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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies


High-Tech and High Touch
September/October 2022 Issue

I recently attended, in person, my first conference that was not totally online, and I was struck—as always—by the difference between virtual presentations and a full-immersion conference experience, with its unique value of “meatspace” interactions. The conference was the 15th Southern African Online Information Meeting (SAOIM;, held in Pretoria, with speakers from around the world. While a number of the non-African keynoters gave their presentations virtually, and about half the conference participants were Zoom-only, I found attending in person made the conference so much more engaging. Big ol’ introvert that I am, I so appreciated all the conversations that took place during the breaks and the opportunity to chat with speakers after a particularly thought-provoking session.

Two seemingly contradictory trends stood out to me: New innovations in AI and robotics are having direct impacts on how libraries respond to the changing information needs of their users, while librarians are finding that the “soft” skills of negotiation, collaboration, and empathy are equally critical in supporting the new ways information is gathered, massaged, and analyzed.

I have often been skeptical about the role of library chatbots and other AI technologies in handling basic reference and research queries. A skillful reference interview conducted by an experienced info pro relies on so many subtle cues that an AI application can’t (yet) do—for example, sussing out whether this user needs a simple pointer to an information resource versus a more complex conversation about the information landscape, or assessing the familiarity the user has with the subject matter.

However, as is often the case with disruptive technologies, the real impact isn’t in a chatbot replacing librarians at the reference desk. Rather, libraries can now provide services they could not do before. The same Amazon “Just Walk Out” technology that leverages computer vision and deep learning to give retail store customers a cashier-less shopping experience can be used to keep libraries open 24 hours a day without the need for round-the-clock circulation desk staffing. This is a boon for university libraries in particular. Robots are being used for RFID inventory and shelf-reading, book transport and delivery, and maintaining a telepresence at a remote branch. These applications enable library professionals to spend more of their time providing information services to users while ensuring that the more routine tasks are still being accomplished.

I was taken by surprise by what I heard in many of my informal conversations with conference attendees about increasing the library’s role in their organization’s AI and data-mining initiatives. I had expected to hear about the need to develop staff expertise in new areas such as data analytics, development of APIs, or advanced data visualization. I thought I would pick up some new techniques the library staff was using to establish their credibility by emphasizing their information management background or expertise in evaluating datasets.

Instead, what I consistently heard were comments about the importance of person-to-person connections. One librarian described the impact of an influencer introducing her to a project team and immediately being accepted as a trusted partner by virtue of that introduction. Another info pro told me how much his organization valued his ability to identify more cost-effective information sources and his proactive approach to ensuring the most strategic use of his organization’s budget for information resources. A third librarian talked about the importance of understanding power dynamics. “It’s the little things,” she said. “I was helping a research scientist troubleshoot a query and I asked him, ‘What did you do?’ He completely lost it, because he thought I was accusing him of breaking something. So I tried again by asking him to show me how he got to the point where he was stuck. That completely changed the conversation, and it reminded me that people don’t like being accused of making a mistake.”

The common thread among all the conversations I had was the importance of establishing personal connections, or at least a consistent professional presence, with any group within the organization that would benefit from the library’s services and resources. As one librarian said, “You need to be seen as an ally, not a stranger.”

During my 19-hour trip home from Pretoria, I had time to reflect on how the essential skill sets of info pros have evolved. Yes, we always have to be experts in finding the best information and information sources in a constantly changing information landscape. The growing use of AI, machine learning, and data mining has meant that info pros also have to hone, and tell our clients about, our information science credentials and perspective. And now, we need to take the low-tech approach of connecting with user groups in person to build awareness and trust. As virtual intelligences proliferate, the human intelligence is becoming even more valued.

Mary Ellen Bates (, fact-checks her dogs when they make their “I’m starving” eyes.


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