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  Thursday, June 27, 2002

Robots v. Librarians

In today’s TVC Alert, Genie Tyburski, referenced a NY Times story about using robots in libraries to physically retrieve information, “thereby eliminating a trip to the library.” Genie asked for our thoughts about this. Specifically, she asked, “Will such a service help patrons conduct more complete research? Do libraries serve any purpose other than as a storage facility?”

I’d like to respond with an excerpt from Bob Berring’s Thinkable Thoughts column in the latest issue of West’s Law Librarians in the New Millennium concerning Tom Reynolds, former Foreign and International Law Librarian at Boalt Hall, UC-Berkeley:

A student had found a reference to an obscure report she needed on the Nuremberg war trials. We asked Tom, who blinked, looked up, and told us where it was, why it was important, and why the student might want to check an additional source.

Tom personifies distilled expertise. He solved the student’s problem and even went further. The fact that she was getting parts of her question wrong did not dismay him. Indeed, he reformulated it for her. In Tom, we have an information source who refines a question, provides the answer, puts it in context, and takes the person a step further. It suddenly struck me: Tom is what artificial intelligence seeks to be.

The human being who can bring out the beauty of an information system is still crucial. As the systems grow more and more complex, we need this expertise more than ever.

Law librarians know that Bob Berring, the Director of the Boalt Hall Law Library and a professor of law there, is one of the leading thinkers in our field. He’s identified something crucial about libraries and librarians. All librarians know other librarians who have the knowledge and skill to do what Tom did in their area of expertise. No robot can do this now, and I’m not sure AI can ever get that sophisticated.

11:53:36 AM comment []   

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