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University robot ‘Libby’ brings the future library closer

By Robyn Thekiso

We need to move beyond talking about the fourth industrial revolution and translate this into action. If we don’t embrace it, we’ll ultimately fail.

This is the view of Isak van der Walt, Digital Scholarship Centre and MakerSpace manager at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, on the recent introduction of a client service robot in its library.

The robot, known as ‘Libby’, is the first of its kind known to be employed in any university library in Africa and is part of the University of Pretoria’s Department of Library Services’ drive to become a 21st century service centre.

Part of strategic plan

“We’re implementing our strategic plan and Libby is just a part of this,” explains Van der Walt. “We’re actively busy with this [digital integration], it’s not planning phase anymore.”

According to a university statement, Libby weighs 19 kg and is 90 cm tall – tall enough to interact with visitors in wheelchairs. She has an array of over 60 sensors, cameras and software integrations that enable her to receive and process various commands and requests. A tablet integrated on her chest area is for manual input and her brain is connected to Watson, IBM’s question-answering computer system, which processes queries directed at it.

Libby runs off Android-based software, which opens up opportunities for the Department of Library Services to develop new and exciting client-facing applications. Libby, however, is not all work and no play: she will dance for you, play music and enjoys a light pat on the head.

Digital innovation

It’s been a few weeks since Libby made her appearance at the University of Pretoria’s Merensky Library on the Hatfield Campus and her “celebrity status” has not waned as both staff and visitors have welcomed the digital innovation.

“The feedback has been really good (to date) and there’s still a lot of hype around Libby. Not many people see robots in action and there’s almost disbelief. For our staff, it adds a new dimension to what they’re doing and broadens their skills capacity,” said Van der Walt.

“I can see the type of questions that she’s being asked, which are “small talk”, novelty-type [questions] but these will become more service-related later once everyone is more familiar with her.”

Van der Walt said while there has been the “expected” concern around Libby replacing humans, this is not the case. Libby is a direct result of a needs analysis conducted with student focus groups and addresses the need for students to engage in quality client-facing interaction with library staff.

Libby has been imported from China to save costs as well as to meet the tight timeframes for implementation. “It would have been more expensive and also take much longer to build – up to a year – if we had done it. But we will build our own later,” said Van der Walt, reinforcing that the university is committed to continued technological innovation in the library.

The library of the future

As the first African university to launch, in 2015, an academic MakerSpace – a creative laboratory where people with ideas can meet people with technical ability to turn ideas into reality – the library of the future at the University of Pretoria is not too far away.

“By 2020, you will already see a major difference in the library and we’re fast-tracking this,” said Van der Walt. “The reality is that digital books are in demand. We can already see it in our circulation and acquisitions [figures for physical books]”.

He said the core function of academic libraries will shift as they become co-working, social environments with increased automation to empower students and visitors to navigate on their own. As the library makes use of more robotic and artificial intelligence platforms, it will be critical to ensure that librarians have the right skillset to meet the demands of new technology.

The urgency of digital adoption and innovation at the University of Pretoria Department of Library Services is clear.

Van der Walt said Libby was introduced sooner rather than later as they “would rather fail with Libby and learn from those mistakes as there is no right time”. He’s also quick to admit that there have already been learnings that will impact future developments.

First published on University World News on 12 July 2019. Pic: University of Pretoria.

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