The Robot Librarian

Imagine a scene in the future where robots have replaced not all humans but only librarians. Does this not send a chill down your spine? No? Then imagine you are an undergraduate working on your first assignment. After checking the catalogue, you realize that you need a few books. You decide to borrow them, so you make your way to the library.

Feeling excited about your first visit to the library, you overlook the fact that locating the correct book amidst several thousand titles is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. So you approach the information desk, but to your surprise, find a robot with a permanent grin pasted on its face. “How can I help you?” it intones. You decide to give the non-sentient being a chance. You ask for one of the books that you need, but stumble over your choice of words. In response, the robot librarian beeps “ERROR!” Feeling awkward, you try again. “Where can I find this particular book?” you ask.

In response, the robot librarian flashes the call number while chanting it. Staring at the number, you wonder what it means and you ask the robot. In response, it recites the dictionary definition of  “call number”. Unsure about how to use the call number, you ask the robot librarian to help you find the book. To your disappointment, the robot declares that it cannot climb the stairs. You try your luck by asking another question, this time a real research question. “I’m writing a paper on gender and medical education in Singapore. I need to know who was the first female doctor to graduate from a local institution.”  The robot librarian looks confused and does a frenzied but futile search of the catalogue and internet. With rising frustration, you mutter a sarcastic comment under your breath…

Dear reader, you can probably predict a bleak ending for this scene. The usual adage applies here: technology cannot and should not replace the human librarian. No matter how advanced it may be, technology should remain as a bridge linking information to seekers, with librarians serving as curators, educators and interpreters, all of which are necessary roles in this age of information overload.

Thevaprakash Goeffrey
Hon Sui Sen Memorial Library

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