Emerging technologies in health libraries – Workshop at the CILIP HLG Conference 2018

This year I was lucky enough to be able to present two workshops at the CILIP Health Libraries Group Conference in Keele, held in June 2018. I will write up my other workshop, which was on interactive teaching activities, as soon as I can – in the meantime here is a summary of the Emerging Technologies workshop that I facilitated together with David Low.

The session was a facilitated discussion between librarians. I tried to limit the size of the group to 24 (four groups of six librarians) but in the end there were a couple of extra people who squeezed in, who hadn’t pre-booked to be on the workshop – I think I ended up with 27 altogether. I feel that this made the discussions a bit more difficult to manage, and those who are more introverted may have struggled to get their voices heard in the larger groups. In future I will try to ensure that groups are kept smaller, or perhaps have an extra activity planned to accommodate extras.

There were four topics for librarians to discuss: Machine learning, AI/Voice assistants, Blockchain, and Virtual/augmented reality. For each topic I provided four questions to be discussed. The groups of librarians rotated between topics, so that they were able to discuss every technology over the course of the session.

I provided A3 paper and sharpies so that the groups could record their discussions. Below is a transcription of the posters created by the various groups. Each group only had around 10 minutes to get their head around the topic they were talking about, and answer the question. I think this is a little short – in future I’d provide 15 minutes for fewer topics, particularly given the larger size of the groups.

Overall I was really pleased with the quality of the discussions and how smoothly the workshop went. As with all group activities there were some groups which were more forthcoming in their discussions than others. Myself and David circulated around the room, prompting participants with questions and answering any queries; it was very useful having two people and I don’t think it would have worked as well with just myself. Some topics such as blockchain didn’t generate as much conversation as participants didn’t feel as confident talking about it. I think I’d either have to spend more time explaining the principles beforehand, or pick topics that are more accessible in future. I did also provide a ‘cheat sheet’ for each group, which was a printout of an article that was relevant to the topic being discussed.

Another way of running a workshop like this could be to keep each group looking at one topic only, answering all the questions relating to it; each group could then be asked to present back to the others about their topic and this would open it up to wider discussion. I’ll try this next time – if I get another chance to run a workshop at a conference!

Machine learning

Posters on machine learning by workshop attendees! I have transcribed these for easier reading and accessibility.

Machine learning

 Marshall, I. J., Noel‐Storr, A., Kuiper, J., Thomas, J., & Wallace, B. C. (2018). Machine learning for identifying Randomized Controlled Trials: An evaluation and practitioner’s guide. Research synthesis methods. DOI: 10.1002/jrsm.1287

What is it?

Use of an algorithm to repeatedly run a process and selection, which mimics learning.

What Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are there for health librarians?

  • Strengths: Personalisation of current awareness, can improve search, act as a discovery tool
  • Weaknesses: Death of serendipity, deskilling staff, can we trust the system?
  • Opportunities: Better current awareness, Discovery tools, Search optimisation
  • Threats: Disintermediation

What are the social/ethical implications of this technology?

  • Accidentally training it with biased information i.e. racist sources or biased papers in a Systematic Review
  • Ability to teach diagnostics to a machine? i.e. Radiology
  • Uses in literature searching i.e. teaching it to pick out articles for different disciplines
  • Loss of human contact (particularly in medicine)
  • Lack of critical thought

What actions can/should librarians take?

  • Role in directing users towards best machine learning tools
  • Upskill in more complex tasks such as critical appraisal
  • Explain limitations of machine learning solutions
  • Purchase machine learning solutions?
  • Focus our attention on print books?

AI voice assistants

Cronin, S., & Doherty, G. (2018). Touchless computer interfaces in hospitals: A review. Health informatics journal, DOI: 10.1177/1460458217748342

What is it?

  • Siri, Alexa, Google Home, etc
  • Input data/give commands to a device via your voice using national language
  • Can interpret the question and improve the more you use them
  • May talk back to clarify question

What Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats are there for health librarians?

  • Strengths: Learns language through use
  • Strength and Weakness: Always listening
  • Weakness: Unreliable information quality?
  • Threats: Where do librarians fit in to the equation – what part of the process can we participate in?

What are the social/ethical implications of this technology?

  • Isolation
  • Laziness
  • Results bias as limited to the owning company e.g. Amazon/Apple/Google
  • Technology might give harmful advice
  • Security
  • Potential for remote healthcare
  • Can be an enabler for the vulnerable/isolated/disabled
  • Fast and efficient responses

What actions can/should librarians take?

  • Teach critical thinking skills and the ability to spot ‘fake news’ etc
  • Voice activated technology? E.g. for out of hours services, self issue – can replace standard procedural enquiries
  • Streamlining back office admin, e.g. for setting up meetings
  • Training opportunities for librarians – should we have maker stations in the library to showcase these new technologies and help users with them?


Hoy, M. B. (2017). An introduction to the Blockchain and its implications for libraries and medicine. Medical reference services quarterly36(3), 273-279.

Blockchains for the Information Profession

What is it?

Distributed ledger technology, growing series of encrypted records (blocks) to store information e.g. Bitcoin

What Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats are there for health librarians?

  • Strengths: Stronger encryption; can manage rights to material; business continuity
  • Weaknesses: What is it?? Only as good as the initial set up. Rubbish in = Rubbish out
  • Opportunities: Better sharing of resources; much stronger data storage potential?
  • Threats: Librarians not involved in early days/set up; is there a potential to make librarians redundant?

What are the social/ethical implications of this technology?

  • Data protection?
  • Use of electricity – unsustainable
  • Used on black market
  • Unknown consequences of the technology

What actions can/should librarians take?

  • Copyright
  • Access management and membership
  • Authority control
  • LMS

Augmented/virtual reality

Lessick, S., & Kraft, M. (2017). Facing reality: the growth of virtual reality and health sciences libraries. Journal of the Medical Library Association: JMLA105(4), 407.

What is it?

  • Augmented reality: adding info to the world around you. E.g. Pokemon Go and Minority Report
  • Virtual reality: Flight simulation, immersive tech – medium dependent. E.g. Matrix
  • Mixed reality: Holodeck

What Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats are there for health librarians?

  • Make available VR simulations as training materials for our users
  • Finding your way around the physical library using augmented reality for improved signposting?
  • Threat: Can we preserve the library as an information hub when information moves from books to apps?

What are the social/ethical implications of this technology?

  • Social isolation/exclusion due to cost
  • Addiction?
  • Practice in a safe environment
  • Learning environment
  • ‘Google glasses’: videoing, facial recognition etc in real time, potential privacy issues?
  • Safety/corporate control – who has your data
  • Programmable landscape
  • Physical space needed as well to use it

What actions can/should librarians take?

  • Promote use
  • Headsets in the library
  • Increase our own knowledge
  • Find relevant applications and highlight these for users
  • Set up space for practice e.g. for medical students
  • Engage users
  • Use beyond medicine e.g. in inductions and for library skills
  • Liaise with clinicians and academics – find champions
  • Use for wellbeing – e.g. relaxation on a beach

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