What Future Will Watson and DPLA Make for Libraries?


It was January of 2014 since I last wrote a post about IBM’s “Watson” cognitive computer. That’s actually longer than I expected before hearing news about this revolutionary computer. In that post I wrote:

Just as historic as Bell creating communication over wire, Marconi making it wireless, and Perotto creating the desktop computer, IBM has broken through technology to the holy grail of computing by inventing Watson – the cognitive computer.

Would you rather “Ask a Librarian” with human limitations and biases with limited resources at your local library, or speak to a computer with almost infinite knowledge who will recommend resources and even tell you how confident it is that it will satisfy your question? Would you rather go to the Only Vanilla Ice Cream Store, or to Baskin & Robbins 31 Kinds?

Combine the threat to libraries from “e-book and digital media retailers” that Brantley addressed with the threat from Watson toward the reference role of libraries and it is obvious that libraries MUST reinvent themselves NOW! As I wrote last February; “This is by no means the first or even a new call to action, but … time is running out for libraries to find their place in the community they serve. I for one seriously wonder what it will take for library leaders to recognize the future challenges and adopt a vision to overcome them and save the library. Traditional librarianship is a relic of the past century. Creative and innovative thinking with visionary leadership and bold action is the only approach that will save libraries” in the 21st Century.

The “What Is Watson” website:
IBM Watson is a technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data

How Watson answers questions
First Watson learns a new subject
• All related materials are loaded into Watson, such as Word documents, PDFs and web pages
• Questions and answers pairs are added to train Watson on the subject
• Watson is automatically updated as new information is published

How Watson learns
Then Watson answers a question
• Watson searches millions of documents to find thousands of possible answers
• Collects evidence and uses a scoring algorithm to rate the quality of this evidence
• Ranks all possible answers based on the score of its supporting evidence

I recently reviewed the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) to see how that is progressing, since there is an obvious match-up between the two – super smart computer that needs an extensive database to learn! They have hundreds more contributors than last time I checked, and are now at about 2.5 Million volumes, so obviously they are growing exponentially. DPLA is still frequently in the news.

So, what does a merging of Watson and DPLA mean for librarians? Twenty years ago librarians thought that the proliferation of the Internet would put an end to their usefulness. Well, it did and it didn’t. In the beginning of this new century libraries experienced a decline in users, those people who actually came into the library to check out books. However, as the first decade passed, users became new types of customers. They could get digital and audio materials from their local library, and libraries started to adjust to offering more customer-centered services and became less library-centric. Libraries began reaching out to users, rather than being the stoic institution that users had to come to for unique services. Libraries’ services, at least in terms of collections, were no longer unique.

I still agree with the saying that “Closing libraries in an economic crisis is like closing hospitals in an epidemic.” And, of course, “Now that we have Google, why do we need libraries?” is answered by asking “Now that we have WedMD, why do we need doctors?” Having said that, let’s consider how a marriage between Watson and DPLA affects librarians.

As the volume of published materials also increases exponentially, it becomes like the air – IT’S EVERYWHERE – and thanks to DPLA and Watson it’s as easily accessible as air. Way back in September of 2010 I wrote about the new high school curriculum standards that 12th grade students are expected to meet before graduation – 21st Century Skills in Action in School Libraries

7e. Benchmarks to Achieve by Grade 12

Standard 1: Inquire, think critically, and gain knowledge.

Strand 1.1: Skills

Indicator 1.1.1:  Follow an inquiry-based process in seeking knowledge in curricular subjects, and make the real-world connection for using this process in own life.

·Independently and systematically use an inquiry-based process to deepen content knowledge, connect academic learning with the real world, pursue personal interests, and investigate opportunities for personal growth.

Indicator 1.1.2:  Use prior and background knowledge as context for new learning.

·Explore general information sources to increase familiarity with the topic or question.

·Review the initial information need to develop, clarify, revise, or refine the question.

·Compare new background information with prior knowledge to determine direction and focus of new learning.

Indicator 1.1.3:  Develop and refine a range of questions to frame the search for new understanding.

·Recognize that the purpose of the inquiry determines the type of questions and the type of thinking required (e.g., an historical purpose may require one to take a position and defend it).

·Explore problems or questions for which there are multiple answers or no “best” answer.

·Review the initial information need to clarify, revise, or refine the questions.

Indicator 1.1.4:  Find, evaluate, and select appropriate sources to answer questions.

·Identify the value of and differences among potential resources in a variety of formats.

·Use various search systems to retrieve information in a variety of formats.

·Seek and use a variety of specialized resources available from libraries, the Internet, and the community.

·Describe criteria used to make resource decisions and choices.

Indicator 1.1.5:  Evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis of accuracy, validity, appropriateness for needs, importance, and social and cultural context.

·Evaluate historical information for validity of interpretation, and scientific information for accuracy and reliability of data.

·Recognize the social, cultural, or other context within which the information was created and explain the impact of context on interpreting the information.

·Use consciously selected criteria to determine whether the information contradicts or verifies information from other sources.

Indicator 1.1.6: Read, view, and listen for information presented in any format (e.g., textual, visual, media, digital) in order to make inferences and gather meaning.

·Restate concepts in own words and select appropriate data accurately.

·Integrate new information presented in various formats with previous information or knowledge.

·Analyze initial synthesis of findings and construct new hypotheses or generalizations if warranted.

·Challenge ideas represented and make notes of questions to pursue in additional sources.

Indicator 1.1.7:  Make sense of information gathered from diverse sources by identifying misconceptions, main and supporting ideas, conflicting information, and point of view or bias.

·Create a system to organize the information.

·Analyze the structure and logic of supporting arguments or methods.

·Analyze information for prejudice, deception, or manipulation.

·Investigate different viewpoints encountered and determine whether and how to incorporate or reject these viewpoints.

·Compensate for the effect of point of view and bias by seeking alternative perspectives.

Indicator 1.1.8:  Demonstrate mastery of technology tools for accessing information and pursuing inquiry.

·Select the most appropriate technologies to access and retrieve the needed information.

·Use various technologies to organize and manage the information selected.

·Create own electronic learning spaces by collecting and organizing links to information resources, working collaboratively, and sharing new ideas and understandings with others.

Indicator 1.1.9:  Collaborate with others to broaden and deepen understanding.

·Model social skills and character traits that advance a team’s ability to identify issues and problems and work together on solutions and products.

·Design and implement projects that include participation from diverse groups.

Seriously, can any public librarian read this list of expectations of what the high school graduate will soon know about information literacy and NOT question their own role in the library profession? School librarians have always supported the curriculum, faculty and students, but the public librarian role is NOT so clear cut.

Presuming that a high school graduate has actually become competent in all the Standards described above, how many librarians (MLS or not) can say they are MORE proficient than that? Maybe these standards should be the new standards for librarians. Public librarians have the opportunity and the challenge to become more than they ever thought they could be, or …………….. The alternative is not enticing!

That was five years ago. How much progress do you imagine schools have made in the graduating classes in the past five years? Add this level of information literacy to the explosion of availability that Watson and DPLA can create and anyone in this profession MUST question what the future holds for librarians – especially reference librarians in the public library.

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One response to “What Future Will Watson and DPLA Make for Libraries?

  1. Pingback: Latest Library Links 27th November 2015 | Latest Library Links

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