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:

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


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


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

Here is that page:

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

Information literacy in Israeli academic libraries

Information literacy -- another moving target of the academic librarians' toolbox. 

People have worried about how to deal with the flow of information for nearly five decades. To help make sense of this increasing flow of information, librarians began teaching what they termed "Information literacy":  using critical thinking to better understand the importance of information, how to search and gather that information and,  and, most importantly, understanding how to evaluate it.

In a recent paper (pdf), Noa Aharony and Jenny Bronstein take the temperature of Israeli academic librarians coming to terms with information literacy in a rapidly expanding information environment of social networks and large-scale data processing, as well as near-constant connectivity of students. 

With the increase of tools to gather and use information, should academic librarians expand the definition of information literacy, broadening the teaching they provide for students?

For the 125 Israeli librarians queried, most agree that librarians should continue teaching traditional information skills but also that students must increase their knowledge of collaboration and what is called metacognition: understanding their learning in the abstract. Aharony and Bronstein find that the survey participants "linked information literacy with computer and technology literacies," expanding librarian tasks to help students understand digital tools.   

The takeaway. Librarians need to remain up to date with new technologies to better serve students' information needs. 

Findings show that dynamic technological changes have not changed librarians' traditional definition of information literacy. Librarians still view information literacy mainly as a set of competencies. However, they also associate it with digital literacy and expand the definition to include collaborative aspects related to Web 2.0 technologies. Hence, it seems librarians are familiar with the new technologies, would like to use them in their instruction, and understand their impact on students. Librarians also suggest they should be responsible for teaching these skills and recommend practical tips to improve the instruction.

Here is that paper again: Academic Librarians’ Perceptions on Information Literacy: The Israeli Perspective (pdf)

A few (borrowed) thoughts about competitive intelligence

The ultimate objective of good competitive intelligence work is providing for your customers the formulation of sound, fact-based, rational decisions for action.

For librarians treading into this arena, competitive intelligence is at least one-part business reference: tracking down information on companies, markets and products. 

The librarian analyzes the competitive environment, including your patron's competitors and customers while looking (perhaps) at general consumer needs. Librarians can do this investigating using primary and secondary research materials. Some will interview experts, academics and government people. 

Competitive intelligence, however, is more than reference work. (And this is probably why it is rated so importantly for the future of libraries, at least special libraries). Librarians who perform competitive intelligence take research one step further and provide analysis of the data and succinct information synthesis.

Here's what librarians performing CI should be doing, per Competitive Intelligence: A Librarian's Empirical Approach, by Margaret Gross in Searcher (Sept. 2000): 

  • Figuring out customer needs and future moves
  • Search and research
  • Collecting and analyzing data
  • Making recommendations

(The last one may be a bit controversial, especially in the tech library where I work.) 

Any librarian -- and many users -- can gather and find information. But CI people place it in the larger picture. Kathryn Lewark, manager of information resources at 3Com, said in a March 2001 article in Library Journal by Norman Oder: "Gathering intelligence is important but not sufficient. You have to filter it and in many cases put on a layer of analysis." 

CI isn't for today. It's to look down the road writes Cynthia Cheng Correia in a 2006 Library Journal article: Getting Competitive: Competitive Intelligence Is a Smart next Step for Information Pros

We may use it in preparation of a five-year strategic plan, for example. Barring a crystal ball, we can't definitively predict events and conditions, but CI can help us better understand the forces that impact our organization, monitor developments, and arrive at insights that can inform more robust plans and better decisions.

Making the Library more effective for University students

Two researchers at the University of Ghana at Legon investigate how the University Library can better meet information needs for post graduate students. 

The study (pdf) is from Michael D. Dzandu and Henry Boateng, both in the University's Department of Inoformation Studies.  

Information needs and information seeking may be well worn research paths, but the researchers point out that most studies take place in developed countries. Students and other researchers in developing countries, the thinking goes, have different needs and hurdles to cross.

Nearly seven out of ten students try to fulfill their information needs from the internet, the researchers found most students don't have  'tried and true' methods for information gathering.

Other findings: Post-Graduate students at the University of Ghana should be using the library more, but they don't. The students complain of an apparent lack of collaboration between professors and librarians; secondly, the don't know about many library services; and third, off campus internet problems (and library access) is problematic. 

From the study.
The results showed that the students had an innate desire to seek for information, yet the University as an academic environment most influenced their information need but at the same time constrained or created barriers to their information search efforts. The findings emphasized Wilson’s information search model as relevant and applicable to the information search activities of the student and that when the correct steps are followed, the search activities could be satisfying and effective.

The researchers offered a few suggestions, including:

  • Embedding Information Literacy skills training into curriculum
  • Creating a more friendly information seeking environment
  • The library must do a better job of promoting services

Here is the study (pdf) is from Michael D. Dzandu and Henry Boateng.

What can libraries do for small business and micro-manufacturing?

The Small Scale Industry sector is the backbone of India's economy. This is generally known as agricultural, rural-based manufacturing and micro production.  However, a lack of competitive intelligence and other business information are holding this sector back, say two researchers in a recent paper. (pdf)

It's an interesting premise. From Keshavaand and Shweta Kalmath

A well-organized library with motivated staff can really make the firm more competitive and efficient than any other competitors. With the intention of increasing the efficiency of the small scale industries libraries can initiate and provide various value added service with the books and journals.

Here's a few of the examples they provide: 

Current Awareness Service: Current awareness service will enhance the efficiency of the firm as it always tries to keep the firm updated on various aspects of the industry. Librarian should understand the needs of the various kinds of users and he must provide current information through any convenient mode of communication in a way to make every one updated and efficient. 
Competitive Intelligence Service: Without knowing what our competitors are doing it is very difficult to every industry to plan for product and marketing. In this situation competitive intelligence is the major source for every industry so librarians must collect the information. 
News Paper Clipping Service: Always there will be on or other news on small scale industries in on or other newspapers so librarians must collect all those news clippings for the reference  of the firm. These clippings will definitely help to users in one or other situation 

You can check out the paper, here


The network of scholarship meets the scholarship of networks

We spend a lot of time twisting arms of researchers to sign up for and get involved with social research sites. I remember doing this a bit with academics, back when I worked at a college library. While we have a few true believers, we never get a lot of feedback from the researchers themselves. For researchers, how worthwhile is collaborating, sharing and asking questions amongst peers via networked services?

For those who research in a University or a facility, chances are their colleagues may be have similar, but not exact areas of interests. That's because academic and professional specialization insures that few people at the same institution will have the same interests or research needs.

A paper in the book International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments shows to get around this, “intellectually kindred souls” (the authors' words) will form associations, but they will very rarely be local. Instead, they create “invisible colleges,” , which:

[P]rovide forums for sharing, disseminating, and testing new ideas, as well as for exchanging information about teaching, research, funding opportunities, academic bureaucracies, and personal situations.

It's important to note that these invisible colleges pre-date the rise of the Internet and widespread use of email. Services like email and chat did not create the invisible colleges, but they helped them along. These informal networks are more permeable, less hierarchical and more diverse in interactions than previous locally focused groups, the researchers argue. 

So, how do these invisible colleges impact scholarly communication? Must you be an active member of these networks (newsgroups, working groups, etc.) to enjoy full access to new information? Or, can you be an occasional member who checks in every once in awhile?

Enter: Network Theory 
Put it another way: Are those scholars on the periphery of this network as well connected as scholars closer to the center, who by definition have a higher number of connections?

The role of central-placed scholars is to disseminate and filter information to the larger network. You know this person: They are active in a variety of communication media, gatekeeping information, passing along what they feel is important.

Scholars on the periphery, Barry Wellman, Emmanuel Koku and Jeremy Hunsinger argue, have just as important roles, especially in sparsely-knit networks (where group contact is less frequent). Those on the periphery may have more contact with different networks. Thus, they are able to point people -- even centrally located researchers -- to the correct person. It could be as simple as forwarding an email to another newsgroup, the researchers argue. Thus, the peripheral participants are responsible for expanding the reach of the entire network.

The Strength of Ties 
Take a look at it a different way: The strength of interpersonal ties, which looks not at the number of connections, but their intensity. Scholars with strong ties -- those with heavy interactions, which builds up “trust” across the network --  are often up-to-date on the activities of the specific group. But those with generally weaker ties -- those with much less group trust -- who are generally seen to reside on the periphery of a group, may know more information about the workings of other groups.

So, for researchers, to exchange ideas, help spread other information, it matters little if you are an active or a passive participant in these invisible colleges. Like social media in your personal life, becoming part of professional research networks depend on what you want out of it.

That paper is Networked Scholarship by Barry Wellman, Emmanuel Koku and Jeremy Hunsinger. Read it here. (pdf) 

All you need to know about successful product development, collaboration and knowledge management was written in 1987

A fascinating 1987 study (pdf) illustrates how the design firm IDEO carries out its product development. Here's the big takeaways, per authors Andrew Hargadon and Robert I. Sutton:  

The firm exploits its network position to gain knowledge of existing technological solutions in some industries that may be potentially valuable in others, but are rare or unknown. It acts as a technology broker by introducing these solutions to industries where they are not known, and, in the process, creates new products that are original combinations of existing knowledge from disparate industries. The organization's link to many industries provide its designers with access to a broader range of technological solutions than they would see working in a single industry. Designers acquire and store such solutions in the organizations memory. Then, by making analogies between new design problems and old solutions they have seen before, they retrieve such knowledge to generate new solutions to design problems in other industries.

Here are my takeaways (some of which overlap with the authors): 

  1. The firm positions itself amongst multiple industries and bridges knowledge and technology gaps to tie these fields together, not matter how unconnected they seem. 
  2. Designers learn the industry they are working with through reading trade journals and interviews, creating an understanding of industry jargon, products and the clients' competitors. 
  3. Designers themselves work in a variety of fields, allowing them to cross-pollinate ideas of what worked in one field (say, vacuum cleaners) to a different field (computer peripherals). They call this building analogies: The secret to building a new hinge for a computer monitor may be found in the small hinge on a children's toy. 
  4. Recreating past designs does not build better products. Using past ideas in new ways helps bring better products.  
  5. Because the company stores so much of its past knowledge and information, it is pertinent to create effective methods to retrieve this information. 
  6. Some written records of past projects exist, but much of the information is stored by individuals' memory. Thus, company culture calls for open collaboration, with designers expected to ask for help or seek advice when they don't know something. On the other hand, designers who offer advice and help are generally rewarded more (social capital is tied to salary structure).  
  7. Some designers become "known" for their expertise and find themselves answering questions about details in the field. 

The state of small and rural libraries in the US

From a study on the state of small and rural libraries, recently released (pdf) by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. 

  • Small libraries cover between 2,500 citizens up to 25,000. Many are in the upper range -- and mostly located in suburban areas -- but more than half of small libraries provide services to fewer than 10,000 residents. 
  • A rural library is located between five miles from an urbanized area to 25 miles away. 
  • In some rural states, small and/or urban can make up more than 3/4s of all public libraries. (Most states count at least 15 percent of their libraries as either small or rural.) 

My take: Library services can be much more diverse than those needed in urban libraries because people in rural areas have more diverse needs. Lack of access to good broadband service may be one. 

The other important takeaway is that these libraries are picking up slack where other services and agencies may be falling off, mostly due to economics. 

From the report: 

This increase in use of small and rural libraries may be due the fact that other services in rural communities are contracting as a result financial challenges. Small and rural libraries, which are present in so many communities, serve a strategic role in extending public services to residents that may be hard to reach by other means. Many small and rural libraries are accustomed to linking what might be considered traditional library services with a variety of other social, educational and economic development programs. 


Changing roles for academic librarians

A recent paper from Priti Jain, from the University of Botswana, looks at how academic librarians must change their roles in light of the revolution in ICT and digital communications. 

Librarians must move from being collection specialists, Jain writes, to filling user demands in a variety of information formats that can come from a smattering of collections, like digital libraries, digital repositories, etc. Academic librarians must also deal with changes in global education system, not the need for a skilled workforce. 

Here's a few roles academic librarians should assume, according to Jain: 

  • Effective marketers
  • Understanding users as stakeholders
  • Knowledge gatekeepers as subject experts (I particularly like this.) 
  • Web designers

He also spoke a lot about blended librarians, people who are versed in the culture of print (and traditional librarianship) and networked information (with recognition of instructional design).