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How Should Public Libraries Leverage AI Technology?

A new report released last week by the Urban Libraries Council outlines five recommendations of how public libraries can use artificial intelligence technologies in their work to serve communities.

Image shows perspective looking down a library hallway with shelves of books
The Urban Libraries Council (ULC) has released a report outlining five ways libraries can use AI technology in their work.

The role of public libraries has shifted towards technology lending in recent years, playing an essential role in digital equity work and offering rental opportunity for emerging technologies.

With the rise of AI technology, libraries’ role seems to be shifting yet again. The ULC report aims to act as a leadership brief for libraries and other stakeholders to advance the responsible use of AI and generative AI.

It offers five recommendations for how libraries can integrate generative AI: move from informing to practicalizing; leverage prompt engineering skills; advance information literacy; create an AI-focused digital inclusion network; and advocate for the responsible use of AI.

First, libraries can shift from informing to practicalizing, meaning that libraries can put AI in action, leveraging the tools for performance improvements and program design at library branches. The report cites the work of the San Jose Public Library, which uses machine learning to improve data accuracy.

Second, AI can be used in leveraging prompt engineering skills of the library professionals who are already trained to find information with keywords and phrases. Although AI capabilities are changing, AI models still currently require some form of human input. For language models, the quality of prompt input can impact the quality of the output.

Third, hands-on use of AI can help advance the information literacy of both library staff and patrons through educational workshops. Just as libraries play an important role in enhancing digital literacy, they can play a role in enhancing AI literacy. For the Palo Alto City Library in California, an AI storytelling event helped improve community understanding and awareness of this tech.

Fourth, an AI-focused digital inclusion network can help ensure equitable access to this type of technology. While these already exist in the digital equity space for some libraries, the report suggests AI literacy or the lack thereof could similarly become a barrier to economic opportunity.

And lastly, libraries can help advocate for the responsible use of AI to advance community benefits while preserving foundational library standards of access to information. While the path toward comprehensive federal regulation of AI is yet to be determined, libraries, as advocates of ethical use of emerging technologies, can help shape this path.

“While there are persistent concerns that must be addressed on AI being used for misinformation, the opportunities in front of us are manifold,” said ULC President and CEO Brooks Rainwater in the announcement. “This includes responsible applications that improve efficiency, speed up communication and serve as a useful tool for showcasing and validating library services and resources.”

The report underlines the possibility of AI widening the digital divide and the role of libraries in mitigating that risk.

The report was created with insight and contributions from public library officials, including the New York Public Library, the San Jose Public Library, the Boston Public Library and others.