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Robots in the Library

by Casandra Laskowski

Libraries are trusted access points for communities. They host training and events, help patrons with their research, and provide access to resources they may not have access to otherwise. Makerspaces are one such example. Libraries, looking to the future, are considering innovative ways to employ robots. Allowing patrons opportunities to access robots is a laudable goal, but we need to think bigger. We need to imagine how robots might make the library more accessible and inclusive. By contemplating the possibilities now, librarians can influence the development of the next generation of robots.

Robots could help patrons interact with the collection. Libraries have already been employing book robots for years, allowing patrons to access low circulation books quickly. It is not much of a leap to imagine a companion bot that helps a patron navigate the library and retrieve a book on a shelf they cannot reach. Yes, a librarian could do this very same thing, but the robot would provide the patron independence, which for some may preserve a sense of dignity. A robot might use a camera to relay the image of books on a shelf to a lower placed screen so that patrons can shelf-read shelves they would not otherwise be able to see. It could scan pages of a book with small font and relay an enlarged version to a screen for a patron to read.

Robots might also serve the role of liaison. The Longmont Public Library added a bot called Bibli to their staff. Powered by a Roomba and controlled by a laptop, the bot was designed by a local startup to interact with neurologically atypical children. It was so wildly popular that they added Baby Biblis to their collection for check-out. They likely would not have been as successful if neurologically atypical children were not included in the development process. Unfortunately, their popularity also meant that the robots required an unsustainable amount of maintenance, and the program was disbanded in 2016. Regardless, it stands a towering example of how robots can increase accessibility and libraries’ future role in this revolution.

Robot pets might be a suitable alternative to real ones. Robots are already being deployed to comfort residents in retirement communities, and some libraries already loan American Girl Dolls. Making robot pets available is a natural evolution of that same idea. A collection of robot therapy pets would give libraries more flexibility in scheduling, provide an option for patrons with animal allergies, and, if loaned, allow patrons to check them out as the need arises.

Robots may not be advanced enough at the moment to accomplish all of these goals nor be affordable enough for libraries to adopt at this point, but now is the time to begin imagining the roles they might play in the future. We can take part in beta testing as Longmont did. We must engage our patron base and understand the accessibility hurdles that they face to be sure the next technology we adopt provides working solutions. Robots allow us to change the environment of the library to make it a more accessible and inclusive environment.

Copyright 2018 by Casandra Laskowski.

About the author: Casandra Laskowski is a Reference Librarian and Lecturing Fellow at Duke Law. She received her J.D. from the University of Maryland School of Law, and her M.L.I.S. from the University of Arizona. Before pursuing her career as a law librarian, she worked as a geospatial analyst in the United States Army and served a fifteen-month tour of duty in Iraq. Her areas of interest include privacy, censorship, and the intersection of national security and individual liberty.