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Where Can the Next Generation of Library Tech Take Us?

The recent American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., saw a gathering of librarians and the companies that sell them tech products for their work, some of which provide a glimpse of the future.

Modern library resources transposed over a laptop.
Imagine a kiosk in the lobby of an unlocked library at night. You walk in, swipe your library card, and the kiosk spits out a laptop. Off you go, with a computer you've just checked out from the library without any interaction with your local librarian. In fact, a librarian may not have even been on site.

This sort of unattended library innovation was one of the relatively new technologies on display at the 2022 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference and Exhibition, which took place over the weekend before concluding this week in Washington, D.C. And it may provide a glimpse into where library technology is generally headed, with tech enabling unattended library services, more efficient decision-making at libraries and better digital literacy work with the community.

While the technology for things like unattended laptop rental kiosks has existed for years, what's new is the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic led to more libraries embracing this sort of technology. In fact, one speaker in a panel about the future of library technology said just that.

Susan Pastore, senior vice president of North American sales for library technology company Bibliotheca, said that before the pandemic, these sort of unattended services would have "turned a lot of library directors green."

Now, the industry is starting to build more products with technology similar to unattended lockers being used by private-sector retail giants like Amazon and Home Depot.

Another panel at the event centered around the Library of Things, which looked at a wide array of technologies that have been the subject of work at the iSchool Library Technology Research Lab (LTRL) at San Jose State University in California. That panel centered on four main types of technologies shaping the future of the library tech industry: robots, drones, augmented learning and virtual reality.

Artificial intelligence is also likely to play an outsized role in the future of the way libraries use technology, and it too was the subject of a panel at the event. This means using artificial intelligence in the service of data-driven decision-making about what materials to stock in collections, as well as broader use of machine learning to make scholarly and reference materials available in digital format.

The other major tech issue center stage at the event was the role of the library on the front line of digital inclusion work in the United States, which has also soared after the pandemic. In fact, the opening session of the conference was a conversation between Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and ALA President Patricia Wong.

It was a fitting combination of speakers, in that libraries have long been the public sector's front line for digital equity work in the United States, providing communities with free access to devices, the Internet and digital literacy classes. The FCC, meanwhile, has been one of the leaders at the federal level of digital equity and broadband work, increasingly so in recent years after the pandemic bumped digital inclusion near the top of many governmental priority lists. The commission even had a table on the exhibition floor passing out information about the federal Affordable Connectivity Program to attending librarians.

During the conversation, the speakers announced that the FCC and the Institute of Museum and Library Services had signed a memorandum of understanding to help close the digital divide. This was, essentially, the federal government formally recognizing how important libraries are in these growing efforts.

Also in her conversation with Wong, Rosenworcel struck an optimistic tone for public service, digital equity and the role of librarians in helping to shape the country's tech-laden future, saying, "We have problems to solve, and we owe it to ourselves and the next generation to have the optimism to solve them."
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.