Commentary: HarbourFront library a leap in use of tech but librarians remain central to learning
While artificial intelligence may improve our libraries, Assistant Professor Loh Chin Ee maintains that human intelligence is still a necessity.
SINGAPORE: The recent opening of the library@harbourfront marks the continuation of the National Library Board’s (NLB) rethinking of the role, purpose and design of our public libraries encapsulated in the Libraries of the Future Masterplan launched in 2015.
Technology has enhanced library access and usage in various ways today, with amazingly sophisticated artificial intelligence and technological applications engaging users in reading, learning and collaboration.
The NLB’s e-collection has made immediate access to an expansive range of books, magazines and research journals far more convenient and available with just an NLB online account. Multimedia is used to enhance storytelling in an immersive storytelling room.
Located at VivoCity, users at the library can browse recommended books on interactive screen displays and gain immediate access just by scanning the QR code and keying in one’s NLB password.
Across different libraries, the investment in highly intelligent book sorting systems and shelf-reading robots reduces the need for manpower to complete the routine work of sorting and placing the books back on the right shelf.
Smart technology has indeed made the business of reading and learning much more accessible in public libraries but this focus on technology and AI should not dull the centrality of human intelligence.
After all, the purpose of technology and AI is to reduce mechanical work to free up room for creative, intelligent work and not to completely replace work that only humans can do.
CURATION IS A HUMAN’S JOB
Human intelligence remains essential for growing our libraries of the future in three ways.
First, the crucial work of the curation of books requires human intelligence. Even if a library can order every book in the world, it is physically impossible for a person to read even a small fraction of the immense spread of content.
We also need librarians to make decisions about the acquisition, exhibition and appraisal of reading materials, where some books may be more suitable for one reader or important to another’s context, and some books may be difficult to find but absolutely necessary to provide.
One book selector from NLB I know shared that she reads about 40 books a month and tries to put as many good books as she can on the shelves for teenage readers. Aside from popularity considerations, books with literary merit that might appeal to different readers or stretch the imaginations of our youths are also considered.
School librarians I have spoken to are repositories of book knowledge. The ability to spot a good book, identify the best-fit read for a user and recommend new books that might be of interest is honed through years of experience.
Librarians who see passing on the love of reading as a core part of their vocation are vital to growing the library’s role and importance in our society, in a world of boundless information.
This is the reason why human librarians who can be consulted remain central to a library.
An algorithm may help with book selection but cannot make informed decisions as to why one book might be better than another for a particular context or user profile. Librarians do not just mine for profile preferences but can recommend books that expand an individual’s reading tastes and preferences.
DEVELOPING PROGRAMMES FOR LEARNING
Second, human intelligence is required to design programmes for learning. The talks and workshops organised by the public library are selected by librarians who identify current and important needs and connect with individual experts who are able to share their knowledge with specific communities.
At the National Institute of Education where I teach, our librarians organise programmes that teach us how to use the latest software to organise our bibliographies and access the latest research.
At the neighbouring Art, Design and Media Library at the Nanyang Technological University, librarians work with professors and lecturers to curate art exhibitions that highlights students’ work, creating opportunities to generate dialogue and learning in general.
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NURTURING LEARNING IN OTHERS
Third and most important, we need human intelligence to nurture learning in others. A most neglected part of library work, in my opinion, is that of mentorship. We assume that books on the shelves and the worldwide web avail knowledge to anyone who is interested to search for more information.
However, studies by researchers show that students from different home backgrounds have different access points to reading and technology.
In my research on reading habits of Singapore teenagers and school libraries, students who have many books at home and are socialised into reading from a young age are likely to know how to find a good book for themselves.
On the other hand, students with fewer books, lower language proficiency and less exposure to reading may find something as simple as picking the right book to be an extremely difficult task.
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Drawing on data from the 2009 Programme for International Study Assessment (PISA) that analysed early home literacy’s impact in students on informational online reading behaviour from various countries, Natascha Notten and Birgit Becker found that students from homes with more books and reading parents are more likely to be avid online informational readers.
The same students who read more in print are more likely to read more online.
For children who may not come from reading homes, the library can be the next best place to acquire a love for reading. But in the absence of an adult mentor, the child may find it difficult to find the right books or pick up effective reading habits.
Programmes such as NLB KidsRead where volunteers spend time reading with children from low-income families and book clubs are forms of organised mentorship. In addition to such programmes, having an actual librarian on the ground speak to children and answer their queries is another form of mentorship.
It is hard to measure the effectiveness of a mentorship as a deliverable but that should be a central goal of a human-centric library.
As much as we focus on developing library reach and investing in meaningful use of technology, I hope we continue to invest in the humans required to make our libraries work.
Humans have a wealth of experience gathered working with books and knowledge, and this must be seen as part of the resources we have for growing lifelong readers and learners.
Assistant Professor Loh Chin Ee teaches at the English Language and Literature Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, Singapore. Her current research focuses on reading and school libraries.