Beating Watson at a different game

robot handshake

Recently I attended a meeting of the Dutch Association of Information Professionals (KNVI) where an IBM representative demonstrated Watson, the company’s famed supercomputer. Watson uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of data. The system can be fed an enormous collection of information and used to support complete knowledge domains or industries.

The demonstration was fascinating as I watched Watson receive and answer questions in natural language about cancer treatment and diagnosis.

As I left the meeting, I wondered what the impact of technology platforms like Watson will have on libraries. Clearly, the use of Watson, with its incredible ability to organize and analyze data, offers endless possibilities that will result in further automation of the information profession. What place will libraries have in a world of Watsons?

Transformation never ends

Over the past 15 years, “disruptive technologies” like Watson have become the norm in libraries. Many people wonder how libraries still exist and play such a major role in our societies, considering the popularity of search engines, the ability for end users to search databases directly, the exploding availability of information on the internet, and the speed and ease of tools like smartphones.

How can libraries compete against IBM’s Watson? Click To Tweet


The answer is simple. Librarians stay in front of the change curve by continually realigning themselves with the emerging demands of our modern knowledge society. They are flexible and open to permanent change and focus on being where their customers want to be. The key is the value librarians add, not the pace of content creation or the speed of technology advancement.

Focus on what libraries do best

Here are a few examples from an international perspective about how libraries are staying in front of the change curve:

Creative spaces. The Public Library of Aarhus in Denmark has developed a radical concept for its new public library. Library leaders designed and built a new building that functions as an open meeting space for the city. Citizens go there to have meetings, work with each other and develop new ideas. The building is modern and open, and the collection is not in the center of the library anymore. Since the library opened in 2015, the number of visitors has increased to 4,000 per day. In academic libraries, print collections are being managed down and the freed-up space is reused for student facilities, workspaces and computer labs.

Collaborative opportunities. In the Netherlands, the Public Library of Gouda has, in an old factory, developed a new role of connecting groups in the cultural and social communities of the city. This new concept is based on strong cooperation with other organizations, facilitating group meetings and providing maker spaces or maker labs. Groups work together on design, using new technologies such as 3D printers.

Cultural foci. In many other cities in Western Europe, such as Amsterdam, Birmingham and Stuttgart, new city libraries also are designed as important landmarks with a new focus on meeting and connecting, as well as reading and studying. The new Deichman Branch of the Oslo Public Library will open in 2018. It will contain not only the library’s rich collection but also be equipped with the latest technology and new social spaces, such as a movie theater, media workshops, gaming zones, lounges and a restaurant.

Stay ready to change

It is fascinating to me to see how libraries change, develop new services and adjust their roles to stay relevant to the student, scholar and user. As technology platforms like Watson become prominent, more change will be necessary. Information professionals and librarians will help develop and manage the massive digital assets—image, text and data—that are used by these systems, of course. Libraries are going to be technology navigators and trainers on behalf of their users.

But the real field on which we can compete successfully is not technological. Our success comes when we play as large a role as possible in helping communities and campuses understand and adapt to the “Watsons” of our work—the same rapidly changing world we are experiencing.

Question…What do you see in the future for libraries? Let us know on Twitter with the hashtag #OCLCnext