-routine tasks, and require creative problem-solving or multitasking. Patron interaction is another area difficult for AI to master. Helping a patron with low tech literacy complete their resume and navigate an online job application, for instance, would be difficult for a machine to do effectively, and would likely frustrate the patron.

Automation is not new for libraries, either.  In the past, everything was done by humans. We had to catalog each item, maintain the card catalog, and record all circulation transactions. Cataloging was extremely time consuming, and the creation of MARC and copy-cataloging proved to be an innovation that cut costs and increased productivity.  Making records available and readable by machine allowed libraries to exchange bibliographic information and later allowed patrons to search the catalog for themselves.  

It’s exciting to imagine what future innovations might change library service. Rather than worrying about the changes automation will bring, librarians should be ready to adapt to their new roles, providing information and resources to our patrons. The first steps towards “library robots” have already been taken. In Mountain View, California, a bookbot created by Google’s Area 120 will come to a select range of homes near the public library to pick up library materials and save you a trip. This is only a test. Pick-ups must be scheduled in advance, and for the first six months bookbot will be accompanied by a human. In Singapore, the robot librarian AuRoSS is helping to automate shelf reading. The robot uses RFID to scan the shelves to help locate books that have been put in the wrong place. In a test at the Singapore public library, AuRoSS performed its tasks of navigating around the shelves and finding misplaced books with ninety-nine percent accuracy. While the robot cannot put the books back where they belong, it does its work at night and can report to librarians so that they can go, find the errant books, and reshelve them. This can improve library service by making materials easier to find for patrons, and also take over a tedious task for the librarians.

While neither the bookbot nor AuRoSS are ready to be fully integrated into library operations, they do give us a good idea of the direction library automation may be headed.  Librarians will still be necessary for a long time to provide assistance and perform tasks AI can’t, but it will not be long before they may be working alongside machines. Just as copy cataloging and online were nothing to be worried about, these new changes are only the next evolution of library service.  Libraries have changed and will continue changing, and as librarians we must be ready for our new roles in the libraries of the future – working alongside robots or not.