Immersion and robots: The next chapter for Singapore’s libraries

By Sean Nolan

Interview with Ramachandran Narayanan, Director and Deputy CIO, National Library Board, Singapore.

“Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read”, said comedian Groucho Marx. While books may be a man’s best friend, technology is quickly becoming a library’s best friend.

Singapore’s public libraries have been adopting data analytics and AI to develop more immersive and personalised visitor experiences. They have also introduced robots and automation to simplify and shrink the workload of librarians.

Ramachandran Narayanan, Director and Deputy Chief Information Officer, National Library Board (NLB), Singapore highlights the tech tools that are writing the next chapter of Singapore’s libraries.

Immersive storytelling

The traditional storytelling experience has been given a twist with new technology, says Narayanan. Some libraries are now equipped with a special room to offer a more immersive experience through videos and sensors.

Projectors display immersive videos on the walls of the room while children listen to stories inside. When a tiger is mentioned for example, it can appear on the walls and let out a loud roar. “The children really enjoy it”, Narayanan shares.

The immersive experience is controlled through sensors which detect the storyteller’s hand gestures. He likens the technology to that of the Xbox Kinect, a device that enables users to control the video game console through simple gestures.

A national competition among Singaporean schools is organised annually to encourage students to create new content for these immersive experiences. This gives the organisation enough content until the same competition the following year.

Personalising experiences with AI

AI is helping to personalise the library visitor experience by recommending content that users may be interested in, says Narayanan. Similar to that of the Amazon website, AI and data analytics will direct users to content relevant to their interests.

The organisation uses data analytics to plan the locations of new libraries, explains Narayanan. When library members share their address, the organisation uses this information to see how far they must travel to reach the library, identifying areas where new libraries should be built.

This data also looks at whether members are travelling past their nearest library to reach a specific branch. This informs the board of which services are attracting visitors, shaping its improvement plans so it is “not cannibalising itself” anymore, he says.

Robots as library assistants

NLB branches are using autonomous robots to assist visitors and staff members, Narayanan highlights. Shelf reading robots identify books that have been moved to the wrong shelf, helping visitors to find the specific book they are looking for.

The robot patrols the library with a radio frequency scanner that detects the small tags placed in each book. The tech highlights books that are far away from their designated shelf so that staff members can return them to their rightful place.

The shelf reading robot in action

Without robots, the process of identifying and then moving these incorrectly placed books takes staff three to four hours every morning. It has saved each library 3,500 manpower hours per year, he says.

Automating the library workflow

Automation also helps to sort books once they’ve been returned at a book drop. An automated conveyor belt system scans the radio tags in each book and separates them based on their genre, Narayanan says.

The autosorter tool

Staff can customise the automated system to separate books that are identified as particularly relevant or popular. This helps them to place this selection at the front of the library where visitors can easily find them, he explains.

The sorting process was done entirely manually before the library adopted these automation tools. Where staff previously had to separate each book according to genre and popularity, they are no longer needed in the sorting process at all, Narayanan shares.

Books will always be a timeless resource, but libraries are modernising to provide new ways for visitors to learn and have fun. They can do this while adopting automation to reduce the manual workload faced by librarians.

Photos courtesy of National Library Board Singapore. Photos were taken prior to the pandemic.