IN OTHER WORDS
How Librarians and Info Pros Are Shaping the Future
by Lauree Padgett
There seems to be a never-ending stream of articles debating the future of libraries. For a nice change of pace, a column from the January/February 2019 issue of Online Searcher looks at how libraries can shape the future. But first up is a feature by Online Searcher editor-in-chief Marydee Ojala from the December 2018 issue of Computers in Libraries that explores why libraries need to be part of the Big Data and AI movements to ensure that their future impacts will be beneficial to all.
What’s the Big (Data) AI-Dea?
Ojala begins “Big Data and AI: Technology, Transparency, and Trust” with a basic, yet mind-blowing, statement: “[D]iscovery services allow us to search across hundreds of millions of items.” Hundreds of millions! That means traditional journals and articles, non-textual materials, academic and corporate datasets, videos, photographs, artwork, and images. It has become a Big Data world.
Although librarians were dealing with Big Data long before Big Data was cool, “the volume, variety, and velocity” were never at the level they are now, a level that increases faster than the spam in your inbox. But as with the advent of any great tool, the technologies resulting from Big Data “bring both exciting opportunities for research and worrying prospects for misinformation, disinformation, and falsified information.” Ojala notes that while there are myriad options offered by transformational, AI-based technologies for spotting patterns and anomalies in massive amounts of data in a way the human brain can never hope to match, one question looms: Can information professionals employ a trust-but-verify approach when working with Big Data?
In some cases, making a leap of faith is not that risky. A new IEEE patent database, InnovationQ Plus, increases the accuracy of its concept searching through machine learning. Because, as Ojala puts it, “Given that patents are not written to inform and enlighten, the ability to cut through the confusing and purposeful obfuscation of meaning in patent texts is a boon to patent researchers.” She also points to AI-based software that enables lawyers to pull out key variables from contracts, such as parties involved or specific clauses. In the humanities and social sciences disciplines, data mining and text mining help researchers reveal new findings from digitized historical records, ancient manuscripts, and primary sources.
It’s not always that simple, which is why information professionals still struggle with the issue of Big Data transparency. A main reason, writes Ojala, is that they “can’t check the work of AI software.” She gives the scenario of a researcher tracking the number of times the word “sky” appears in the works of Shakespeare. Would the software know to include words such as “heavens” or “welkin”? Would it recognize a poetic allusion to sky? And beyond that, how could the number it comes up with ever be verified?
Machine learning creates the possibility of bias in data being perpetuated. Furthermore, as Ojala warns, “Machine bias is hard to recognize and to control, and it can sometimes be aligned with human bias—particularly confirmation bias—making it extremely difficult to fix.”
So how do data professionals coexist with machine learning, especially in the area of web searching, which “does not work in favor of information professionals”? It is shaky ground when algorithms, ever changing and as guarded as trade secrets, can influence search results. Ojala compares it to flying blind, since even a library’s own discovery systems can be misleading, as not everything the library subscribes to or owns is necessarily included in a search.
Coexistence can only happen, Ojala asserts, through “vigilant information professionals [being] aware of the ramifications of the death of transparency and [alerting] others about trust issues stemming from these new technologies.”
Keeping Development Sustainable
Donna Scheeder, the immediate past president of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), used The Searcher’s Viewpoint column to address the digital divide in “Development and Access to Information: Libraries and the Sustainable Development Goals.” These goals, of which there are 17, come from the United Nations’ 2015 adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. IFLA represented the world’s libraries during the agenda’s negotiations.
The goals “lay out a plan for all countries to engage actively in making our world better for its people, with no one left behind.” While the underlying key to achieving these goals is access to information, significant barriers exist: “More than 4 billion people”—more than half the world’s population—“mostly in developing countries, still don’t have access to the internet.” There are people in all 50 U.S. states who lack broadband or internet access.
This resulting digital divide, Scheeder writes, “between rich and poor, men and women, urban and rural, high- and low-skilled—becomes an information and knowledge divide.” An ensuing development divide leaves large chunks of communities unable to reap the benefits that come from technology innovations. If development happens for some, but not all, Scheeder bluntly puts it, “We fail to achieve the 2030 agenda.”
What’s the answer, or at least the start of one? According to Scheeder, it begins with libraries taking action and increasing the number of people who can experience what’s possible through the internet. Even people who will never leave their homes or villages “can enjoy all the knowledge the world can offer, and use their skills to make it applicable to their own situations.” Effective library systems can also enable research collaboration and foster civic engagement. A library is a place where everyone is welcome and where sensitive information can be obtained discreetly. By keeping the needs of their users a priority, libraries can ensure that information stays relevant on the local level, so that access remains meaningful.
IFLA has been helping libraries worldwide demonstrate their importance in attaining the goals of the 2030 agenda and illustrate to stakeholders that “[w]hen a government invests in its libraries and gives them the laws they need, it creates a valuable partner in development.”
In summing up her article, Scheeder maintains that sustainable development is only possible when information is accessible. The Sustainable Development Goals act as a road map, but carrying it out is up to libraries. “Librarians,” she believes, “have the power to help change people’s lives and create a better tomorrow.”
Through the Looking Glass
The verdict is still out on the future of print books and even the buildings that house them. But as Ojala and Scheeder have eloquently expressed, the future of our world will be much brighter if libraries and information professionals remain active parts of influencing it.