Reflection: New Horizons

Amazon Echo (2nd Gen)

After browsing through this week’s readings and videos, I thought about how I use virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home in my day-to-day life, and wanted to reflect on how it changed my information seeking habits.

While I don’t make use of it every day, I think I can attribute that to having to overcome a strong sense of what I can only describe as ‘horror’ at the potential violation of my privacy that these devices represented in my life.

But the fact of the matter is that when I do make use of Alexa I do it almost reflexively, it is so convenient and effortless to get small pieces of information like how long a certain dish might take to cook, or to add or take something away from a shopping list that I might otherwise forget as I’m rushing out the door. In two of the articles this week multitasking was a factor in why people made use of their virtual assistants, and I have to agree after thinking about it for myself, after some reflection I realized that I had set up the machine in the kitchen area because that was where I most often began multitasking (I don’t know if it’s the space itself in my home or the function, but I find myself starting tons of separate tasks in the kitchen that I can easily lose track of).

When I think about how routine it is to have this source of information at the ready, I have to think about how this influences libraries and library thinking. How can libraries meet and learn from something that benefits not only from a massive investment from a private company, but also the millions or hundreds of millions of datapoints that virtual assistants have access to when making a search or trying to interpret a command?

I think the strongest message I take from this convenience is that libraries should try and meet the responsiveness of these devices, to try and make library spaces places where if a need is expressed there is a clear and visible way to meet that information need or space need as quickly as possible. Utility is key to building sustained use, if Alexa shut down every time I asked it something I would never use it, and so libraries should try and build places and services that aren’t readily available online, and do so in a way that reinforces the place of the library in the community. Whether this takes the form of a physical space being available almost on demand or easily by appointment (conference rooms, study spaces, makerspaces, etc.) or a service (notaries, reference services, digital catalogs), I think that responsiveness to patron needs with tangible results is the lesson I took away from some of the week’s readings.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi James,
    I agree that in the age of instant answers, libraries need to consider how to meet patron needs in a fast and possibly remote way. In any form though, library service ought to be simple to use and benefit the community it serves, like you said in your closing statement.

  2. How interesting to think about “always on” or readily available info spaces!

    My relationship with my virtual assistants has evolved. I talk to Siri more than Alexa these days, in part because Apple does place such high emphasis on privacy. (I am aware of the brouhaha a few months ago about people listening to Siri recordings!)

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