Best Technologies for Public Libraries: an exploration

I recently had the pleasure to present the seminar “Best Technologies for Public Libraries: Embracing Innovation in Library Services” to members of the Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA). It is, in part, informed by a book I co-authored not too long ago. Both the book and the presentation are an exploration of innovative uses of current and emerging technologies in libraries. You can watch a recording of the presentation below.

With “best” being a rather bold designation, I think it’s important to highlight why (and how) a technology might earn such a distinction. Ideally, a library’s adoption of tech should:

Align with the Library’s Mission

Take a moment to look at your library’s mission statement. Simply put, a mission statement is your purpose for being. For a library, this statement commonly mentions meeting the informational and recreational needs of our community, or other, similar goals. If there’s a technology that you’re considering adopting and it’s at odds with your mission, that’s a pretty good indicator that it has no place in your organization. Inversely, if it’s in perfect alignment, you can proceed with confidence.

Provide Critical Community Access

Often, high-tech comes with high costs. I have found that the perfect time to adopt a technology is when it is prohibitively expensive for the individual, but affordable for our organizations. It is there that library adoption can allow users to get hands-on and engage in experiential learning they would otherwise be shut out of. This is also an area where we can deliver a high return on investment.

Help Navigate Disruption

Societal disruption is often technologically driven. When a new technology arises, it can cause confusion and uncertainty, and may impact our patrons’ livelihoods. I imagine that artificial intelligence currently comes to mind! Our adoption of a technology can help demystify it for our patrons. It can protect users from misuse and misapplication of the technology. Returning to our mission, the library’s adoption of an emerging technology allows us to continue to meet the informational needs of our users, even as they change–driven by technological disruption.

Be Needs-Based

If our adoption of a technology isn’t rooted in the needs of our users, then what are we even doing? Emerging technologies can be a shiny object–we must ensure that we aren’t ignoring core user needs in their pursuit. When we center tech adoption on user needs, we can be sure it is time and money well-spent. As an administrator, it is far preferable to spend money meeting user demands, than convincing our users of the utility of a technology!

A Few News Items:

AI & the Library: Looking for rules!

The age of AI necessitates that libraries develop policy and procedure governing the use of the technology by our institutions. As someone who has written a good deal of policy around emerging tech, two of my building blocks have always been federal/state/local law and the manufacturer or developer’s own terms of service. Any discussion of the law should include the significant disclaimer that I am no lawyer and that nothing I write should constitute legal advice! Now that that’s out of the way…

What does the law say?

Simply put, not much! Indeed one of the frustrations with AI is that the legal landscape is largely unsettled, with the American Bar Association noting

“the regulation of AI in the United States is still in its early stages, and there is no comprehensive federal legislation dedicated solely to AI regulation.”

While there may be little in the way of AI-specific guidelines, there are library-specific laws and regulations that we must consider, many at the state level, which address the confidentiality of patron records. In New York, for example, New York State Civil Practice Law & Rules (CPLR) 4509 states:

“Library records, which contain names or other personally identifying details regarding the users of public, free association, school, college and university libraries and library systems of this state, including but not limited to records related to the circulation of library materials, computer database searches, interlibrary loan transactions, reference queries, requests for photocopies of library materials, title reserve requests, or the use of audio-visual materials, films or records, shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed except that such records may be disclosed to the extent necessary for the proper operation of such library and shall be disclosed upon request or consent of the user or pursuant to subpoena, court order or where otherwise required by statute.”

When we contrast this confidentiality/nondisclosure requirement of reference queries against an AI tool such as ChatGPT’s propensity to record and retain all interactions/user content, it’s harvesting of personally identifiable information, and it’s wide use of 3rd-party services, we can see how it poses a data-security headache. While policy/procedure banning the use of such a tool may not be necessary, you must define appropriate use cases that will not compromise patron privacy and contravene existing law! Essentially, steps must be taken to ensure our interactions with such systems do not include personally identifiable information or anything that might constitute patron records.

ai-generated image of the scales of justice. The background is a futuristic setting.
Generated via Midjourney. Prompt: “color sketch of a futuristic scale of justice. –ar 16:9”.

What do the terms of service say?

The consideration of an AI platform’s terms of service (ToS) must factor into your library’s decision making. Previously, we looked at reconciling ChatGPT’s terms of use with existing state law. Further inspection of this document would indicate that users must be at least 13 years old to use the service, and that users under 18 years of age must have a parent or legal guardian’s permission. You can see the impact to potential library programming and patron-facing AI-powered services that this requirement might have.

Until next time!

While we may be operating in an AI regulatory vacuum, it is clear that there are established library rules and regulations that we can apply to this emerging technology. So get out there and do the important, necessary work of policy and procedure development, then experiment–safely!

Lastly, a few news items:

  • As always, I speak a lot about the intersection of libraries and technology. If you’re look for a speaker, let’s talk!
  • Previously, I assembled some AI resources for librarians. Check it out, if you haven’t already!
  • For my New York-based audience, I’ll be at the 32nd Annual Conference on Libraries and the Future to give the talk “Into the Unknown: Media Literacy, Intellectual Freedom, & the Dawn of AI”. You can learn more and register for the in-person event here.
  • I’ll be presenting “Fostering Tech-Savvy Staff” at the Internet Librarian Connect virtual conference. Register by September 15 with code SOC-SINGLE or SOC-TEAM to save $100!

A Resource List on AI in the Library

The talk around artificial intelligence and libraries can be exciting, frightening, and very confusing. Here’s a resource list on AI in the library to help you get started! These sources cover the impact of artificial intelligence on libraries, free courses on popular AI tools, and the early legislative action regarding AI and copyright.

Getting Familiar

These links provide an opportunity to consider where and how artificial intelligence might be applied within a library setting, as well as a “virtual petting zoo” where you can get hands-on.

Free Online Courses

Looking to train up on some of the more popular generative AI tools? Here are some good, free options!

AI and Copyright

AI remains largely uncharted territory with regards to copyright. These links look at some early guidance from the US Copyright Office (including decisions), and early regulatory work taking place in the United States and Europe.

Final Thoughts

Photo of Nick Tanzi speaking in a conference center. There is an audience in the foreground with their backs to the viewer.

I hope you’ve found these resources useful as we collectively plan for AI’s impact on library services. I talk a lot about the intersection of emerging technologies and libraries (AI included); you can find a list of my upcoming appearances here. If your organization is in need of a keynote speaker or some library professional development, feel free to reach out! Finally, I now have on-demand training available through Niche Academy.