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Last Modified: February 14, 2024
Wooden alphabet tiles spelling “CHATGTP” are displayed on a tile holder. Extra alphabet tiles are scattered around the tile holder. “Beyond the Stacks with Jessie Bach” in white text on a green background is below the image.
AI: Opportunities and Concerns for Public Libraries

by Jessie Bach

It’s difficult to believe that it’s only been thirteen months since ChatGPT was introduced to the world. In that time, artificial intelligence (AI) and the myriad generative tools created to use it have transformed how people are searching for, using, and evaluating information. Libraries are in the information business, and when something like this comes along, we, as librarians, must ask: “How can we use this new technology responsibly, ethically, and efficiently?” and “How can we help our patrons do the same?”

While the introduction of ChatGPT in late 2022 brought a whirlwind of discussion regarding AI to the forefront, the library world has been considering the implications of AI for a long time. In 2018, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) held a forum on AI and subsequently released a paper entitled Artificial Intelligence and Intellectual Freedom, Key Policy Concerns for Canadian Libraries. At that time, the forum panel warned that AI will come with potential risks, including “human bias in programming and the potential for biases to be reinforced when AI systems were trained using sets of data.” At the same time, it identified many ways in which libraries may benefit from AI, and how the sector can contribute to responsible and informed use of AI.

The forum panel recommended that libraries use AI to analyze trends and patterns in usage data, “democratize” the new technology by providing courses and training to the public, and “advocate for better privacy, regulation, and openness in relation to AI and the algorithms and datasets used to train the machines.” Now, five years after this paper was released, libraries are working on doing just that.

ChatGPT and other generative AI tools hold plenty of potential for libraries when it comes to automating some routine tasks. In the area of collection development, for example, AI tools could be helpful for analyzing borrowing trends to recommend titles that will be popular with patrons, gathering metadata to display in the library catalogue, and updating catalogue records with new information. There is promise as well in program and services planning and resource management—AI can collect and analyze patron data to better understand how people use the library, thereby helping staff ensure the most impactful services are delivered to the people who need them. As in many other industries, generative AI has proven itself a timesaver in administrative and marketing tasks by summarizing meeting notes, compiling background information, and creating simple copy for brochures or social media posts.

On the patron services side of things, AI tools can be trained to provide 24/7 virtual reference services like answering basic questions, providing reading recommendations based on stated preferences or borrowing history, and assisting with catalogue searches. It can also be used to provide translation of library tools and resources and accessible versions for patrons with print disabilities. This will improve patron service during times when librarians are not available.

Image example of the Calgary Public Library (CPL) Scout Tool.
Calgary Public Library’s Scout Tool

At Calgary Public Library, for example, AI Chatbot “Scout” has been assisting patrons with general questions about the library (things like opening hours, how to get a library card, etc.) and providing reading and viewing recommendations since 2018. At the time of Scout’s introduction, then CEO Mark Asberg said that with the chatbot handling “a lot of the more basic questions that people may have about the library, we can spend more time with patrons who may have more complex questions or needs, or deliver more programs; be out in the community more.” Scout is designed to become more intelligent the more it is used and is also trained by library staff who constantly feed it new information about the library. You can find Scout online here if you’d like to give it a try!

A core function of libraries in society is the support of literacy. In today’s world, literacy goes beyond just having the skills to read and write and includes information literacy and digital literacy. In an information landscape filled with misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and shady AI-generated content, readers need the ability to identify reliable information sources, determine fact from fiction, and responsibly use the new tools available to them.

Alberta libraries hold events, deliver courses, and provide books and other materials to assist patrons in developing digital and information literacy. One such event takes place yearly at Edmonton Public Library when they celebrate Open Data Day by inviting hackers, developers, designers, statisticians, and anyone with an interest in data to spend the day experimenting and creating with open data, and attending presentations and sessions by data experts. In 2023, this event included multiple presentations on how to use AI tools, address ethical dilemmas regarding AI, and identify limitations when using AI to work with data.

For those who need to start with the basics, patrons of the Crowsnest Community Library and other libraries in the Chinook Arch Regional Library System in Southern Alberta can participate in the Fundamental Digital Literacy Skills Program. This online course gives viewers “a foundation in the basic understanding of computers, mobile devices, and the internet which they can build on as they engage in the digital economy safely and with confidence.” With topics like “authenticating information” and “digital citizenship for kids,” this introduction to digital literacy will lay the groundwork for safe and responsible use of AI tools.

Going forward, libraries will continue (and I expect, will double down on) digital literacy work as we enter the AI era. This year, the Public Library Services Branch is even offering grants to libraries for projects that promote “digital literacy, including basic computer skills, cyber security and fraud detection, and evaluating online information effectively.” This is an indication that this work is being prioritized on a province-wide level.

As with many new technologies, the use of AI in libraries comes with important concerns regarding privacy and data security. In response to the new information landscape, and specifically the rise of AI tools, libraries and library systems across Alberta are reviewing, revising, and creating policy related to patron and staff privacy, and data security.

Libraries hold and protect huge amounts of data. This includes the personal data of patrons like names, addresses, and contact information. In many cases, reading histories, usage stats, and other sensitive details like program sign-ups and event attendance are also present in patron’s library accounts. Libraries are by no means immune to hackers and cyber-attacks—in fact, Toronto Public Library recently experienced a significant breach back in October, resulting in the ongoing suspension of a number of services. As both library staff and patrons proceed with the use of AI tools, it is more important than ever to ensure that personal information is not exposed to tools or individuals that may share and take advantage of it. Libraries must proceed by refining policy, beefing up security, and providing staff and patron training on the safe use of AI tools to protect themselves and their patrons.

AI presents the library world with exciting opportunities to expand, streamline, and diversify our work. At a time when many libraries are struggling to receive enough funding and library staff are often over-worked and underpaid, it would be irresponsible to go forward without exploring all that AI could do for us. At the same time, we will have to proceed with care and caution, to ensure continued quality patron service and to protect the privacy and security of those who use and work in our institutions. AI cannot replace the expertise of librarians and library staff, but I believe it can be harnessed to do good for the library community.

About the Author:

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the useful and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this article

Jessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta and is a lifelong library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Communications & Engagement Manager at Marigold Library System. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, three cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym.

Feature image credit: Markus Winkler through Pexels.