Now is the perfect moment for libraries to lead us to the future

James Clay
byJames Clay

As the world ruminates on the impact of recent technological advances, libraries should be part of the discussion.

A student checks out a book from the library using a computer.

The current hype surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things is understandable: these emerging technologies will fundamentally change the landscape of most sectors.

Libraries are the beating heart of every university and full of staff who are often proponents of digital-first thinking; so, they could take a leading role in exploring these exciting new avenues – deciding which technologies to adopt, how and why.

By taking greater advantage of data (much of which they already gather in library management systems), libraries could help students make the absolute most of their learning experience.

There are plenty of ideas to explore here. Some seem futuristic, while others could be implemented within the next few years.

Not far-fetched anymore

If recent headlines are anything to go by, one day soon students could ask AI to create short film versions of the library textbook they’re reading, played out by cast members of their choosing. They might even be able to whip-up any virtual personal tutor to help them to understand tricky concepts, or to provide them with a synopsis of the resource they’re studying.

Will libraries need to provide virtual reality (VR) areas for students to study artifacts, speak to characters from ancient history, watch a live surgery, or to interview experts in their degree field? Libraries should start to think now about how they might support students to use this software to its potential, and how they might even supply and regulate the technology.

Taking personalisation personally

Most smartphones now make use of AI to make contextual recommendations based on an individual’s location and interests. Libraries could do the same to share helpful information and relevant learning resources with students.

On-campus notifications could nudge them about how to make best use of the library or encourage them to take a break if they have been studying for a long time, even offering a discount at a café away from the library, encouraging a short walk and fresh air.

Students could opt in to get off-campus notifications, letting them know when a helpful learning opportunity is nearby, such as an external library with a helpful textbook, a museum with interesting artefacts, or a music event that might suit their degree subject. Notifications could also inform students if a textbook is due for return.

Refined and streamlined

Using technology to gain a deeper understanding of how a library is used could allow for more effective and efficient use of the space. Imagine an ‘intelligent’ library which not only knows how many seats and computers are free, but can also predict busy times, and update students live via their phones.

Libraries could use wireless technologies, such as radio frequency identification (RFID), not just for issue and return of books, but also to track resources as they are used within the library or across campus. This would also allow universities to discover where resources are most used, providing the opportunity to enhance those spaces and reduce seating in less-used areas. Tracking resources would also reduce the risk of physical books being misplaced.

Similar technologies are already used in airports and retail outlets, using wifi to track customers through their phones and via sensors and facial recognition. These methods could support student wellbeing, allowing the university to check in on those studying for longer than usual, or accessing resources infrequently or erratically.

There are challenges, though: such data can be difficult to use effectively, and interpretation can be fraught with challenges, as well as potential ethical and legal issues. However, the wealth of data does offer the potential to deliver more satisfying and practical experiences for students and staff, ensuring the library is used as effectively as possible.

Has the future arrived?

As the technology in the library space grows, it is important to consider why and how it could be used and even if it should be adopted. There’s a lot to think about, from data collection consent to the technical infrastructure, which is why we have launched the Building the future intelligent library guide and are running an event in June to explore the subject further.

The intelligent library is on the horizon, and library staff certainly have the nous and determination to transform their offer, tailoring it to work seamlessly for everyone. Which technologies they choose to trial is up to them, but the results, I think, will be exciting.

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About the author

James Clay
James Clay
Head of higher education and student experience