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Artificially intelligent conversational agents in libraries

Victoria L. Rubin (Faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada)
Yimin Chen (Faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada)
Lynne Marie Thorimbert (Marigold Library System, Strathmore, Canada)

Library Hi Tech

ISSN: 0737-8831

Article publication date: 23 November 2010




Conversational agents are natural language interaction interfaces designed to simulate conversation with a real person. This paper seeks to investigate current development and applications of these systems worldwide, while focusing on their availability in Canadian libraries. It aims to argue that it is both timely and conceivable for Canadian libraries to consider adopting conversational agents to enhance – not replace – face‐to‐face human interaction. Potential users include library web site tour guides, automated virtual reference and readers' advisory librarians, and virtual story‐tellers. To provide background and justification for this argument, the paper seeks to review agents from classic implementations to state‐of‐the‐art prototypes: how they interact with users, produce language, and control conversational behaviors.


The web sites of the 20 largest Canadian libraries were surveyed to assess the extent to which specific language‐related technologies are offered in Canada, including conversational agents. An exemplified taxonomy of four pragmatic purposes that conversational agents currently serve outside libraries – educational, informational, assistive, and socially interactive – is proposed and translated into library settings.


As of early 2010, artificially intelligent conversational systems have been found to be virtually non‐existent in Canadian libraries, while other innovative technologies proliferate (e.g. social media tools). These findings motivate the need for a broader awareness and discussion within the LIS community of these systems' applicability and potential for library purposes.


This paper is intended for reflective information professionals who seek a greater understanding of the issues related to adopting conversational agents in libraries, as this topic is scarcely covered in the LIS literature. The pros and cons are discussed, and insights offered into perceptions of intelligence (artificial or not) as well as the fundamentally social nature of human‐computer interaction.



Rubin, V.L., Chen, Y. and Thorimbert, L.M. (2010), "Artificially intelligent conversational agents in libraries", Library Hi Tech, Vol. 28 No. 4, pp. 496-522.



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Copyright © 2010, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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