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Artificial Intelligence Assistants in the Library: Siri, Alexa, and Beyond
Volume 43, Number 3 - May/June 2019

As I headed to my mother’s house to visit her for the weekend, I turned on my Bluetooth earpiece and said, “Hey Siri! Call mama mobile!” and her phone began to ring. I always call to tell my mother I am on my way to her house before I pull out my driveway. As I follow the fastest route, using the Waze App, I decide to stop at Burger King for a veggie burger and french fries. I say, “Hey Siri! Where is the nearest Burger King?”

Siri then begins to read off a list of Burger Kings and asks me if I want to go to the nearest one. When I say yes, Siri gives me directions or calls the location.

Siri, Apple’s AI personal assistant, makes it easier for me to find information every day. I do not even need to open an internet browser and search. She can even play my favorite songs in Apple Music. Siri is installed on the iPhone when you purchase it, which means that our researchers are accustomed to using it. This is the experience they want when they are looking for information in the library. Do we provide it?

AI Assistants

I’m not the only one to enjoy Siri, nor is Siri the only voice- activated personal assistant in the marketplace. AI-powered assistants introduced by Amazon (Alexa), Apple (Siri), Microsoft (Cortana), and Google (Google Assistant) ease searching for information in our daily lives.

Amazon’s Alexa goes a step further than Siri. Alexa can order products from Amazon Prime and have them delivered to your doorstep. Consumers thought Amazon Prime was phenomenal, but now they don’t even need to log into the Amazon App to place an order. They only need to talk to Alexa, and tell it to send them what they’ve ordered, from Tide Pods to the latest best seller. There can be no easier way to find what you are looking for than with AI assistants. As Michael Stephens explains in his Feb. 22, 2018, Office Hours column titled “Flash Briefing,” when Google surveyed 1,600 voice assistant owners, “researchers found that 72 percent of people say the devices are often part of their daily routines” (

Keep in mind, though, that AI assistants were developed as consumer products, not for librarians. But one consequence is of great importance to information professionals: Thanks (or no thanks) to AI assistants, people no longer need to visit their local library and get assistance from a librarian.

Searcher Expectations

Student expectations of database search functions have changed. Early on, the students I worked with at the reference desk would type a question into a database and expect for their answer to be listed in their results. Today, students are expecting the databases to know and understand what they are researching. The introduction of AI into our day-to-day lives via Alexa, Cortana, and Siri is changing the way students expect to get answers to their questions. Database search functions will need to catch up to the way users search for other types of information. We can ask Siri to find the nearest Trader Joe’s. Will I be able to ask a database to find relevant articles on Abraham Lincoln?

As an instruction and reference librarian at an academic health sciences library, I teach researchers how to find information using complex search techniques. I teach researchers complex search strategies using Boolean logic, and I explain that databases were designed assuming searchers would use Boolean operators. Thus, it is imperative that they learn these complex search strategies in order to be effective searchers. Google uses Boolean (sort of), but differently than the various subscription databases we offer through the library.

I experience the same frustrations as the people I help when I am trying to find information. I get upset when the database does not retrieve what I found the day before using the same search strategy. I am supposed to be the expert searcher, and the database still will not retrieve the same results. I even have difficulty teaching the complex search strategies needed for researchers to find the information they need in a database. How do I explain to researchers that they should use a database versus Google Scholar? I do not have much recourse when Google Scholar is so much easier to use than library databases

I tell researchers that they will find the most valuable and legitimate information in the databases that their library pays large sums of money to subscribe to. Despite the many ways I try to convince researchers to use a database instead of Google or any other internet search engine, researchers opt for the quickest and easiest way to find the information they need or want. Time is extremely valuable, as researchers are not only conducting research but leading busy lives.

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Reina Williams is reference librarian and education coordinator, Library of Rush University Medical Center.


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