Robotics and the Human Touch in Libraries and Museums

April 08, 2015

NAO Robo

The SLIS Unbound blog ponders the question: Will machines replace librarians?

In the 2012 science fiction film Robot & Frank, a near-future public library is entirely staffed by just one librarian… and one robot. The robot, named Mr. Darcy, mans the circulation desk, shelves books, and answers reference questions. The librarian handles occasional administrative work. The main character, a patron old enough to remember the way libraries used to be, laments that the human touch has almost entirely left the building.

This concern has been around for decades. Will machines replace librarians, leaving many unemployed? Will libraries become totally automated? Will robotics alienate librarians from their patrons? Unbound has surveyed the current state of the art in library robotics and found little cause for alarm. In public libraries, academic libraries, and museums, it seems that robots are bringing people closer together, not driving them apart.

In public libraries, robots are now being used as a teaching tool. The Chicago Public Library recently partnered with Google Chicago to provide five hundred Finch Robots for checkout and in-house use. The Finch was designed by Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE lab for usage in computer science education. The robots feature a robust set of input mechanisms, such as accelerometers and light, temperature, and obstacle sensors. They can output complex behaviors, including motion, light, sound, and drawing. These capabilities allow programming beginners to see immediate, tangible results from their work, making the learning process more intrinsically motivating and making abstract concepts more concrete. The robots support a variety of programming languages, from simple visual ones for grades K-2 to professional-level languages like Python and Javascript. The Finches are available to any adult patron, and can be checked out in packs of five to facilitate classroom use. The library’s Northtown branch runs the Code Phreaks programming club for grades 5-12 where members learn how to use the Finch and develop their own uses for them.

Read the full article at Unbound: Robotics and the Human Touch in Libraries and Museums.

Image: An NAO Robot. Source: Aldebaran Robotics, Wikimedia Commons.