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Near Us and Libraries, Robots Have Arrived

** This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on Oct. 12, 2015.***

The movie, Robot and Frank, describes the future in which the elderly have a robot as their companion and also as a helper. The robot monitors various activities that relate to both mental and physical health and helps Frank with various house chores. But Frank also enjoys the robot’s company and goes on to enlist the robot into his adventure of breaking into a local library to steal a book and a greater heist later on. People’s lives in the movie are not particularly futuristic other than a robot in them. And even a robot may not be so futuristic to us much longer either. As a matter of fact, as of June 2015, there is now a commercially available humanoid robot that is close to performing some of the functions that the robot in the movie ‘Frank and Robot’ does.


Pepper Robot, Image from Aldebaran,

A Japanese company, SoftBank Robotics Corp. released a humanoid robot named ‘Pepper’ to the market back in June. The Pepper robot is 4 feet tall, 61 pounds, speaks 17 languages and is equipped with an array of cameras, touch sensors, accelerometer, and other sensors in his “endocrine-type multi-layer neural network,” according to the CNN report.  The Pepper robot was priced at ¥198,000 ($1,600). The Pepper owners are also responsible for an additional ¥24,600 ($200) monthly data and insurance fee. While the Pepper robot is not exactly cheap, it is surprisingly affordable for a robot. This means that the robot industry has now matured to the point where it can introduce a robot that the mass can afford.

Robots come in varying capabilities and forms. Some robots are as simple as a programmable cube block that can be combined with one another to be built into a working unit. For example, Cubelets from Modular Robotics are modular robots that are used for educational purposes. Each cube performs one specific function, such as flash, battery, temperature, brightness, rotation, etc. And one can combine these blocks together to build a robot that performs a certain function. For example, you can build a lighthouse robot by combining a battery block, a light-sensor block, a rotator block, and a flash block.


A variety of cubelets available from the Modular Robotics website.

A variety of cubelets available from the Modular Robotics website.


By contrast, there are advanced robots such as those in the form of an animal developed by a robotics company, Boston Dynamics. Some robots look like a human although much smaller than the Pepper robot. NAO is a 58-cm tall humanoid robot that moves, recognizes, hears and talks to people that was launched in 2006. Nao robots are an interactive educational toy that helps students to learn programming in a fun and practical way.

Noticing their relevance to STEM education, some libraries are making robots available to library patrons. Westport Public Library provides robot training classes for its two Nao robots. Chicago Public Library lends a number of Finch robots that patrons can program to see how they work. In celebration of the National Robotics Week back in April, San Diego Public Library hosted their first Robot Day educating the public about how robots have impacted the society. San Diego Public Library also started a weekly Robotics Club inviting anyone to join in to help build or learn how to build a robot for the library. Haslet Public Library offers the Robotics Camp program for 6th to 8th graders who want to learn how to build with LEGO Mindstorms EV3 kits. School librarians are also starting robotics clubs. The Robotics Club at New Rochelle High School in New York is run by the school’s librarian, Ryan Paulsen. Paulsen’s robotics club started with faculty, parent, and other schools’ help along with a grant from NASA and participated in a FIRST Robotics Competition. Organizations such as the Robotics Academy at Carnegie Mellon University provides educational outreach and resources.

Image from Aldebaran website at

There are also libraries that offer coding workshops often with Arduino or Raspberry Pi, which are inexpensive computer hardware. Ames Free Library offers Raspberry Pi workshops. San Diego Public Library runs a monthly Arduino Enthusiast Meetup.  Arduinos and Raspberry Pis can be used to build digital devices and objects that can sense and interact the physical world, which are close to a simple robot. We may see  more robotics programs at those libraries in the near future.

Robots can fulfill many other functions than being educational interactive toys, however. For example, robots can be very useful in healthcare. A robot can be a patient’s emotional companion just like the Pepper. Or it can provide an easy way to communicate for a patient and her/his caregiver with physicians and others. A robot can be used at a hospital to move and deliver medication and other items and function as a telemedicine assistant. It can also provide physical assistance for a patient or a nurse and even be use for children’s therapy.

Humanoid robots like Pepper may also serve at a reception desk at companies. And it is not difficult to imagine them as sales clerks at stores. Robots can be useful at schools and other educational settings as well. At a workplace, teleworkers can use robots to achieve more active presence. For example, universities and colleges can offer a similar telepresence robot to online students who want to virtually experience and utilize the campus facilities or to faculty who wish to offer the office hours or collaborate with colleagues while they are away from the office. As a matter of fact, the University of Texas, Arlington, Libraries recently acquired several Telepresence Robots to lend to their faculty and students.

Not all robots do or will have the humanoid form as the Pepper robot does. But as robots become more and more capable, we will surely get to see more robots in our daily lives.


Alpeyev, Pavel, and Takashi Amano. “Robots at Work: SoftBank Aims to Bring Pepper to Stores.” Bloomberg Business, June 30, 2015.

“Boston Dynamics.” Accessed September 8, 2015.

Boyer, Katie. “Robotics Clubs At the Library.” Public Libraries Online, June 16, 2014.

“Finch Robots Land at CPL Altgeld.” Chicago Public Library, May 12, 2014.

McNickle, Michelle. “10 Medical Robots That Could Change Healthcare – InformationWeek.” InformationWeek, December 6, 2012.

Singh, Angad. “‘Pepper’ the Emotional Robot, Sells out within a Minute.”, June 23, 2015.

Tran, Uyen. “SDPL Labs: Arduino Aplenty.” The Library Incubator Project, April 17, 2015.

“UT Arlington Library to Begin Offering Programming Robots for Checkout.” University of Texas Arlington, March 11, 2015.

Waldman, Loretta. “Coming Soon to the Library: Humanoid Robots.” Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2014, sec. New York.

Why Not Grow Coders from the inside of Libraries?

How fantastic would it be if every small library has an in-house developer? We will be all using open-source software with custom feature modules that would perfectly fit our vision and the needs of the community we serve. Libraries will then truly be the smart consumers of technology not at the mercy of clunky systems. Furthermore, it would re-position libraries as “contributors” to the technology that enables the public to access information and knowledge resources. I am sure no librarian will object to this vision. But at this time of ever-shrinking library budget, affording enough librarians itself is a challenge let alone hiring a developer.

But why should this be the case? Librarians are probably one of the most tech-savvy professionals after IT and science/ engineering/ marketing folks. So why aren’t there more librarians who code? Why don’t we see a surge of librarian coders? After all, we are living in times in which the web is the platform for almost all human activities and libraries are changing its name to something like learning and ‘technology’ center.

I don’t think that coding is too complicated or too much to learn for any librarian regardless of their background. Today’s libraries offer such a wide range of resources and services online and deploy and rely on so many systems from an ILS to a digital asset management system that libraries can benefit a great deal from those staff who have even a little bit of understanding in coding.

The problem is, I think, libraries do not proactively encourage nor strongly support their in-house library staff to become coders. I am not saying that all librarians / library staff should learn how to code like a wizard. But it is an undeniable fact that there are enough people in the library land who are seriously interested in coding and capable of becoming a coder. But chances are, these people will have no support from their own libraries. If they are working in non-technology-related areas, it will be completely up to them to pursue and pay for any type of learning opportunities. Until they prove themselves to be capable of a certain level of coding, they may not even be able to get hands-on experience of working in library technologies/systems/programming. And when they become capable, they may have to seek a new job if they are serious about putting to use their newly acquired programming skills.

It is puzzling to me why libraries neglect to make conscious efforts in supporting their staff who are interested in coding to further develop their skills while freely admitting that they would benefit from having a programmer on staff. Perhaps it is the libraries that are making the wrong distinction between library work and technology work. They are so much more closely intertwined than, say, a decade ago. Even library schools that are slow to change are responding and adding technology courses to their curriculum and teaching all LIS students basic HTML. But certainly libraries can use staff who want to move beyond HTML.

At the 2011 ALA Midwinter, I attended LITA Head of Library Technology Interest Group meeting. One of the issues discussed there was how to recruit and maintain the IT workforce within libraries. Some commented the challenge of recruting people from the IT industry, which often pays more than libraries do. Some mentioned how to quickly acclimate those new to libraries to the library culture and technology. Others discussed the difficulty of retaining IT professionals in libraries since libraries tend to promote only librarians with MLS degrees and tend to exclude non-librarians from the important decision-making process. Other culture differences between IT and libraries were also discussed.

These are all valid concerns and relevant discussion topics. But I was amazed by the fact that almost all assumed that the library IT people would come from the IT sector and outside from libraries. Some even remarked that they prefered to hire from the IT industry outside libraries when they fill a position. This discussion was not limited to programmers but inclusive of all IT professionals. Still, I think perhaps there is something wrong if libraries only plan to steal IT people from the outside without making any attempt to invest in growing some of those technology people inside themselves. IT professionals who come from the general IT industry may be great coders but they do not know about libraries. This is exactly the same kind of cause for inflexible library systems created by programmers who do not know enough about the library’s businesses and workflows.

So why don’t libraries work to change that?

One of the topics frequently discussed in librareis these days is open source software. At the recent 2011 Code4Lib conference, there was a breakout session about what kind of help would allow libraries to more actively adopt open source software adn systems. Those who have experience in working with open source software at the session unanimously agreed that adopting open-source is not cheap. There is a misconception that by adopting open source software, libraries will save money. But if so, at least that would not be the case in any short tem. Open-source requires growing knowledgeable technology staff in-house who would understand the software fully and able to take advantage of its flexibility to benefit the organization’s goals. It is not something you can buy cheap off the shelf and make it work by turning a key. While adopting open-source will provide freedom to libraries to experiment and improve their services and thereby empower lirbaries, those benefits will not come for free without investment.

Some may ask why not simply hire services from a third-party company that will support the open-source software or system that a library will adopt. But without the capability of understanding the source and of making changes as needed, how would libraries harness the real power of open-source unless the goal is just a friendier vendor-library relationship?

In his closing talk at the 2011 Code4Lib conference, Eric Hellman pointed out the fact that many library programmers are self-taught and often ‘fractional’ coders in the sense that they can afford to spend only a fraction of their time on coding. The fact that most library coders are fractional coders is all the more reason for having more coders in libraries, so that more time can be spent collectively on coding for libraries. Although enthusiastic, many novice coders are often lost about how certain programming languages or software tools are or can be applied to current library services and systems and need guidance about which coding skills are most relevant and can be used to produce immediately useful results in the library context. Many novice coders at librareis who often teach themselves programming skills by attending (community) college courses at night at their own expenses and scouring the web for resources and tutorials after work can certainly benefit from some support from their libraries.

Are you a novice or experienced coder working at libraries? Were/are you encouraged to further develop your skills? If a novice, what kind of support would you like to see from your libraries? If experienced, how did you get there? I am all ears. Please share your thoughts.


N.B. If you are a formally trained CS/E person, you may want to know that I am using the term ‘coding’ loosely in the library context, not in the context of software industry.  Please see this really helpful post “after @bohyunkim: talking across boundaries and the meaning of ‘coder'” by Andromeda Yelton which clarifies this. Will K’s two comments below also address the usage of this term in its intended sense much better than I did.  I tried to clarify a bit more what I meant below in my comments but feel free to comment/suggest a better term if you find this still problematic.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts! (2/22/2011)