AI Tools for Libraries
by Cal LaFountain
AI continues to expand its influence in academia, business, and culture. Libraries are not exempt from this. While many institutions fear AI disruption, libraries that leverage this new suite of tools will streamline daily tasks, enhance outreach efforts, and more. This article identifies some popular AI tools in the current landscape and explores how librarians can use them to serve foundational objectives.
|From maintaining patron records to processing new materials, AI has a role to play.
Reference and Patron Services
Because modern AI tools rely on massive datasets to produce results, they are ideal for suggesting materials on a specific subject. This type of data leverage will be most useful at the reference desk where patron requests are often vague. There is no substitute for individualized face-to-face service in the library, but AI tools make it easier for librarians to suggest similar titles and stay organized in the process.
Even those new to the world of AI have probably heard of ChatGPT. Created by OpenAI, ChatGPT reached 100 million monthly users faster than any other application in the history of the internet, as Reuters reported in early February 2023. ChatGPT’s growth not only highlights the demand for AI tools but also creates a benchmark for consumer-facing AI assistants. The application is fascinating in its scope, but its detractors make some valid points. At times, it’s clunky. The user interface is far from optimal. It is prone to fabrications that often output comically inaccurate answers. Still, ChatGPT and OpenAI are some of the brightest prospects in the new AI frontier.
Similar to Siri and Alexa, AI chatbots are so appealing, in part, because of their conversational nature. Integrating a layer of AI when handling patron requests is something any library can start doing right away. If ChatGPT isn’t attractive to your institution, there’s a wealth of AI chatbots out there, many of which excel in myriad domains, including library settings.
You can turn to Andi (andisearch.com) when doing general or granular research on a subject. Its outputs are often aligned with what’s found on Google, but they can also point librarians in directions they may have overlooked. A quick search for books about World War II, for example, suggests a list compiled by The National WWII Museum.
Also powered by OpenAI, Quickchat (quickchat.ai/product) is an intelligent chat assistant that you can integrate into your website. Using these kinds of tools in conjunction with human services can help libraries streamline otherwise redundant tasks. As more businesses and public institutions implement AI, libraries will have to do the same to keep up with visitors’ expectations.
Images and Graphic Design
Social media platforms are overflowing with AI-generated images of politician/animal hybrids, futuristic landscapes in photorealistic detail, and anime renditions of famous historical events. In the realm of illustration, AI outputs collide with constraints only in the mind of the user. New illustrative AI models replace tedious graphic design tasks to produce simple renditions.
One of the top design applications, Midjourney (midjourney.com), allows new users to test their idea machine through a command prompt in a Discord server. To achieve your desired output, simply enter a command describing any image you want to create. From there, Midjourney produces four potential images to select. You can decide to ideate further through a prompt that creates four more images from the chosen output. Once satisfied with the end result, you can command the bot to upscale the image to a high-quality JPEG for further use.
While these kinds of novel creative engines lack the human touch, they provide fun and often striking imagery. Libraries looking to add new dimensions to media lab PCs and creative workstations have many options. Some other leading AI applications in the realm of graphic design include Craiyon, PhotoRoom, Alpaca, Lexica, and Playground AI. Because these tools are so new, it’s best to view them as nothing more than intriguing experiments to add to your library’s media center. They also make great fodder for demos in AI-based community events.
The research process has evolved rapidly since the inception of internet search engines. Popular library services such as ILL now rely on remote databases to fetch results and provide an accurate portrait of library holdings on state, national, and global levels. With AI, this progression in research follows a logical trajectory to expanded boundaries.
Pew Research Center’s “Library Services in the Digital Age: Summary of Findings” illustrates the changing landscape of user demand for library research. With regard to online research services that allow patrons to pose questions and get answers, the study found that 37% of Americans age 16 and older would “very likely” use an “ask a librarian” type of service, and another 36% said they would be “somewhat likely” to do so. Furthermore, 80% said reference librarians are a “very important” service at libraries.
In the context of reference services, AI becomes far more useful as a tool to service patron needs. AI tools improve the research librarian’s ability to quickly produce tailored outcomes that brandish a mix of physical and digital sources. Additionally, utilizing such modern means to support the research process will help assure that librarians remain a valuable resource to their communities. Microsoft’s new AI-powered Bing search demonstrates this concept on a mainstream level. Research librarians with experience in the field are soon likely to witness more AI models woven into traditional research methods. Furthermore, with the proliferation of AI apps being used to write illegitimate college essays and forge other documents, sound information and fact-checking are more important than ever.
Library research has produced far more than summer reading lists for some time now. The field will soon have new demands in the age of AI. As with each of the tools discussed in this article, AI research applications have an appropriate time and place. Human-first services such as those provided by research librarians pose a battalion of defenses against the darker implications of AI.
Copywriting and Outreach
Libraries may shun the use of artificial language-making tools. These tools first seem unappealing or even unethical in certain contexts. Cutting corners and forging ideas using AI constitute grounds for refusal, but many tools that use AI to generate language bring benefits in a broader context.
Early tools for writing clean copy such as Grammarly and Hemingway Editor have paved a path for the new era of artificially intelligent writing apps. Some contemporary examples include Copy.ai (copy.ai), Anyword (anyword.com), and Peppertype (peppertype.ai). Assistive writing technology is no replacement for human experience and expression. To think that nonhuman writers will replace human writers devalues the process to favor the outcome. Still, AI writing tools have a place in libraries and beyond. When wording (and rewording) marketing campaigns, webpages, and other outreach materials, offloading brainpower and labor is helpful. The right tool can tweak your content to produce more favorable SEO rankings and allow more patrons to find your events and access your services.
Hypotenuse (hypotenuse.ai) takes these concepts further by providing a full suite of AI tools to brainstorm, research, and write catching documents. Its Content Detective tool uses existing data and stats to help writers fill out pieces with more comprehensive evidence.
Positioned in the sales world, Typewise (typewise.app) uses predictive modeling to host flexible text tools rooted in AI. Its features include auto-replies, snippets, sentence prediction, and real-time translation. Larger libraries dealing with diverse patron populations may want to consider implementing this app or a similar one to provide sitewide services.
Cataloging With AI
Those working in cataloging are likely familiar with some form of automation. AI tools have the potential to bring new workflows to the library catalog. When compared to other aspects of librarianship, cataloging undergoes the most obvious and rapid evolutions. From card catalogs to digitized systems, catalog professionals are always searching for ways to reduce friction and improve record-keeping and retrieval.
The most exciting developments in this space come from mainstream technology companies. Goliaths such as Microsoft and Google recently rebranded as AI-first companies. Microsoft’s new Syntex service offers a suite of AI-based tools to champion the company’s new perspective on serving its customers. A recent article in Computerworld describes Microsoft Syntex as including document processing, annotation, content assembly, content query, and accelerators, with more services coming soon.
Google is also working to increase its AI utilities, positioning its services to beef up search results, cater to growing user needs, and expand algorithmic indexing. Many modern AI tools have potential applications in library catalog systems. From maintaining patron records to processing new materials, AI has a role to play. At the moment, the frontier is rife with opportunity but has few viable options.
Research from Iris.ai expands on how AI is changing the landscape of modern library catalogs through content indexing. According to the report, AI tools for indexing will improve consistency and quality, since AI can identify concepts and assign them corresponding keywords. `Plus, an article on the Iris.ai website points out, “Index automation will also help the reader discover new literature and navigate through different disciplines” in ways not supported by conventional manual indexing.
If your library has a makerspace, teen media center, or a similar creative environment, then AI tools are going to be most effective there. Many of these applications stretch creative possibilities while remaining budget-friendly. For youth-centric library media rooms, introducing AI apps is a great way to educate budding, curious minds on the future landscape of digital creativity.
The suite of robust AI editing tools found in Descript (descript.com) allows for unprecedented speed and accuracy when editing podcasts, lectures, and other long-form audio files containing complex human speech. Descript is quickly becoming the industry standard for studios around the world. With its innovative suite of tools, users can automatically eliminate mouth sounds from speeches and edit audio in text form.
In the land of music production, apps such as Harmonai (harmonai.org) are using the wonder of AI to empower people of all kinds to create music and sound effects with greater ease. Boomy (boomy.com) shares a similar goal, giving producers a way to generate original sounds and music, all created by AI.
AI did not write this article. A year from now, this claim may seem less believable. But rather than living in fear of AI and the potentially harrowing landscapes it suggests, librarians can stay ahead of the curve by implementing the tools discussed in this article. As with any other substantive technology, these tools are still in their infant stages, so there’s no need to hard commit to any one option. Libraries at the intersection of nascent AI technology and community service will certainly find something helpful to deploy in the quest to create a more efficient and innovative environment for patrons.