For hundreds of years, libraries have assembled and provided access to major written collections, serving as vital centers for those who thirst for knowledge. More recently, libraries have been key in exposing the public to technology. For some people, their first experience of being hands-on with a computer was at their local library. Modern technology is now being used to better manage library assets, align resources and services, and expand access to knowledge — even creating new pop-up libraries for some of the most vulnerable communities on our planet.
RFID (radio frequency identification) technology is being used for security, tracking, and inventory management. Books are marked with passive RFID tags, which hold data such as proof of ownership, original storage location, loan status, and history. An arming/disarming module within the RFID library management system activates/deactivates the surveillance bit in the book’s tag when it is checked in or out. Borrowing and returning books can be fully automated using self-check in/out systems inside the library itself, or book drops, which can be located anywhere.
Technology is driving efficiency at both micro and macro levels. Locating misplaced books on shelves is a tedious time sink for librarians. One library in Singapore uses a robot that trundles along the shelves at night, using its RFID detecting antenna to scan books and flag those placed incorrectly. The Hunt Library at the North Carolina State University has turned to robots on a grander scale with its automated storage and retrieval system which currently handles 1.5 million books. Visitors look up and request a book online, which triggers the system to locate it in a behind-the-scenes storage bin and deliver it to the front desk for checkout.
Preserving documents is a key role for many libraries, and digitization technologies help capture physical texts for posterity. Document imaging techniques take and store images of texts. OCR (optical character recognition) software turns those images into digital text that can be edited and searched. Next generation adaptive pattern recognition software can be taught to read patterns of text, enabling the digitization of even more documents. Digital archives enable materials to be more easily searched and shared, increasing accessibility to information.
Libraries are also using technology in many diverse ways to transform their spaces beyond books and information. Vincent and Nancy, two 23-inch-high robot residents of Westport Library, Connecticut, interact with visitors and can hold a conversation, kick a football, and dance. The robots are part of an initiative to expand services by offering coding workshops. The Longmont Library in Colorado used a robot in a pilot program to interact with children on the autism spectrum and engage them in the library. Norway’s first youth-only library in Oslo offers various programs to kids aged 10-15, in a reconfigurable environment where a drone flies over moveable bookshelves at night to scan and locate books for easy access the next day.
Electronic kiosks that bring library books and other media to places where people live and work are popping up around the world. Cities around the world have placed vending machines in convenient locations such as mass transit locations and shopping centers, making books easier for people to borrow and read. Typically, these kiosks are extensions of the local public library system, which can use the borrowing data to track usage, monitor trends, and make recommendations.
In other parts of the world, technology is enabling access to knowledge in communities that do not have any library at all. The organization Libraries Without Borders sets up libraries in rural areas in Africa, and in natural disaster and conflict zones. Their Ideas Box is a pop-up energy-independent multimedia center containing a satellite internet connection, digital server, power generator, tablets and laptops, HD cameras and a large HD screen, as well as other materials. Easy to set up, the solution provides communities with the means to connect to the information and knowledge that can help build a self-reliant future.
As libraries continue to transform, technology is helping expand access to knowledge not only in the most developed economies but also in some of the most vulnerable communities across the world.