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Librarian Futures in a Time of Transformational Tech

by | Jun 30, 2023 | 0 comments


By Martha Sedgwick  (VP Innovation – Research & Learning, Sage Publishing) 

Against the Grain V35#3

The launch of Chat GPT at the end of 2022 has turbo charged what was already a hurtling pace of technological change that we have experienced throughout the research and learning ecosystem over the past decade or so.  It feels timely for this issue of Against the Grain to be focused on emerging technologies in libraries and we hope you enjoy the thought-provoking suite of articles commissioned and curated around this theme, discussing the threats, opportunities and critical role libraries will need to play, particularly in relation to the arrival of a new suite of generative AI tools.  

Steve Witt, in his piece on Global Trends in library and information services, coins the term the 5th Industrial Revolution.  Steve is editor of the journal of the International Federation for Library Institutions & Associations and analyses the themes emerging from research produced by librarians around the globe who highlight technological change as a particular challenge, as well as an opportunity.  

I always like to keep an eye on the start-up space as it’s where I believe we see the most exciting experimental works that give us signals of changes to come.  Sage’s Daniela Duca lives and breathes the start-up world, and her piece is an insight into the views of a few founders of some really exciting startups using emerging technology, big data, AI and VR in new ways for research and learning.

Whilst AI is not new, there has been a step change in the technology with the launch of ChatGPT that I believe is really game changing and likely to have a profound impact on the way we work, and the way library patrons work too.  Raymond Pun from the Alder Graduate School of Education, California, writes an excellent thought piece on ChatGPT in this issue, addressing some of the very real threats the tech poses for student research practice as well as the opportunities for libraries.

One of the things I have been excited about for my own work is the productivity opportunities ChatGPT can grant me (although I didn’t use it to write this article — I promise!).  Pun also references examples emerging of productivity gains for libraries — one example is use of ChatGPT in MARC record creation.  I look forward to seeing what other ideas emerge.  I’m sure there will be much to share at Charleston this year!

I am of the view that for technology to be used well, it needs to be augmented by talent.  There is a social and behavioural angle to this new tech and libraries are uniquely positioned in the institution to play a key role in developing the skills, the technical literacy, to build the critical thinking necessary to use this technology critically, ethically, intelligently.  A number of articles, including Witt’s and Pun’s, discuss aspects of this with some nice examples of new courses emerging on campus.  

Discussions of AI inevitably lead to discussions about job displacement;  however, I am firmly of the belief that the power of technology augments human skills and talent.  I loved reading Tony Zanders’ interview with Dr. K. Matthew Dames (Chief Exec of the Hesburgh Libraries, Notre Dame) where they discuss librarian skills.  As well as an in-depth analogy of the role of librarian with the role of DJ (I learnt new things!) Dr. Dames says this:  “library communities and ecosystems always have really skilled, talented people who are managing the technology that is streamlining and simplifying some of the tasks … it’s the skilled librarians who are connected with stakeholders that are able to preview changes in curriculum or community needs.  They then put that data into the formula or algorithm, at the appropriate time, to ensure that access to knowledge is calibrated in the best interests of the community.”

So, let’s explore and experiment with emerging technology;  let’s talk to the founders thinking about how we might use it tomorrow.  But, let’s do it critically and intelligently.  Let’s build our own skills so that we choose and use our technology well to augment our very human intelligence.  And what a critical role librarians play guiding us through this all.

It has been a pleasure to guest edit this issue.  I hope you enjoy reading the articles as much as I did.  


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