Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Computers and Library Instruction: Expert Systems

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Computers and Library Instruction: Expert Systems

Article excerpt

One of my vivid memories is that of sitting enthralled in the auditorium of Boston College watching a performance of Handel's Teseo during the Boston Early Music Festival. Suddenly the deus ex machina descended from the baroque skies.

A deus ex machina is a person or thing that appears suddenly or unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty. As BI librarians, we have seen the magic appear.

Librarian et Machina

The Artificial Intelligence/Expert Systems Interest Group of LITA has held several meetings using the phrase librarian ex machina, beginning with (I think) the 1987 session called "Expert Systems or Librarian ex machina." In the September 1990 issue of Computers in Libraries, Judith Kelly published the article "Expert Systems at ALA," in which she chronicled "Librarian Ex Machina 4.0: Planning for Expert Systems," held at the 1990 ALA conference.[1]

Coincidentally, two BI people attended that session and because of it became active in the interest group. Eventually they (Steve Westman and Valerie Feinman) met each other and joined up with Judy Myers of LITA's Hypertext Interest Group to form the program committee for the 1992 meeting jointly sponsored by the AI/ES and HT Groups. More about that later.

So I want to talk about expert systems (ES) and how they impact on library instruction. ES simulate the problem-solving processes of an expert. Their premise is to make a computer program behave like a human expert. One would expect an ES to mimic a human expert in the questions it asks and the decisions it makes.

We don't yet expect it to follow the line of thinking or reasoning followed by a human being. ES have been developed as adjuncts to reference service to provide basic access to periodical citations. Many sophisticated ES have been produced to provide access to materials in certain fields. There are ES available with an empty knowledge base so that knowledge engineers need only construct the knowledge base, that is, customize the shell for a particular use or library.

Beyond ES: Friendly Interface

If the BI librarian only taught students how to use the catalog (card or OPAC) and abstracts and indexes, then perhaps we could or should be replaced by ES. I like to think that we go much further than that, providing a friendly interface to the library itself, aiding in the process of retaining students, cajoling a patron to look in just one more place, and remembering a pertinent article that we read just that morning.

No, I have no fears that we will soon be replaced by ES. But that does not mean that our job descriptions will not change or that we won't use ES to help us. We have evolving technologies that can make us more efficient.

We also have peers working in enormous libraries who need all the help they can get. They are the ones with the most need for and interest in ES, they will develop the programs, and we will all benefit when more tools, shells, and programs are developed.

BI: Library Literacy

Library instruction should not be a one-shot introduction to sources required for one research paper but should be an ongoing process of library literacy. In an informal survey it was found that most BI people are also reference people or at least occasionally serve at reference desks. It was strongly felt that knowledge of what patrons want, gleaned while at the reference desk, was critical in planning for and delivering instruction.

Because many ES being developed for use in libraries are meant as adjuncts to reference librarianship, it is logical that BI people should take part in their development and application. Several extant ES lead the student down logical paths in the selection of tools needed to find appropriate resources held in that library and are able to supply information on a given topic.

One of the areas that we call our own is instruction in the selection and use of abstracts and indexes to find articles. …

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