Building the future intelligent library

Bringing together existing systems with innovative applications to improve learning, support the research lifecycle, enhance physical environments and maximise resources.

A student checks out a book using a computer in a library.

Defining the intelligent library

Technology is changing. We live in a more connected world, full of mobile devices and internet-connected appliances, and it’s transforming how people live and work.

In libraries radical changes are underway. Library staff are looking at how they use spaces, how they interact with staff and students, the services they offer, the technology and equipment they use and how they store and provide access to resources.

An increasing amount of data is being collected and shared. Can libraries use this data to benefit library users and what are the issues? How can a library be intelligent? And what is the intelligent library? Is it digital, virtual, augmented, automated?


To be intelligent is often defined as having the ability to learn, understand and make judgements about something or being able to get and use knowledge and skills. However, for computers and machines, a better definition might be the one given by Oxford Dictionaries: “able to vary its state or action in response to varying situations and past experience”.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is relevant here. AI research explores how far machines and computers can be developed with aspects of intelligence. As general intelligence is a complex concept, AI helpfully breaks it down into a series of central problems (or goals) including:

  • Reasoning
  • Knowledge
  • Planning
  • Learning
  • Natural language processing (communication)
  • Perception
  • The ability to move and manipulate objects

To understand what the intelligent library is (or could be), these AI topics help to describe, evaluate or even design 'intelligent' actions or devices.

Perception, reasoning and action

Perception is a good place to start, with the use of sensors for measuring changes such as room temperature or people moving around the library, and more complex devices such as cameras or the location of GPS-enabled equipment like smartphones.

Data from these sensors could combine with knowledge about the environment (objects, concepts, relations) and lead to reasoning – for example, logical deductions from the data. If we take this a step further, goals could be set and actions taken to adapt the environment. Learning could help the devices to improve through their own experiences too.

This cycle of perception, reasoning and action is a simplified version of what humans do, and AI attempts to do the same with computers and machines. The extent to which the intelligent library concept spans these different stages is something we’ll talk about in a moment.

Central to this are several themes, including data, devices and connectivity. If we have devices with sensors that can collect data, we can connect them together to transmit and share the data and then process it in some way to provide added value.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

Everyday devices like smartphones can collect data on various aspects of activity, including location. Smartphones also have connectivity, through the telecommunications network or wifi to the internet. So do many other common devices, from webcams and printers to central heating systems and baby monitors in the home.

Within the library, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags may be used for self-checkout, pressure pads under floors could detect movement between aisles and rooms, and lighting sensors can check illumination. Equipment may be available for printing, scanning, copying and viewing, including micrographic readers and audiovisual capture.

All sorts of devices in the library commonly have connectivity, allowing remote access, the sharing and transmission of documents and data, logging data on use, location, environmental conditions, and more.

In the streets we can see connected vehicles, ticket machines and lighting, and in industry and public services connected devices include engine maintenance equipment and healthcare systems. An interesting extension to this is the concept of wearable devices - for example health monitoring and fitness applications.

This has become known as the Internet of Things (IoT) – a wide variety of devices connected to the internet with the ability to collect and transmit data.

The IoT has potential to integrate all manner of data and use it in aspects of the intelligence concept, for example reasoning or adapting and improving the environment.

The IoT has potential to integrate all manner of data and use it in aspects of the intelligence concept, for example reasoning or adapting and improving the environment.

Data and analytics

Data is all around us. There is plenty of lively debate about open data, big data and analytics - not to mention ethical issues including privacy and security.

In many ways collecting data is easy. It is when we try to manage, interpret and make sense of it that we hit challenges.

'Analytics' has become a common term, used to refer to the identification of patterns and interpretation of data. However, it can be relatively straightforward (for example simply presenting and describing) or very sophisticated, used to develop insight and make predictions.

At Jisc, we are supporting the transformation of the student experience with learning analytics.

Becoming smart

The concept of an intelligent library hinges on several key issues:

  1. The availability of connected devices and sensors in the library and around the wider campus
  2. The ability to collect, store and process data about facilities and their users
  3. An understanding of what the data is and how it can be used to provide useful library services
  4. A set of goals to benefit library users

The last of these is crucial in making the intelligent library a useful concept. It is also important to consider all four aspects together.

Sometimes, the term 'smart' is also used to explore the use of smart devices in contexts such as the intelligent library. 'Smart' can sometimes be synonymous with 'intelligent' in these scenarios but there are subtle differences in meaning. Some technological definitions, for example, refer to smart sensors that can collect and transmit data but lack the reasoning aspects of intelligence.

Perhaps the important point here is to see beyond the data and the technical capability to understand the purpose and potential benefits.

Perhaps the important point here is to see beyond the data and the technical capability to understand the purpose and potential benefits.

Why would we want an intelligent library?

Students, lecturers and researchers have increasing expectations of the library. They assume fast internet access will be available through high-performance computers, expect access to a reliable and fast wifi network for all their mobile devices, and demand state-of-the-art facilities and equipment to support their learning and research.

More than this, they expect self-service facilities so they can perform routine tasks quickly and easily, combined with real-time information to help them make effective choices. The questions for the library are these:

  • To what extent can the 'intelligence' concept help the library?
  • What is driving the agenda to incorporate some of these technical capabilities into the educational library setting?
  • Who benefits?


If the library is more responsive, able to react to changes in the environment and the behaviour of those in it (for example during the COVID-19 crisis) and to adapt and optimise its performance, what are the wider implications for universities and colleges?

Potential applications for the intelligent library exist in several key areas:

  1. Improving support for students and enhancing their social and learning experience – responding to student needs, providing timely and relevant access to information and resources, enhancing opportunities for learning, collaborating and sharing
  2. Creating new opportunities for supporting research across the research lifecycle – including access to digital scholarly information, enhancing information discovery and management of data, capturing and disseminating research outputs
  3. Reducing environmental impact – monitoring energy use and waste, and adjusting energy to meet needs in real time
  4. Enhancing the physical environment – making it more comfortable or conducive to knowledge acquisition and sharing, collaborative work and social interaction
  5. Maximising use of valuable resources – including rooms, equipment – both generic and specialist, understanding availability and use

A combination of drivers may be behind specific initiatives that aim to achieve some of these benefits, including:

  • Improving learning, research and organisational success by enhancing the role of the library as a critical service
  • The economic context, requiring better use of resources
  • Legal obligations and ethical concerns about environmental sustainability
  • Institutional reputation, competition and educational principles, including the National Student Survey (NSS) data on learning and library resources
  • The challenges of increasing amounts of data used in research and how to collect, organise, publish or integrate it to pursue research goals and scholarly communication
  • Technological advances that make all this possible

In some cases the technology itself may be a significant influence. However, it’s important to be sure the technology is used to support strategic aims. It shouldn’t be an end in itself.

In places where the 'smart cities' concept is being developed universities are often already working with external organisations on city-wide initiatives

In places where the 'smart cities' concept is being developed universities are often already working with external organisations on city-wide initiatives, particularly in areas such as transport, energy, health, urban informatics and the environment.

Specific benefits

Whether you are a student, teacher, researcher, manager or service provider, the intelligent library offers the potential to improve effectiveness and efficiency. But realising that potential is complex. Possible scenarios include:

  • The environment for learning and working – monitoring environmental conditions and feedback from students, saving energy and improving comfort
  • Facilities management and cost saving – particularly in efficient use of space and equipment, ensuring facilities are as fully available as possible and students and researchers know what is available and what currently isn’t
  • Access to resources on demand – aiding discovery, managing collections, responding flexibly and efficiently to queries
  • Smart research – creating, structuring and publishing data for the research community, and the role of libraries in supporting this with expertise or facilities
  • Anytime, anywhere learning – using smartphones to provide learning opportunities in the library or off-campus, and contextual learning
  • Supporting new students and staff – giving them the best possible experience upon arrival with timely, relevant information pushed as appropriate

The library already has a wealth of experience in collecting and organising resources and data. This, combined with reliable and fast networks, established systems and a wealth of connected devices, both user-owned and organisational, starts to open up many possibilities.

Intelligent library projects aim to bring together existing systems and infrastructure with innovative applications to benefit library users.

Intelligent library projects aim to bring together existing systems and infrastructure with innovative applications to benefit library users.

What are the concerns?

There are several important challenges to effective implementation of intelligent library projects. They centre on:

  1. Setting relevant goals – understanding what will benefit library users
  2. The logistics of collecting and processing data – managing the large quantities of data that can be generated
  3. Interpreting large amounts of data to inform decisions ­– worries that bias or misinterpretation in algorithms may lead to inappropriate responses
  4. Safety, security and privacy – for example, is it appropriate to monitor where people are, and share the data?
  5. Reliance on technology – user skills, the need for network resilience, the danger of removing human input, maintaining devices and infrastructure
  6. The impact on people – including unexpected outcomes when trying to influence behaviour, and staff worries that their roles will be replaced or undermined
  7. The need for joined-up thinking and action – in the library and in departments and services across campus

Library analytics

Data analysis is crucial to the development of the intelligent library. It has been of interest for some time in the context of learning. Learning analytics is the focus of other work on using data about students to make informed decisions, particularly in the areas of student satisfaction, retention and attainment.

At Jisc, we believe it can improve understanding of students’ performance and interaction with university resources and support successful course completion.

Although it’s less well developed than learning analytics, the area of library analytics has gained some interest. Examples of its application include:

  • Analysis of how library spaces are used, and links with student satisfaction across different student groups
  • Exploring trends in open access publishing
  • Benchmarking library performance against other university libraries and trends in the sector
  • Exploring use of electronic resources by department, school and student type to help understand how different groups use specific resources, for example to inform subscription decisions
  • Comparing spend on a subject with peer institutions and against NSS, REF and SCONUL data
  • Analysing use and cost of e-journal subscriptions and modelling how to update the list of titles in a subscription deal
  • Combining JUSP and IRUS-UK data to explore how individual journals are used nationally and examine how that ties in with impact factor and altmetrics

The intelligent library concept and wider analytics work both aim to integrate different types of data to enable more joined-up analysis and knowledge. In universities and colleges this includes data on buildings and facilities, students’ spaces and their location to deliver a more efficient and intelligent campus. Taking this further could support personalised learning and improved teaching through library services.

More joined-up thinking and collaboration between libraries, learning and teaching, IT and estates could bring big benefits to the individual and the organisation – but they may be complex to deliver.

Intelligent access to resources and services

Accessing library services

Libraries are no longer just physical spaces. They permeate the life of students and staff through a wide variety of online services.

However, large numbers of users still enter the library building daily for various activities. Many libraries now operate a smart card access system, often integrated to some extent with a university ID card.

Wearable devices can be an extension to the smart card - wrist bands are often used to manage access, such as at Disneyworld. More useful than a simple entrance or ID card, wrist bands allow theme park visitors to choose their favourite activities in advance and a personalised itinerary is created for them.

As an example, when booking a timeslot on a ride, the visitor avoids the queue by tapping the RFID-enabled band on the scanner as they arrive. At the restaurant, the hostess is notified automatically of their arrival and their order for food is already at the kitchen, paid for in advance.

Wearable devices in the context of the library

As a library user you could enter the building and access your stored reading history by tapping the wrist band on one of the library’s devices. A smartphone app might remind you to go straight to returns for an overdue book. The same device would log you onto an available computer (and tell you where one is, or even book it for you in advance). No more waiting at the enquiry desk! Having told the app you want to speak to someone, you could arrive at your allotted time and your wrist band could signal your arrival.

If the approach used in the Amazon Fresh shop were adopted, even the wrist band could be done away with and all interactions could be tracked and authorised through your smartphone. This automation has been taken even further at the Pharmaceutical University in Nanjing, where facial recognition is being used to identify students.

Finding your way about

Location is key to many 'intelligent' services and GPS is often used to locate the user. Inside buildings, GPS isn’t very useful because the satellite signals can be obstructed by walls and other structures, but beacons can be used instead. These are small devices within the building that interact with smartphones and other devices through Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals.

When the phone receives a signal from the beacon, it triggers certain location-specific actions. They can relate to nearby facilities or notify users of nearby events and meetings. Digital maps of the library buildings can be stored and accessed to link data about individual user preferences with resources and facilities. This can include information about the location of books, journals and other collections, and help guide users to their destination.

Commercially, beacons are used to tell people about nearby events or products as a form of marketing, and to give directions or real-time information on flights inside airports. The same technology could notify users of special offers in the library cafe, information literacy events in the meeting rooms, or let them know how busy the computer clusters are on that floor.

Finding resources

Combining location information, digital maps of resources and data on user preferences and desired actions can streamline the process of getting the user to the resource. But technology allows us to do more.

When you’re shopping online you can often see the item you asked for alongside other recommendations and product reviews. Similarly, in the library context you could offer information on resources – who else has read it, what did they think, what else did they look at? What related resources nearby are recommended by the tutor?

A student’s smartphone could connect to library and campus systems with information on the subject being studied and reading lists. Collecting data on how people on a course use resources could provide useful knowledge and guidance. RFID technology that’s used for issue and return of books could also allow the book to be tracked around the library, understanding the pattern of use, how it is combined with other resources or even where to find it if it's lost!

Understanding library use

Library staff work hard to maximise the cost-effectiveness of resources, reviewing journal use, subscriptions and recommended texts. The intelligent library can take this work further, with more in-depth data analysis of usage patterns, trends and segmentation of student types and courses, and of real-time behaviour within the library.

Devices in the building can monitor people’s movements, either through beacon technology or more precisely with motion sensors or pressure pads under the floor. Busy aisles, patterns of use throughout the day and popular collections could all be monitored. This could inform other users about congestion and library managers about how to organise resources and signage better.

Real-time availability of computers or other equipment, and information on how busy study spaces or the library cafe are, could be provided on display screens, the library website or through smartphones. As well as enabling users to make better informed decisions on when to use facilities library managers could explore when and where to hold events and how to use offers and promotions to balance the flow. For example, if short loans are very busy but the cafe is quiet – is it time for a special deal on coffee?

Enhancing the user experience

Physical comfort can enhance not only user enjoyment of the facilities, but also researchers’ productivity and students’ learning effectiveness. Sensors can check levels of lighting and adjust them to save energy when they aren’t needed and provide optimum lighting when they are.

In addition individual users, including those with specific needs, can use their smartphone to vary lighting levels to improve readability at a specific desk or seat.

Another technique uses a device known as a 'magic mirror'. It combines a camera and display device with other data to sense which book is being held and its screen can suggest similar resources, reviews or previews.

Other research is exploring emotion-detection through use of cameras and algorithms. In the future perhaps our enjoyment or understanding of the book could also be assessed automatically?

Supporting learning in the library

The learner’s needs

Universities are constantly looking to improve the learner experience and give students good value for their fees – so the quality, availability and range of library services are of increasing importance.

For pedagogic and efficiency reasons 'independent learners' are a growing group who need better support. Much of this effort will fall to the library, which will play an important part in creating high levels of student satisfaction.

How the intelligent library can help learners

The intelligent library focuses on improving the learner experience, making their life easier, enhancing their academic progress, assisting in their wellbeing and making their environment more comfortable and attractive.

Simple examples could include avoiding queues for facilities, resources or lunch, monitoring temperature and CO2 levels or ensuring the essential module resources are available when required.

Learner expectations

Students have high expectations about technology in universities and colleges, based on their familiarity with tablets, laptops, smartphones and, increasingly, with wearable devices, along with their experience of other organisations and tools that already offer sophisticated services. These could be music, social or shopping services that suggest new products or services or offer information about friends who are nearby.

The intelligent library enhances existing applications on smart handheld devices. It collates and analyses a range of student data and integrates this with data about the physical environment and the academic context.

Where and when

Questions students may be asking include “what books would be useful for this topic?” and “when is my subject specialist librarian available?”.

Although this information may already be in catalogues and timetabling apps, shared diaries or reading lists, it is typically not 'live'. Perhaps the librarian isn’t physically in the library right now – the librarian’s location-enabled smartphone may know this, but the student doesn’t.

A student who has booked a private study pod might later realise that working with a small group of fellow students will be more effective. Live information about bookings and cancellations could mean that a more suitable space is available at short notice.

Relevant materials can be signposted as new topics emerge during a module and automatically added to the references for the module, with their location in the library. Are different formats available that match the student’s learning style? Could references be differentiated by difficulty relating to an individual student’s understanding of the topics? Could learning analytics, associated with the student’s use of the VLE, provide this information?

Apps everywhere

Many university libraries now provide their own student apps or make library services available on university apps. Examples include:

Services offered to students through college and university apps include:

  • Managing their library account (borrowed books, overdue and fines notices)
  • News about the library, resources and acquisitions
  • Maps of campus, locating learning resources
  • Print credit status
  • Staff contacts
  • Help desk services
  • Workstation availability and booking
  • Library catalogue and country-wide library searches
  • Scanning ISBN-numbers to check for book availability
  • Library skills training and timetable, for example EndNote courses
  • Buildings and services opening hours and locations
  • Daily menus from food outlets

For library users who would like context and location-based information the BluuBeam app uses Bluetooth beacons to beam information to them as they move around a library, for example, providing an information video about using the printing service when close to a printer.

The services offered through mobile devices are increasing in both range and sophistication. For example, students could use their own mobile devices to check resources in and out of the library using QR, ISBN, barcodes or RFID tags.

A library, but not as we know it

The physical library is likely to remain popular, providing a high-quality environment for group and private study. But it could become virtual too, with the use of augmented reality (AR) to allow students to explore bookshelves and browse, as well as search the catalogue, as if they were physically present. It might be that some library resources are only accessed in this way, with Amazon-style automated warehouses storing physical resources and delivering them to the student on demand (possibly by drone or driverless delivery).

Services for the increasing numbers of learners who don’t visit campus regularly, (such as distance learners, part-time students and severely disabled students) will make use of the intelligent library, again, possibly using AR. Most resources provided by the library will need to be available 24 hours a day.

Many academic libraries may see increasing integration with smart cities developments, with learners not distinguishing between university and municipal provision.

For example the Hive in Worcester is a combined university and public library, claiming to create “one hub for all – helping students see themselves more as part of the wider community; and helping employability through its student placements, volunteers, library jobs and our graduate business development intern post.”

Social library

Returning to the theme of improving the learner experience, the library plays a major part in helping a student to integrate into the student community, identifying others with shared interests and highlighting opportunities to meet and work together. Here, data about the student might also suggest difficulties and lead to suggestions about useful services such as learning support or counselling – even make a live chat available instantly.

Simply monitoring and analysing library use could provide analytics that indicate a learner has not engaged with their studies.

Simply monitoring and analysing library use could provide analytics that indicate a learner has not engaged with their studies.

At a more sophisticated level the data could give lecturers and tutors information about patterns of study either for individuals or for a complete cohort. These patterns of use could also be used to establish the types of learners using the library. Information about who prefers traditional resources such as books and who chooses online resources or social/group activities could influence future development and purchasing patterns for libraries.

The library of things

Wireless and Bluetooth devices, wearable library cards, underfoot pressure pads and facial recognition can all be used to monitor the use of areas of the library.

Knowing those that are very busy or little-used might influence planning and signage decisions. And in real time students could be encouraged or nudged towards quiet areas or to take break away from busy locations.

Simple consoles that provide buttons to push, each having a smiley with varying degrees of happiness (or unhappiness) can provide feedback from students using the library. A development from this could be emotion recognition leading to information being gathered on whether a student is confused and in need of help, or happy and satisfied with their situation. Investigations are already taking place, looking at the automated recognition of the emotions of students in a lecture situation, at Akdeniz University in Türkiye.

Monitoring the library environment using the Internet of Things (IoT) can provide detailed data on temperature, lighting, humidity, CO2 and noise levels etc. to improve comfort in real time. At the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) the DTU Smart Library offers several IoT-related developments, including the facility for students to adjust personal lighting levels from their smartphone.

Supporting research in the library

Many of the student-focused issues discussed in the previous section also affect researchers, who will similarly welcome improvements.

But what would researchers particularly look for in an intelligent library?

Streamlined processes and more efficient and effective access to timely and relevant information are key features desired by researchers.

This could mean:

  1. Harnessing and sharing ideas for new research and collaboration
  2. Links with the open science agenda – making data and research outputs publicly accessible
  3. On-demand access to other professional services providing expertise on research data, research resources, online services and research databanks – for example, through a chatbot or connecting to live online help from the library

Cross discipline

Many research institutions are keen to encourage cross-discipline research and there could be a role for the intelligent library as 'neutral territory' where collaboration areas and resources could be provided that may not be available within a school, department or facility.

The library can present research data that’s accessible to researchers from outside the discipline that produced it, with improved metadata and contextual information. Also, at a basic level, the intelligent library could publish and promote research beyond the research group. We discuss this more below, in the context of institutional repositories.

Print on demand

Where researchers need very specialist or rare books the continuing growth of e-books and similar electronic solutions will be a huge part of the intelligent library. However, where the printed document is required the library could make use of 'print on demand'. Machines that can economically produce a single copy or a limited run of a book could be available. This could, in theory, usher in the bookless library but it may well remain a niche service.

The intelligent librarian

In their article “the research librarian of the future” Ekstrøm, Elbaek, Erdmann and Grigorov explore what might be possible in the intelligent library. They say “research librarians of the future might work, utilising new data science and digital skills, to drive more collaborative and open scholarship”.

They imagine research librarians as partners in the research process, helping researchers to map knowledge gaps, identify emerging disciplinary crossovers and assist in the formulation of research questions.

Digital tools will be used to automate literature reviews reducing thousands of published ideas into memes and then applying analysis to identify trends in emerging research.

Digital tools will be used to automate literature reviews reducing thousands of published ideas into memes and then applying analysis to identify trends in emerging research.

The intelligent repository

The institutional repository (IR) is an important service that many university libraries are providing to their research community at individual, group or institute levels.

They are described by Wikipedia as an “archive for collecting, preserving, and disseminating digital copies of the intellectual output of an institution, particularly a research institution.” It goes on to say: “Institutional repositories perform the main functions of digital libraries by collecting, classifying, cataloguing, curating, preserving, and providing access to digital content”.

IRs are closely associated with the open access (OA) agenda. Research funders want research, particularly publicly funded research, to be 'open' and this has been a major driver in the development of IRs. They vary widely across the sector using both local servers and cloud-based systems that may be developed in-house, open source or from commercial providers.

Benefits to researchers and institutions include:

  • High quality knowledge management of an archive for collecting, preserving and disseminating a digital version of the institution’s intellectual output
  • Providing evidence for research assessment
  • Showcasing an institution’s research outputs to fellow researchers, the wider community and national government

The intelligent library IR provision and management can in future increase these benefits through:

  • Services that collect and improve metadata – making data more findable and usable
  • High-resolution digitisation of historical archives
  • Digital recording and 3D scanning of physical research artefacts
  • Cross-searching through the network of IRs – currently searching the many IRs and discipline databanks means many manual specialist searches
  • The use of permanent and persistent identifiers for research artefacts
  • An automated system for depositing research data with minimal manual effort

Sarah Tanksalvala states in her paper “running effective institutional repositories: a look at best practices”:

“Done right, they [IRs] can create a showcase for researchers and students hoping to demonstrate their scholarship, at the same time showcasing the university’s achievements as a whole.”

Her ideas to increase the success of IRs include:

  • Pre-populate the new repository with prior research before asking researchers to contribute their new work – to help them understand what the repository is, what it’s for and what kinds of research it will hold
  • Make it simple to contribute to the IR repository by removing barriers, particularly admin overheads, and automating the process as much as possible
  • Pay attention to search engine requirements to ensure content is indexed properly and shows up in search results
  • Use digital object identifiers (DOIs)

The intelligent library lab

The intelligent library may well become involved in the creation of research outputs. It could be a 'lab' for a range of research disciplines. For example:

  • Social science researchers can explore how people work, collaborate, communicate and socialise (in person or online)
  • Buildings scientists, architects and planners can study structures that are used in complex and changing ways
  • Educationalists can investigate learners’ perspectives, particularly independent learners
  • Technology researchers can explore a highly networked and connected environment with devices connected to the Internet of Things and other technology

Smart buildings and spaces

Not only are the resource and information needs of students changing but the spaces they require have evolved, leading to transformations in the library’s physical environment. Modern library spaces often include 24-hour access and offer facilities ranging from quiet through collaborative to social spaces, including areas for research, group study, recreation and eating.

The intelligent library offers new opportunities in effective use of spaces. Examples include:

  • More efficient use of energy and resources
  • Optimal use of rooms, PCs and other equipment and facilities
  • Managing the movement of (and interaction between) resources and people in the library and across the wider campus
  • Finding cost-effective methods for the flexible delivery of library facilities and services


Energy has been the focus of several initiatives, driven by environmental and cost concerns and also ways to enhance the library user’s experience. At Georgia Tech, for example, they collect data from energy utility systems, analysing consumption trends and looking for opportunities to become more energy efficient. Data is collected and analysed and teams are notified to remedy any issues.

It isn’t just about saving money or reducing consumption. Systems like this can also help to monitor and adjust the working environment to make it more comfortable or conducive to learning and work.

It isn’t just about saving money or reducing consumption. Systems like this can also help to monitor and adjust the working environment to make it more comfortable or conducive to learning and work.

In the library at the Technical University of Denmark, LED lights allow users to adjust light intensity and colour via their smartphone. The 'smart lamps'' can incorporate sensors to collect data on temperature, humidity, CO2 levels and acoustics to better understand the climate and conditions inside the building. Ventilation can be adjusted in response to sensor data to improve air quality and mobile apps give access to a 'heat map' showing warmer and cooler zones around the library.


At the other end of the consumption lifecycle is waste. Waste management and recycling are significant challenges for any large organisation, particularly ones with highly mobile users. Already, facilities management services such as those at the University of Nottingham prioritise bin collection by weight; combining this data with mapping information on facilities like toilets/social spaces, and effectively routing collection services through campus, could streamline the waste management process.

Location and movement

Analysing data from devices could bring improvements to how vehicles, supplies and people move around campus. From reducing queueing time for new smart cards to ensuring food supplies at cafes meet demand and synchronising public transport to special events, there are many opportunities to improve efficiency and minimise waste (including time!).

Monitoring the movement of people, crowding and room capacities was brought sharply into focus during the COVID-19 crisis, since when room capacities have often been drastically reduced. Location data and CCTV, monitored by AI systems, can provide an early indication of when maximum capacities are likely to be reached.

Location data is already widely used through smartphone apps and it contributes to analysis, for example of traffic flow in Google Maps. A combination of mapping and location-tracking on campus could provide a range of interesting applications including:

  • Finding a workstation or a seat in the library and knowing how busy these are
  • Showing the location of 24-hour access sites for computers or information services
  • Providing real-time routing to support room-finding, wheelchair access or achieving exercise goals (perhaps combined with activity monitors such as FitBits)
  • Reminding nearby campus users of library events or resources, or the location of 'pop up' libraries at peak times
  • A better experience for visitors through improved physical or digital signage

Within the library building, where GPS signals are poor, similar features can be provided by 'beacons' that notify nearby users of resources, rooms or events.

Use of space

Libraries are increasingly offering flexible spaces for studying in addition to specialist facilities, adding to the complex portfolio of facilities, equipment and spaces across campus. Library users might be researching databases and journals, meeting their tutor for a coffee or preparing a group project or media presentation. With a range of different spaces and uses, how do students and staff know where to go and whether it’s busy?

Room utilisation has long been a challenge for timetabling and resource management, so live information on how different types of spaces are being used could be helpful. Different information on media rooms, collaborative work or quiet study spaces, or use of specialist equipment, can be provided to give library users timely information on what is available and when.

Flexible spaces and services

Open-plan offices and hot-desking are increasingly common for staff, particularly those who sometimes work from home. Many of these processes rely on accurate planning in advance rather than responsiveness and flexibility in real time, and they may be constrained by specific processes.

Examples of more adaptive use of facilities

These could include spaces that are interchangeable between learning, research or events according to time of day, the weather, noise levels or density of people. Rooms that can be expanded or contracted to meet demand for certain types of activity could become more useful if users can be notified of additional available space.

Even more benefits could be realised by combining different data sets and communicating to users with, for example, contextual notifications, getting the right information to students/staff at the right time. You could look up where there is a free workstation, and your smartphone could indicate the one nearest to you, assess how many other people are heading the same way, check the noise levels and find you the quickest route there.

If you have your laptop with you but the battery is low, perhaps a quiet study space with a power outlet would suit you better. If there are two of you, you could check out the collaborative study spaces. Intelligent library services could adapt and learn your preferences and make suggestions based on your location or the availability of resources.

Ethical issues

Fears and concerns

Collecting and interpreting data from many different sources by the intelligent library understandably raises concerns.

Some library users will be sceptical about whether the potential benefits of the intelligent library outweigh these concerns. They will quite reasonably be protective of their personal data, conscious of security issues and wary of misinterpretation. Even though data-sharing on mobile apps is already commonplace and widely accepted, it’s essential not to under-estimate or dismiss fears and concerns.

There are several areas of concern:

  • Awareness and control of one’s own data and how it’s used
  • Respect for individual privacy
  • Appropriate interpretation and decision making
  • Clear and transparent processes and policies

Those who design and implement applications for the intelligent library should provide reassurance and guidance and ensure they have robust governance processes in place.

Questions that library users may ask include:

  1. What data are you collecting about me or my work?
  2. Why is it being collected?
  3. What will the data be used for?
  4. How is it being interpreted?
  5. What actions will be taken as a result?
  6. Who will see the data?
  7. Can I control what data is collected and shared?

Library users might worry about being tracked, and that the information will be used for surveillance or to check up on them. The original intention might have been to log attendance, enhance security or provide timely support, but what other interpretations are being made? A student may worry that the university is watching how they are spending their time, and who with. Whether these are intended uses or not, the collection of the data can raise concerns, especially around issues such as an individual’s 'right to be forgotten'.

Personal data and privacy

Data relating to a living individual who can be identified is protected by the Data Protection Act 2018, which is the UK’s implementation of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

This doesn’t only relate to identification from the data itself, but also to identification from other data or information that could be in the possession of the 'data controller'. Individuals also have the right to be able to correct inaccurate personal data recorded about them.

Some of the types of data used in intelligent library activities might be thought of as not 'personal'. However, combining data from different sources (such as location and user behaviour) can potentially make it easy to identify individuals.

For example, a room is booked by a group of students for project work. The members of that group are known. Movement data shows a group of anonymous individuals congregating in that room, while attendance records show what resources they are using that day…slowly, a picture is built up of who is doing what, where and when.

A key point is that access to data and the analysis of data should be limited to those who have a legitimate need. This leads to policy and procedural issues that need to be addressed

A key point is that access to data and the analysis of data should be limited to those who have a legitimate need. This leads to policy and procedural issues that need to be addressed

Data collection and responsibility

Data collection is a complex process with many legal and ethical considerations. It is important to be clear about the need for data collection, and to assign specific responsibility for each step of the process. The objectives and intentions of data collection should also be clearly defined, as well as the interventions that will be carried out, the retention and stewardship of data, and consultation with those potentially impacted by the practices.

In some cases, data collection may involve staff and services from outside the library, such as IT support, student services, legal and policy departments. It is important to coordinate with these stakeholders to ensure that data collection is carried out in a responsible and ethical manner.

Specific responsibilities might include:

  • Data collection manager - this person is responsible for overseeing the entire data collection process, from planning to implementation.
  • Data collector - this person is responsible for collecting the data, following all procedures and protocols.
  • Data analyst - this person is responsible for analyzing the data and drawing conclusions.
  • Data steward - this person is responsible for ensuring the security and confidentiality of the data.

It is important to consult with those potentially impacted by data collection practices at all stages of the design and implementation process. This includes students, staff, faculty, and the general public. Consultation can help to ensure that data collection is carried out in a way that is respectful of privacy and confidentiality.

By assigning specific responsibilities and consulting with stakeholders, libraries can ensure that data collection is carried out in a responsible and ethical manner.

By assigning specific responsibilities and consulting with stakeholders, libraries can ensure that data collection is carried out in a responsible and ethical manner.

Transparency, consent and sharing

The reasons and processes for collecting and analysing data should always be made clear to the individuals associated with the data. It’s essential to obtain their informed consent.

Three aspects of consent are relevant in the context of the intelligent library and analytics:

  1. Gathering – how the data is collected or recorded
  2. Processing – concerning the interpretation of the data
  3. Actioning – making interventions on the basis of the decisions reached

Having appropriate policies and effective implementation in these three different aspects is important to make sure individuals know what data is being collected about them and used and ensure they have made informed decisions about that use.

Consent level examples

  • If you collect anonymised data about the movement of people you need consent for 'gathering'
  • If you collect data about a specific person’s location and use it to determine behaviour you require consent for 'processing'
  • If the result of the interpretation is that you want to send the person contextual notifications or other information you should first obtain their consent for 'actioning'

Another aspect of sharing and consent relates to the current approaches to apps on devices such as smartphones. Users of these devices readily accept sharing requirements when they install apps and accept the terms. This may include the sharing of that data with third parties – for example, for advertising.

Typically, the data is about location but it can include their email address, contacts, search terms or even access to their camera. Specific examples include health apps collecting sensitive information about a person’s health, diet and activities and social media apps holding information on interactions and social groups. However, many apps also ask for permissions to access data that can be seemingly unrelated to the purpose of the app.

Why are individuals so relaxed about accepting various sharing conditions for third party apps but much more concerned about issues like surveillance when asked for data by their institution or library? One reason could be lack of awareness of what they are sharing and why. Another could be the perceived impact of such sharing. The university might be seen to play a more significant part in their life than a seemingly faceless company collecting information for general use or advertising.

Attending university can be life-defining for students, with an impact on future career and social groups. Equally, for staff, being tracked or monitored by their employer might have perceived consequences for their career prospects, performance reviews or compliance with policies and procedures.

Libraries could choose to add clauses to their terms and conditions of use, such that users accept these terms as part of wider acceptance of library use policies. However, users may tick the box to agree without really being aware of the implications. In this case, although the library has technically received consent fears and concerns may still arise later.

Educating library users to be aware of what data they are sharing is important. Alongside this is transparency from apps and services in how they promote their facilities.

Educating library users to be aware of what data they are sharing is important. Alongside this is transparency from apps and services in how they promote their facilities.

Educating students to be more aware of security and privacy is helpful whether the data is collected by the university itself or other parties. This is an aspect of digital literacy, which many university libraries actively promote, and the competencies needed to participate effectively in a digital knowledge society.

Interpretation and validity

Students have reasonable concerns over the appropriateness of data being linked together and the conclusions that might be drawn as a result.

Consider a possible future scenario in which institutional knowledge about a student’s learning, library attendance and progress is combined with the use of facial recognition to assess emotions and link this to understanding or anxieties.

The resulting data might suggest they are having difficulties and lead to suggestions about services such as counselling – even make a live chat available instantly. This may be seen as a valuable intervention, but it also relies on interpretation of data and reaching conclusions that may be flawed: is the facial recognition seeing a frown of confusion or a look of concentration?

Particular care must be taken in designing algorithms that make interpretations, so that the decisions are free from bias or assumptions and are reliable and appropriate. As we move further into 'intelligence' and algorithms that can learn and adapt we need to be aware of the possibility that data-driven algorithms will learn our prejudices and lead to undesirable, even illegal outcomes, such as discrimination.

Data collection and processing should be subject to the same measures of quality, validity and robustness that might be applied to research. This includes identifying inaccuracies, awareness of incomplete data, care with choice of data sources and appropriate correlations of data sets. Considerations of validity, usefulness and appropriateness would also apply to the algorithms and interventions.

Rigorous processes across the three phases of gathering, processing and actioning, combined with careful consideration of the concerns of users, will help to deliver benefits to users of the intelligent library.

Data ethics are important to the intelligent library

When Lars Binau (Technical University of Denmark Library) in an interview about DTU’s Smart Library in the Scandinavian Library Quarterly, was asked about the ethical considerations involved in collecting user data. He replied:

“… being a library we have to be cautious and careful in handling data. It is important that the users know that collecting data will help us to enrich the everyday lives of the students at DTU and that most of the data will be anonymised. Transparency in the way data is preserved is also important.”

Staying secure


Features of the intelligent library could enhance security for users, staff and the physical and digital assets of the library. CCTV is nothing new but remote control of cameras, linked with real-time notifications to security staff, availability of digital floor plans and access systems, could bring new benefits for library users.

These could include facilities like mobile panic buttons and alerting systems along with a range of security and safety-related apps on mobile and wearable devices. Issues such as bullying (including cyberbullying) and harassment, criminal activity and emergencies could all potentially be dealt with by harnessing such technology. Theft, medical emergencies and violent attacks could all be handled more effectively.

Monitoring people movements for the emergency services has been valuable in a number of incidents in the US. However, ethical issues including privacy and consent are also critical.

Device security

The IoT and the proliferation of internet-connected devices (including embedded and wearable devices) have led to concerns about vulnerability to hacking and other attacks and the safety of data collected. The devices are typically specialised for a particular function (for example webcams) and don’t have the sophisticated software available to desktop or mobile computers.

Often, this means they are produced with the minimum functionality to perform their task and without strong security features, so they are vulnerable to interference. Furthermore, they may only run with the factory-installed software and be difficult to patch with updated features. Famously, an internet-enabled fridge was hacked and contributed to hundreds of thousands of malicious emails being sent.

This may be a problem that is only corrected over time, as device manufacturers and their users become more aware of the dangers and are willing to pay more for added safety. Until them, device users should be encouraged to check carefully what the device can and can’t do, what can be accessed and who by, and whether any updates are available. The library’s IT support services might offer guidance and support on how best to use devices for effective integration with the library infrastructure.

It may also be appropriate to consider what level of security is needed, depending on the type of data and the criticality of the device.

It may also be appropriate to consider what level of security is needed, depending on the type of data and the criticality of the device.

What consequences are there if a temperature sensor in a library is hacked? It might reveal information about the actual temperature – but it would be more serious if the controls of the heating system were compromised. It is important to focus on securing the processing and integrating of the data and the subsequent decisions and actions taken from interpreting the data.


Jisc provides cyber sercurity guidance and services to universities and colleges that cover key issues relevant to the intelligent library, such as:

  1. Viruses and hacking – of particular concern with the proliferation of devices and the Internet of Things (IoT)
  2. Authentication – ensuring the right people have access to the right data in line with appropriate transparency and consent
  3. Encryption – making the transmission of data between devices and systems safe from unauthorised access and supporting the integrity of that data
  4. Secure storage – protecting the gathered data in a safe location
  5. Back-ups and data loss prevention – systems and procedures to guard against loss or damage of data

All five issues must be considered when you’re implementing systems and applications to support the intelligent library’s features. This may include having a reliable network of sufficient bandwidth to allow intelligent solutions and interoperability of systems and services to support the integration and exchange of data.

It seems clear that the future intelligent library will still be curating and managing physical assets, primarily books. The use of RFID systems and the RFID-tagging of books will give the intelligent library better security for its stock. Taking the place of barcodes and electromagnetic strips, RFID tags allow scanning at security gates and also very efficient self-service systems. In future minute tags, possibly inserted by publishers on random pages, could allow stolen items to be tracked by networks of RFID readers.

Ethics and security are perhaps the biggest concerns that library users have in conversations about the intelligent library. It’s essential to approach both carefully, with due consideration for the opportunities and limitations of inter-connected smart devices. And it’s equally important to appreciate how library users and staff will be affected, to ensure that design and implementation of new applications brings the impact and benefits that you’re aspiring to.

Intelligent campuses

Find out how to use data to make smarter use of your university estate.

Read our guide on building the future intelligent campus.

This guide is made available under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND).