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This day’s portion

The dangers of automation (or making a visit to the library worth it)

Software automates, which saves us time, money and tedium. Without it, updating our website would takes dozens of editors and coders, and it’d be pretty dull work.

However, we fear the machines taking over, the power of the algorithm. Automating the wrong things is already causing complex problems beyond unemployment. The mess that newspapers have got themselves in over income and performance are down to offloading their advertising to some machine somewhere or other:

As opposed to coming up with solutions to innovate around advertising, we sacrificed user experience for a couple of bucks on a CPM [cost per thousand]. When our users moved to mobile, we tried to do the same thing, where it’s even more intrusive. [Whether] it’s the ad format or the data being captured or the data use, it’s hard to love online advertising. To Fight Ad Blocking, Build Better Ads

Automation is clearly the right tool for processing lots of information, such as branch library details. But when it comes to making judgements or adding value in some way, it becomes more fuzzy. While Amazon can make useful suggestions based on what you and others have browsed and bought before you don’t really want to offload your advertising to a machine, especially one owned by a shady third party.

My objection to overautomation isn’t just based on its accuracy or relevancy, although I would argue that big data isn’t the panacea its producers make it out to be. When it comes to library websites, an automatically generated list of, say, the 10 latest crime novels or the 10 most popular fantasy titles would be really useful. Without this kind of basic intelligence, they won’t be able to compete with your Amazons.

But no matter how good the algorithm, it can only suggest a book by analysing borrower and meta data. It has no idea that a bit of the plot is particularly interesting to local customers, or that it could be linked to a local event unless someone, somewhere has attached impossible amounts of complex data to it. Hand curation offers us this insight.

There’s a related question of distance, trust and brand here. We know the people who curate our book lists; we can even go into the library and talk to them. They’re a part of our community.

This is the main advantage libraries have over the likes of Google and Amazon: we’re people you know and can relate to. Our motives are clear: we’re not flogging you anything.

Unfortunately, we see overautomation creeping into the library world. While library management systems are a million miles from using complex algorithms, systems such as Open+ are used to replace library staff rather than extend opening hours.

We need to be wary of reducing libraries to places that just dispense books. I can order a bestseller from Amazon and have it on my Kindle in 3 clicks and 30 seconds, or at my house the same day. Travelling to a library and borrowing the same book involves far more effort, and I’ll have to make the return journey within 3 weeks.

What libraries can offer over Amazon – and what makes that journey worthwhile – is a combination of environment, experience and expertise, and that means good staff. Removing people from libraries is simply a step on the path to closing them.