Libraries across the US face potentially steep budget cuts as tax revenues decline. Meanwhile library usage has increased as patrons look to escape the recession for the comforts of freely accessible books and WiFi access.
Mentor Public library is located in Mentor Ohio, USA and has more than 36,000 patrons. This case study speaks about the Mentor Public Library’s decision to provide patrons library information through an artificially intelligent chatbot, named “Emma the MPL Catbot”. A chatbot is an artificially intelligent computer program capable of interacting with patrons, that provides answers to questions frequently encountered by library staff.
Mentor Library chose to release Emma as free software, and is available under the name infoTabby on Google code. Emma is now an instance of the infoTabby project.
Mentor Public Library developed Emma using products and services available from Pandorabots, a chatbot development company. Emma is hosted on a Pandorabots server. Emma augments traditional library staff, by providing accurate and timely answers to a variety of common questions. Emma helps librarians as well as patrons keep up with the new technological developments in traditional and digital reference services, according to a statement from Mentor. Library patrons access information around the clock via handhelds, cell phone text messaging and online virtual environments, a spokesman for the library said.
Launched in November 2009, the online question-and-answer service provides details about accessing Library services. The library is using Emma to track the types of questions and resources requested to make allocate resources for library patrons.
Libraries are reporting increased use by patrons, and point to economic conditions as one possible cause. At the same time libraries are facing potentially steep cutbacks as State and local towns grapple with decreased tax revenues.
David Newyear, developer of Emma’s content, compiled a list of frequently encountered questions as the first step toward building the Pandorabot. Questions included: ‘When are you open?’ or ‘Where can I find this in the library?’. Today, Emma has answered more than 30,000 questions, and currently answers about 1000 questions per week.
When first deployed, Emma was able to answer only 15% of the questions, but now she is hitting the mid 80s or better.
David Newyear gave an excellent presentation about Emma, available in a two part video (The Cat Who Sat Down at the Reference Desk (video) - David Newyear (part 1 of 2) and The Cat Who Sat Down at the Reference Desk (video) - David Newyear (part 2 of 2)) and as a slide presentation (The Cat Who Sat Down at the Reference Desk (pdf) - David Newyear).
In April 2011, Emma’s aiml code was released as open source and forms the basis for an improved version of Emma known as “infoTabby.” infoTabby™ is available to libraries at no cost through Google Code: The infoTabby project.
According to David N, local libraries typically serve quite different populations, and says it is easy to develop custom library bots using Pandorabots technology reflecting the diverse needs of different libraries.
Because infoTabby is able to include non-English content, non-English speakers are able to easily access the Pandorabot for their specific needs.
Libraries serving rural populations typically accessible by car can offer service enhancements (guided searching, linking to demos, 24 hour service availability) with Emma.
Future versions of infoTabby will be able to read books out loud, thus helping vision-impaired people and providing story-telling services to children.
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