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The IDEA Institute on AI is such a necessary resource for the library field

Trevor Watkins

July 16, 2021

Prior to the pandemic in August 2019, I, on behalf of my research partners, presented a poster at the International Federation of Library Association and Institutions World Library and Information Congress in Athens Greece. The project, which had been suspended because of Covid-19, but has since resumed last month, is a multi-institutional effort to create a public-facing interactive visualization of the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The project is called “The Cosmology of Artificial Intelligence Project.” What was so interesting about the poster session, was the number of international libraries that were working on AI projects. However, when we conversed about what AI was and what AI wasn’t, what I learned was quite alarming. There were some presenters that didn’t really understand the field in general nor many of the concepts they were presenting on in their respective projects. For those who did, there was a focus on a specific technique they were using, and/or tool they used or built to get their project to proof of concept or a working prototype. Most of those researchers/practitioners were using machine learning (ML) techniques. For those who didn’t, they just used the term AI throughout their presentation without really making a connection between the purpose of the project and how they specifically were using AI. I left the conference wanting to know a little more about how libraries were using machine learning in America, but then the pandemic hit. Throughout the IDEA Institute, I had the opportunity to get my feet wet in the ML ecosystem. The Cordell report provided a much-needed overview of the state of ML in libraries, and after each day, I went back to the hotel and spent at least one to two hours gathering articles to learn more.

I have always recognized the good and potential that AI and ML bring to enhance society, but am also not ignorant to the harm it causes. When we first began our project, we envisioned using libraries, makerspaces, schools, and science centers as spaces where these interactive visualizations would live on Kiosks and in digital and physical exhibits. We were able to recruit two public libraries as partners, who will be the first to have the Kiosks and exhibits, but what I realize now is that we will need to train them so that they will be able to do programming and events in their library to educate the public. I hope that the IDEA Institute on AI continues after the conclusion of the IMLS grant. This has been such a rewarding experience! What’s more, is the community of practice that has been established among the participants of the first cohort who come from many different backgrounds in the library field.

My final thought is that there is a need for a new position in all public and academic libraries. In the future, I hope to see an AI librarian position created to support academic libraries who seek to become more involved in the field both as creators and users of the technology, and also as educators of up-and-coming AI practitioners. Similarly, I envision AI librarians in public libraries as disseminators of information of the field, to keep the general public aware of how they already use AI the implications of that usage, and what is coming down the pipeline.


Post Author: Trevor Watkins