Using AI to replace library staff

Target audience – FE and HE college students at levels 1 to 4

Age Group – 16 to 19 (18+?)

Short overview of scenario

A scenario has already been written whereby AI finds everything a learner needs to complete their assignment. Let’s take this a step further and postulate that a robot replaces library staff entirely. The robot will assist users on a day to day basis directing them to resources. It will also perform inductions and even advanced inductions (if in an academic library). What is not considered is the additional role a library staff member performs by empathising with users who have problems, worries or even mental health issues.

Scenario description

A library user enters a library and asks for a book, the robot directs them to it. Another asks for books on a subject and the robot cleverly directs them not only to the books but to relevant journal articles and online resources. Another user has confidence issues and doesn’t like using technology. Who do they ask? Another user has the opposite problem, they have mental health issues and much prefer using technology so they ask the robot for help, no need to deal with people and the robot helps. The next user is drunk and abusive. How does the robot deal with the situation? The last user is upset or homeless or just needs somewhere to be to get out of the cold and has come to the library because they feel safe here. Will the robot recognise they have issues without them verbalising them? Can the robot empathise with the person? Can they help them with their issues?

Scenario Objectives

  1. Students should be able to decide which of the five users will be successfully supported by the robot/library.
  2. Students should understand that libraries perform far more than the role of issuing books and actually have a place supporting the community.
  3. Students will begin to understand the limitations of AI in recognising and acting on subtle indicators which humans exhibit and other humans can detect.


No equipment required

Outline plan 

Activity 1 of 2Tutor or student plays the part of a robot and other students are given roles to play asking for assistance.
Timing30 minutes
MethodsStudents carrying out a role play activity.
What the tutor is doingEither being the robot or selecting a suitable student and instructing them on how to play the part
What the learners are doingTake it in turns to individually approach the ‘robot’ for help, following a loose script.Student 1 asks for a specific bookStudent 2 asks for books on a subject (tutor directs them to the correct section)Student 3 asks for books on a subject (tutor directs them to the correct section but also shows them other library resources relevant)Student 4 wants help but won’t interact with the robot because they don’t trust it and lack confidence in their ability to use it.Student 5 confidently asks the robot for help, perhaps they are approached by another learner playing the part of a human librarian and the student doesn’t like that.Student 6 acts drunk and abusive towards the robot, the robot does not understand what it is being asked.Student 7 is approached by the robot but the student does not want help, just wants to be left alone, appears unhappy or upset.
Equipment and SupportNone needed
Link to AI@School CurriculumSkills in an AI-enabled workplace.Humans are capable of abstract thinking, making critical arguments, and using creativity to solve problems, we call this “generalised intelligence”. Computer programs however can only solve one problem, they are extremely good at solving one particular problem and completing one particular task at a time. We call this “specialized intelligence”. AI is not capable of ‘thinking’ outside of its specific programming. Human judgement will continue to be relevant across all sectors.
Assessment of/for learningCritical and Analytical ThinkingA person with critical thinking skills can suggest innovative solutions and ideas, solve complex problems using reasoning and logic and evaluate arguments. AI may be able to deal with specific problems but will never beat a human when there’s a big picture to deal with.
Resources/links/relevant content/ExamplesAberystwyth University robot librarianOn YouTubeThe robot’s own website
Activity 2 of 2Discussion about the ethics of using AI in a library to support library users of all types and varying needs.
Timing30 minutes
MethodsTeacher facilitates discussion about what happened in scenario 1
What the tutor is doingExplaining the situation, i.e. that a robot is expected to carry out the human interactions faced daily by library staff. Facilitate the discussion.
What the learners are doingDiscussing whether a robot could successfully carry out all or any of the tasks expected of library staff. Can they provide the same level of service a human does.
Equipment and SupportNone
Link to AI@School CurriculumSkills in an AI-enabled workplace.Consider the skills required in the workplace of the futureUnderstand some of the key differences between human intelligence and AI 
Assessment of/for learningDo the learners understand that no matter how well an AI can mimic a human, it doesn’t have empathy, understanding, emotion, cultural sensitivity, imagination or the ability to care.Communication skillsDespite advances in natural language processing, humans are still better at communicating with humans than AI are. Humans use body language, tone of voice and social queues combined with emotional reasoning, empathy and understanding in order to both get their message across and understand the message being communicated to them
Resources/links/relevant content/Examples

Activities 1 and 2 encourage learners to consider:

  • To think critically about what we should allow AI systems to do and how these intelligent systems should be implemented in our society.

Our notes from practice

This scenario is more relevant to public libraries but also true to some degree in academic libraries. Library staff do far more than find books and resources for library users, they also perform a public service and support people on the fringes of society.

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