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What the Future Holds

The world is changing rapidly: socially, technologically, and ecologically. Even while the “tech backlash” phenomenon is making headlines, libraries must still anticipate and adapt to digital advances and larger societal developments. How will these technological choices align with and advance libraries’ core values, such as access, privacy, and intellectual freedom? It’s a time to consider both short-term and long-term trends—the changes that have already begun as well as those that lie ahead.

Here we offer insights and predictions from five library thinkers who shared their perspectives at the Symposium on the Future of Libraries during the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2020 Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits. From core values such as privacy and sustainability to more novel innovations such as the use of robots, we explore what the future might hold.


Bohyun Kim

Bohyun Kim

Bohyun KimRobots are not yet common at libraries, but they are being piloted for a variety of purposes. For example, many large libraries now use a robotic system to store and retrieve materials. Robots are also used for shelf-reading and inventory management.

Recently, libraries have started providing access to robots and robot-related STEM education programs. For example, Westport (Conn.) Library provides trainings for its two programmable humanoid NAO robots, and Chicago Public Library lends small, mobile Finch robots. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab at University of Rhode Island Libraries holds weekly “robot hours” during which students learn to control and program robots.

Some aspects of library work are more likely to benefit from robots than others. For example, libraries can use social robots to greet visitors and answer directional questions. University of Pretoria Libraries in South Africa has a robot named Libby that already performs such tasks. As robots gain more advanced features, such as identifying and reshelving misfiled books, they will become useful for library access services.

Robots can also help with reference requests, particularly with simple questions. These robots can take the form of online chatbots. University of Oklahoma Libraries is experimenting with Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant, to provide basic reference services. Similarly, robots can be used to perform readers’ advisory, and children’s librarians may find reading robots useful.

When robots directly interact with library patrons and staff, safety may be a concern. However, interacting with robots can enhance those relationships. As AI technology advances, more sophisticated, versatile, and autonomous robots are likely to enter our homes, workplaces, and libraries. No one fully understands how the wide adoption of robots will affect us—but it will certainly generate a lot of interesting questions.

Bohyun Kim is chief technology officer and associate professor at University of Rhode Island Libraries.


Matthew Bollerman

Matthew Bollerman

Matthew BollermanImagine that all over the world, coasts and other low-lying areas are being eroded, flooded, and even submerged. All aspects of food security, including food access and price stability, have been compromised. Civil wars and intergroup violence are raging, fueled by spikes in poverty and other economic shocks.

Sound like scenarios from a zombie TV series or a thriller movie? Instead, they’re predictions from the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body tasked with assessing climate-change science.

Can libraries help mitigate the likelihood of these predictions coming true? The IPCC report suggests that forming local partnerships, recognizing and valuing diversity, and helping all voices be heard are key to surviving the new climate humans have created. These are completely in line with the values, history, and mission of our institutions. Solutions will require local choices, local efforts, and local coordination.

Last year, ALA adopted sustainability as a core value. As the profession decides how to embody that value, library conferences are beginning to encourage participants to offset their carbon for travel, and library schools are considering integrating sustainability into their curricula.

By asking three questions when making any given decision—Is it environmentally sound? Is it economically feasible? Is it socially equitable?—we can make sure we are helping our communities. Libraries should use this “triple bottom-line” framework for all decisions regarding operations and services. The Sustainable Libraries Initiative offers tools for library staff to document progress on a number of environmental, social, and fiscal goals. At nearby Lindenhurst (N.Y.) Memorial Library, one of the first libraries to achieve the Sustainable Libraries Certification, library staff have committed to the triple bottom-line in many ways: a 73-kilowatt solar panel array is scheduled to be installed on the library’s roof, electric vehicle chargers are being added to the parking lots, and custodial staff have switched to green cleaning products and organic lawn care for the grounds and community library vegetable garden.

Matthew Bollerman is chief executive officer of Hauppauge (N.Y.) Public Library.

Virtual reality

Felicia A. Smith

Felicia A. Smith

Felicia A. SmithVirtual reality (VR) has the potential to revolutionize library instruction. How? By using immersive, real-life scenarios to demonstrate to students how they already use information literacy skills every day. While traditional information literacy instruction is lecture-based and jargon-filled, VR enables more active learning.

For example, a student could participate in a real-life scenario through VR technology and asked to choose the safer option: being asked to accept an opened beverage by a stranger on the street, or seeking treatment as an emergency-room patient and being urged by a nurse to swallow some pills with water. These scenarios require students to critically evaluate the credibility of the person offering a substance.

In the next exercise, students would be presented with a scenario in which they have to choose which is more credible: an anonymous post on the internet, or a peer-reviewed article from a scholarly journal. It’s easy to see how the reflexive assessment required in the first scenario mirrors the type of information literacy skills required in the second.

Unfortunately, development and production costs for VR content are high, ranging from $44,000 to $79,000 or even as much as $500,000. Additionally, research about the use of VR in academic library orientations and one-shot instructional workshops is lacking. It’s difficult to show how effective mixed, virtual, or augmented reality instruction could be. That difficulty largely stems from the lack of research into these technologies, since they’re relatively new.

However, reports on the effects of interactive computer games and simulations have found statistically significant positive impacts on learning outcomes.

Felicia A. Smith is head of learning and outreach at Stanford University Libraries in Palo Alto, California.

Confronting data bias

Elisa Rodrigues

Elisa Rodrigues

Elisa RodriguesEveryone should regularly reevaluate their relationships with technology. Data is constantly being collected around us; most modern technology packages surveillance and marketing research as fun toys and convenient tools. Conglomerate mergers, as well as lack of competition and regulation, have created a very small market with a loose, subpar standard of user data privacy. That goes for the largest technology companies as well as smaller companies like library vendors.

Digital privacy violations more adversely affect economically and socially disadvantaged groups. For example, identity theft is painful for everyone but can devastate the lives of low-income people who lack the resources to deal with its fallout. Additionally, personal and behavioral data sets collected by third-party technology companies are frequently treated as commodities. We say privacy is a core value, but when libraries partner with third parties that share data that may later be used to deport people from the US—do we really want to contribute to that? Misuse of data sets has the potential to further fuel data-driven discrimination that disproportionately affects marginalized groups. We even see this when crime reporting and policing data from cities’ open data portals is published without context. Biased historical practices, embedded in these numbers, created the status quo that allows black and brown communities to be over-policed today and continually put at a disadvantage.

As libraries seek to improve their services or secure funding, they may feel pressured to collect data in-house to make a persuasive case. However, such data must be collected critically, especially that pertaining to underrepresented communities. Many times, data collection can put the privacy of these groups at higher risk simply by exposing a lack of representation, making individuals identifiable. To protect vulnerable populations, libraries must ensure that data is collected ethically, stored securely, and anonymized. Or consider not collecting patron data at all. Data is constantly being breached and compromised. For example, ransomware attacks on libraries and government systems are increasingly common, and even big corporations are being hacked.

Yes, technology connects us to people and resources, but unmediated technology implementation upholds the status quo and hurts the most marginalized. There are several resources that can help people assess technology through the lens of library ethics, including the LITA Guides Protecting Patron Privacy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) and Library Technology Planning for Today and Tomorrow (2018), and the National Information Standards Organization’s Privacy Principles. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has great resources on its website and will be releasing its Privacy Field Guides for Libraries, which are full of hands-on techniques and checklists. Every library should adjust these resources to best suit its community’s needs. We can acknowledge how pervasive technology has become while rejecting the trend of constant surveillance that harms the communities we serve.

Elisa Rodrigues is systems library assistant at University of San Francisco.

Privacy service

Peter McCracken

Peter McCracken

Peter McCrackenMany e-resources vendors collect personally identifiable data about our patrons. Some content providers just want to be assured that users are appropriately affiliated with a subscribing institution. Others, though, view our patrons as valuable revenue streams and do all they can to monetize their interactions with them. At Cornell University Library, we spend about 70% of our collections budget on electronic resources, yet vendors who exploit data collection seldom change their behavior based on our objections.

We are developing a multifaceted campaign, aimed at our community and beyond, that focuses on the concept of a “privacy service.” One arm of this campaign will warn patrons when our content vendors display bad privacy behavior. We want to indicate our assessment of vendors’ behavior regarding personal data via a red/yellow/green indicator in the library catalog and at any other access point to e-resources, to give users a sense of how secure their personal information will be with a given vendor.

For example, does the vendor require users to create a service-specific account? (We do not object to vendors who offer additional functionality through an optional user account.) Do they require that the user agree to a click-through license? (These are especially egregious, as the controlling contract is between the vendor and the university, not the vendor and the user.) Do they use browser fingerprinting? Do they offer the ability to delete user data, and do they follow through on deletion requests?

Beyond our libraries, we want to create a shared and open evaluation system in which any vendor can see why we have scored them as we have, and any library can contribute to or use the data as it sees fit. While it’s common to argue that individuals are responsible for the protection of their own data, this is unreasonable and impractical. One individual cannot force an organization to respect their right to data privacy. We must change this paradigm and shift the focus to collective action. Working with other libraries, vendors, organizations, and privacy advocates, we can ensure data privacy for all.

Peter McCracken is acquisitions and e-resources strategy librarian at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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