Occasionally I find an article discussing what may cause the ultimate demise of libraries: the internet, search engines, e-books, etc. These article drive me crazy…though many articles do come to the ultimate optimistic conclusion that new technologies won’t destroy libraries, just lead to changing goals, programs, and services. The newest industry-killing culprits of the past year seem to be millennials and automation/ artificial intelligence (AI). I personally think libraries and librarianship will be able to adapt and even benefit from these mounting threats of tech-addled youngsters and robots.
I see differing statistics about how millennials are impacting libraries. Will Millennials Kill off Libraries? by Stephanie Cohen at Acculturated cites research from a few years ago: “A 2014 report by the Pew Research Center found that college-aged adults (ages 18-24), were less likely to use public libraries than many other age groups, less likely to see libraries as vital for themselves or their community, less likely to have visited a library recently, and are more likely to purchase most of the books they read than borrow them from a library.”
Meanwhile, One Thing Millennials Aren’t “Killing”: Libraries by Macy Griffin at Bookstr discusses how “a new study conducted by Pew Research Center has given this age group bragging rights, saying that people born between 1978 and 2004 make most use of libraries.”
Griffin’s article goes on to speculate that the cause for higher millennial usage of libraries may be free public Wi-Fi or a variety of free events and classes targeting teens and young adults like “knitting and crocheting clubs, adult coloring, and even sessions for teams to play video games and board games.” Yes, the services traditionally offered by libraries may evolve based on the changing user needs of different generations, but that’s pretty par for the course for libraries.
I may honestly be a bit biased about the danger of millennials, since I am one myself. But I can say at least from my own experience: we come in peace. All we want from libraries is “somewhere to eat our avocado toast while we contemplate the houses we can’t afford to buy” (via Annoyed Librarian).
The risk of complete automation of all tasks done by librarians seems to be very small. There’s a great Tableau visualization from the McKinsey Global Institute that illustrates where machines could replace humans, and under the “Educational Services” section, the job family of “Education, training and library” lists automation potential for the following tasks which the job family seems to spend the most time doing:
- Applying expertise (15% of time spent) – automation potential 14%
- Managing others (10% of time spent) – Automation potential 9%
- Data collection (5% of time spent) – Automation potential 40%
It seems like automation may actually help librarians, since it will free up our time from repetitive tasks like data collection to focus on more complex tasks like management. Kristin Whitehair from Public Libraries Online writes how “libraries can capitalize on the value of AI to expedite some processes, freeing up finite resources to focus on enriching the public library experience for patrons.”
The Feral Librarian blog writes a thoughtful post asking “where can AI and machine learning be leveraged in the service of better science? And how do libraries leverage our resources and skills to ensure it really works – and is infused with and informed by values we care about (inclusion, privacy, democracy, social justice, authority, etc.)?”
Librarians can embrace AI as a valuable new research tool and work to shape that tool to meet patron needs. That may require learning new skills and working more closely with computer and data scientists, but I have no doubt librarians will adapt, learn, and innovate.