“Hey Google, what do you know about virtual assistants and libraries?”

Who’s staffing the reference desk or the library chatlines? These days, or in the near future, it might be Google Assistant, Alexa, Cortana, or Siri. Library users may increasingly turn to virtual or personal assistants before they interact with specific library services. And why not, they appear to be getting quite good. 

In 2018 Perficient Digital tested Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant and Siri with nearly 5,000 questions :

Comparing Digital Personal Assistants

BTW, they also tested which assistant was the funniest by tracking the jokes they made in response to some questions. “What is the meaning of life?” Siri: “All evidence to date suggests it’s chocolate.”

Results like this intrigued Amanda Wheatley and Sandy Hervieux of the McGill University Library. As a result, they initiated a multi-phase research project to explore the awareness of AI among libraries and librarians, their use of this technology, and what their expectations are for the future.

Amanda Wheatley and Sandy Hervieux

They believe AI will “change the nature of our work but won’t take our jobs.” AI will not displace librarians and library staff but operate as “an immersive environment where we coexist.” From their perspective “AI is not one thing” but an array of options and opportunities to be used in thoughtful ways. However, it is time to be proactive not reactive; we should lead in the use of this technology not be used by it.

Phase 1 (completed): an environmental scan of libraries and their use of AI as indicated in strategy plans or other documentation. The result? Not too much happening. This could be a lack of funds for technology innovation or it might be a concern about the nature of the technology.

Phase 2 (in process): a broad survey of libraries and librarians to assess their awareness and expectations of AI. That survey is currently live. The deadline for responses is September 6, 2019. You are encouraged to participate!

Phase 3 (in process): testing various devices with sample reference questions. The first test pitted Google against Siri with Google a clear winner. It responded by summarizing information, presenting relevant graphs and charts, and providing credible research materials … “it was terrifying!”. They are now starting to work with the Alexa Skills Kit to teach Alexa new library skills.

Phase 4 (planned): an AI experience in the McGill libraries to give the community a hands-on opportunity to explore the technology. 

If you want more information about their work, visit their guide to the project or contact them via email: Amanda Wheatley (amanda.wheatley@mcgill.ca) or Sandy Hervieux (sandy.hervieux@mcgill.ca).

Amanda and Sandy are editing a book for ACRL on the use of AI in libraries. A call for chapters will go out in the fall.

[UPDATE: the call for chapters for this book is out. Deadline for proposals is November 17.]

Lots of interesting research to follow. Looking forward to hearing about their progress.


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