Serving patrons with chatbots at academic libraries

Chatbots are virtual agents that can answer questions employing a heavy dose of artificial intelligence which allow them to understand natural language. These virtual agents/chatbots are popular on websites with heavy customer service needs. 

For academic libraries, facing budget and staff cuts, employing chatbots provide an interesting proposition. You could allow a ChatBot to help direct users who:

  1. May not be so inclined to ask a human for help
  2. Especially regarding complicated websites or information networks.  

This comes from a paper by Michele L. McNeal and David Newyear in Library Technology Reports. 

They provide an explanation of how chatbots could work:

The process of searching databases or catalogs usually requires the user to compose a search for the information needed, conforming to the structures and language defined by the target data source. A chatbot using NLP [Natural Language Processing], on the other hand, allows users to pose a question as they would to another human being. The responsibility of locating the needed information shifts from the user to the programmer of the chatbot. The chatbot designer creates a structure that leads the user through a question-and-answer dialogue to discover the information needed and to provide it. This process can also address the problems created by library terminology or jargon with which the user may not be familiar. In addition, regular review of the chatbot’s conversation logs allows the designer to monitor the types of questions and the terminology used to pose them and to update the responses provided by the chatbot and the language it recognizes. This is why the chatbot can be particularly convenient and helpful to those patrons who are least familiar with the library and its services.

The writers lay out the advantages: Chatbots can personalize user service; they simplify patron access to library sites; they don't get flustered when people swear at them; and, they are anonymous. 

German libraries seem to be at the forefront of this movement, employing chatbots at a few websites for nearly ten years. 

At the Bibliothekssystem Universität Hamburg, Stella has been answering questions since 2004. 

Here's a link: www.sub.uni-hamburg.de/bibliotheken/projekte/chatbot-stella.html

Askademicus has been at the Technische Universität Dortmund since about that time. 

Link: www.ub.uni-dortmund.de/chatterbot

Since 2006, INA has been working on the Bücherhallen Hamburg website.

Link: www.buecherhallen.de/ca/x/bws#

In the US, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries have been testing Pixel since 2010. 

Here is that page: http://pixel.unl.edu

The paper: 

Introducing Chatbots in Libraries
Michele L. McNeal and David Newyear
Library Technology Reports
Volume 49, Number 8 / November/December 2013
DOI    10.5860/ltr.49n8