Hackers and robots: Inside Singapore’s new libraries

Singapore employs robots to sort books and retrains librarians with new skills.

Libraries are generally not high tech - books have been around for a few centuries now. And they seem unlikely targets for online criminals. But Singapore government disagrees. It is using robots in libraries, and beefing up its security, Ramachandran Narayanan, Director of Systems, Applications and Operations at the National Library Board tells GovInsider Robo-librarians The government doesn’t want to draw too much manpower away from industry by employing more staff. Instead, the libraries are taking people away from manual tasks by using technology. The agency has piloted a shelf-reading robot and an auto-sorter machine to do these jobs instead. shelf reading robot The shelf-reading robot finds misplaced books in the library. “It scans all the shelves [with an RFID reader] and produces a list of books that are sitting in the wrong place,” Narayanan says. It gives a photo of the book and shelf it’s sitting on so that librarians can locate it and put it back in the right place. The robot was developed with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, and has been piloted in the Pasir Ris library. It plans to expand to others, but first needs to sort some technical glitches. “We are working with A*STAR to find suitable industry partner to design a robot with sufficient battery life to do this job in one night”, he says. Another machine used in Singapore’s libraries is the auto-sorter. It sorts books that have been returned or browsed, making it easier for staff to return them to the right shelves. Data from the auto-sorter could look at what kinds of books are most popular, he says. Libraries can now do this only for books borrowed, leaving out those that people browse in the library but don’t take out. Data analysed from the auto-sorter will give the agency a more accurate idea of what books it should stock. Hackers Security is a top challenge, however. Narayanan is concerned that libraries could be a weak link for hackers to enter the government network.“Without the appropriate security restrictions, a hacker can use your server as a platform to launch further attacks. So you become the medium, but you may not be the target,” he says. A second challenge is retaining relevance: people simply don’t think about going to a library to find information anymore. They just look it up on their smartphones or computers. Singapore’s libraries want to stay important in the digital age. To do this, they are digitising resources and making archives available online, such as national day rally speeches and parliamentary papers. The aim is that when people search online, these resources from NLB will show up on the first page. Narayanan Ramachandran It will also be easier for people to search for e-books stocked at the libraries. Users must now search separately for physical and electronic versions of books. From later this year “when you search for a book in our catalogue, it will show you both of our physical books and ebooks,” says Narayanan. Further, the library will launch an improved mobile app this year to keep up with smartphone users. People will be able to configure their interests and create a profile of themselves on the app. This will be used to give more targeted recommendations on books, he says. The team is currently working on a new wayfinding feature for the app, he adds. When users search for a book, it would guide them to the right shelf using the bluetooth on their phone and beacons in the library. More broadly, Singapore is changing the role of libraries altogether. They are becoming more of a community space, rather than one for quiet reading. New libraries have more open spaces to host discussions and talks. The revamped Bedok library will have a dedicated space for seniors. It will have books in larger print for them to read and also host trainings and talks for the elderly. Robots, hackers and apps may not be the first thought when libraries are mentioned. But behind the dusty bookshelves is a new world of tech innovation.