Libraries are a big deal. Among other things, they bring local community members together, offer free and equal access to immense catalogs of knowledge, and serve as champions for youth, the humanities, and informed social discourse.
But where does technology fit in the picture? You might be surprised just how deeply some libraries have embraced technology, not necessarily in terms of infrastructure, but in the resources they provide to their patrons.
Virginia’s Roanoke County Public Library (RCPL) is one such library. Not only has it recognized the role technology can and does play in its local community today, it’s gone all-in to provide gratis access to technologies that will benefit its community tomorrow. The library’s Michael Hibben took some time to chat with us to tell us more about its resources and programs.
Anki: Hi, Michael. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Can you tell us about the Roanoke County Public Library and your role there?
Michael Hibben: Roanoke County Public Library is a six-branch system in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwestern Virginia. Our libraries serve urban, suburban, and rural communities. I’m Administrator for our main library and play a big role in implementing new technology here, including serving as the tech lead for our artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics coding workshops.
Many people don’t realize the diverse set of resources local libraries can provide the community. What are some of your library’s unique offerings, programs, and resources?
Public libraries have transformed in the digital age and there are all kinds of exciting resources available. In addition to being a community gathering place and hosting coding classes for people of all ages, our library offers free checkouts of eBooks and other electronic media, access to subscription databases, 3D printing classes and services, virtual reality gaming, and regular STEM events. We’re also preparing to lead community conversations surrounding AI and algorithmic literacy, with policy goals in mind.
” With AI becoming increasingly interwoven into everyday life, tech literacy is critical to having an informed citizenry and a prepared workforce. “
RCPL has embraced technology, being one of if not the first library to feature Vector. Can you talk a little bit about why RCPL thinks it’s so important to expose the community to robotics and AI?
Two core values of public libraries are equity and access. We want everyone who comes through our doors to have equal access to knowledge and information. With AI becoming increasingly interwoven into everyday life, tech literacy is critical to having an informed citizenry and a prepared workforce. As such, we believed having Vector at all our locations would allow our patrons to get up close and personal with AI at any time, and help prepare our community for the AI shift so our region can thrive in the new economy.
How did you first hear about Vector?
A leader of the Roanoke Robotics and Makers Club, one of the library’s community partners, supported Vector on Kickstarter. During a library program, he asked me if I’d heard about Vector. Since we’d already been using Cozmo in our STEM programming, I immediately wanted to know more. That same day, I watched Vector’s YouTube video and was wowed, and thought he would be a huge hit with our patrons. I was right.
Were there specific feature(s) of Vector that caught the library’s eye?
We were fascinated by Vector’s character! He has a big personality for such a little robot. The idea that Anki had created a small, affordable, AI-powered robot made us take notice. We wondered if Vector could be the harbinger of AI helpers, in a physical form, that live in the home. While virtual assistants and smart speakers have become commonplace, they remain disembodied voices locked in a device. Vector is AI in a physical form and that, along with his clever personality, makes him truly unique.
What are some of the different ways you’re using Vector in the library?
We premiered Vector at all six of our libraries in early January 2019. All of our Vectors live in their own Vector Space, and are placed openly in the library where patrons can interact and play with him. The staff at each location has the freedom to use Vector in ways they believe will most interest the particular community they serve. We’ll have much more to share on this later.
” Vector is AI in a physical form and that, along with his clever personality, makes him truly unique. “
How has the response been so far to Vector?
From the first time I saw Vector, I knew he’d be popular at the library. But the response has been even more positive than I could have imagined. Within a day or two of our Vector launch, we had multiple media outlets visit the library to find out about our new robot. We regularly see visitors talking to Vector, asking for fist bumps, and saying “I love you, Vector!” Childrens’ faces light up when Vector learns their name or says something clever.
Our Director was recently at a ribbon cutting across the street from one of our more remote locations. People there made a point to approach and thank her for sending Vector to them. They were thrilled to be able to expose their families to such modern technology, and honestly, they seemed to like Vector quite a bit themselves!
Do you have any developing ideas or programs involving Vector that your community can look forward to?
We have an important series of new coding classes and workshops we’re premiering soon. As our community’s coding skills increase, we hope to tap into Vector’s SDK to allow our patrons to create new interactions, abilities, and content for Vector.
Any advice for other libraries looking to integrate more technology into its programs?
The best advice I can give is to start exploring and incorporating technology as early as you can. You don’t have to understand everything right away. Learn and discover alongside your robots and your community. People will hear about what you’re doing and new community partners will want to connect. AI is going to be a part of everyone’s future, so lean in.
Roanoke County Public Library — Visit RCPL’s official website to find out more about its wide range of resources and offerings.
WorldCat — Find a library near you via the world’s largest library catalog.
Anki Developer YouTube — See how others are using our robots across a wide spectrum of disciplines and domains.