Anticipating the future: Narrative writing workshops for library staff

Neil Dixon describes how he and his team at Anglia Ruskin University Library set up training workshops to explore the impact of AI on libraries, using fictional writing techniques.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) advances in areas like autonomous vehicles, healthcare and e-commerce receive regular media attention. The consensus among technologists is that AI will have a major impact in the workplace. How would library staff roles change if AI tools were embedded in specific library technologies? How can we encourage staff to adapt?

At Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) Library we wanted to explore, in a creative way, how AI could impact library staff roles. Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) is based in England, with approximately 26,000 students learning online and face-to-face at four campuses. The university librarian, Libby Homer, is involved in the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), which represents libraries in the U.K. and Ireland and has a strategic goal to “capitalize on new technologies.”

This project, which I ran with Sarah Elsegood (an Academic Services Manager at ARU’s library), was made possible by an ARU library operational plan objective in 2019 to explore the impact of AI on libraries. We ran two in-person workshops, one at Cambridge Libraries Conference 2020, the other at a staff development day for our team. In this article I describe how we planned and ran the fictional writing workshops, and reflections on how to improve them in future.

One topic the workshops explored was AI. Google’s machine learning glossary defines AI as “A non-human program or model that can solve sophisticated tasks”, though the AI research field is broad, and encompasses other fields like natural language processing, neural networks and deep learning (Baker and Smith, 2019). We considered current AI tools with specific application to etextbooks, such as integrating intelligent agents, or enhanced search. For a more detailed definition of AI, especially in relation to machine learning, see Tredinnick (2007).

Workshop scope and preparation

The approach was inspired by co-design methods described by Huusko (2018) and fictional narratives on the future of schools by Selwyn et al. (2020). We designed the workshops around participants writing a fictional narrative of themselves using technologically advanced etextbooks in the far future. An etextbook is a personalized, digital version of the core ‘textbook’ reading for a course, which were supplied by Kortext and introduced at ARU in 2019. The recent change to some areas of work made the subject a pertinent topic for the workshops.

Our scope of the literature review was to identify AI functionality that already had a proof of concept, which set realistic expectations of what was possible. We noted possible functions in a spreadsheet alongside the key references, which helped to focus our research. Natural language processing, for example, was a key component. This led to testing technologies like Google’s Talk to Books. When the research was finished, our spreadsheet had nine functions that we categorised into content, learning and platform. Using MS Publisher, we designed printable cards with the feature on the front and a brief explanatory note and the journal article reference on the back. This resulted in nine different cards, which were the ‘props’ used to inspire participants to think about how etextbooks could use AI.

Example of a card, with front explaining the benefit to the user and the card's back giving the reference

Workshop format

After a brief introduction, we started a 5-minute exercise where we asked: "If etextbooks were a building, food or person, what would that be?". This helped participants get into a creative mindset and to up-end expectations about current etextbooks and ebooks. Examples such as “A young Harry Potter, good but not fully functional” demonstrated that although there are high expectations for ebooks and etextbooks, in many cases they are still a digitized version of the print book with static text. Likewise, etextbooks were compared to poppy seeds, which like licensing restrictions, “get stuck in your teeth”, budget-busting architectural projects like the Millennium Dome, and knowledgeable and adaptable celebrities.

In the next exercise we asked participants to take three cards from the stacks we had placed in the room and handed out two brief examples of narrative writing, one a review of a fictional product, the other a future student’s perspective. Giving participants tactile objects meant they could keep the cards nearby whilst they were writing their narrative, keeping their story focused on those specific AI features. Limiting each participant to three cards gave an opportunity for a variety of narratives.

The brief was to think ahead 5 to 10 years and imagine etextbooks as if the features on the cards existed. Participants were given 20-minutes to write a personal narrative of themselves or a student using the etextbook. We made it clear the purpose was to think creatively about how libraries might change and impact their roles or the library, rather than judging their creative writing. Narratives were inventive, describing how it might feel to use speed reading modes, take customisable tests, and easily navigate between different book chapters. The workshops finished with a short discussion about what participants described, covering some of the challenges and opportunities such as responsible and ethical use of data, accessibility issues and making the learning experience more immersive.


After the workshop we collected feedback via Padlet, asking 'What did you think?’, ‘What did you take away?’ and 'What did you feel?’. Participants thought the workshops gave them an opportunity to be creative and to think of new ideas, and how the future provides opportunities and challenges. Comments included “just what I wanted from this session – a chance to think outside the box and tackle a problem with a fresh mind. Thank you!” and "It was good to be reminded that you are in fact allowed to think in new directions, suggest improbable things and let your imagination wild without constraints every now and then, because that’s how innovation happens…".

If we run similar workshops in future, a 90-minute slot would be more appropriate. This would give more time for discussion about the narratives at the end, and time for a short discussion when participants collected their cards to trade ideas. Using collaborative document editing tools such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs would also give the opportunity to run the workshop online and create joint narratives.

Final Thoughts

For me, researching AI highlighted the degree of hype around the technology. Developing an AI requires a large amount of data and companies need appropriate computing power and technical expertise. Current AI technology can help automatesome tasks, augment human abilities and enhance productivity, but only for specific contexts. Smith (2016) outlines how AI is impacting the legal information profession, for example. Using the workshops was a fun and interactive way to disseminate these concepts in a way with which a wide variety of library staff can engage.


Baker, T., & Smith, L., 2019. Educ-AI-tion rebooted? Exploring the future of artificial intelligence in schools and colleges. Nesta, [PDF]: [Accessed 22 November 2020]

Huusko, M., 2018. Structuring and engaging, The roles of design fiction in a co-design workshop. [PDF] [Accessed 22 November 2020]

Selwyn, N., Pangrazio, L., Nemorin, S. and Perrotta, C., 2020. What might the school of 2030 be like? An exercise in social science fiction. Learning, Media and Technology, 45(1), pp.90-106.

Smith, A., 2016. Big data technology, evolving knowledge skills and emerging roles. Legal Information Management, 16, p.219.

Tredinnick, L., 2017. Artificial intelligence and professional roles. Business Information Review, 34(1), pp. 37–41. doi: 10.1177/0266382117692621.

Author bio

Neil Dixon ( works as a learning technologist at Anglia Ruskin University’s library, has a research interest in design fiction and writes speculative, science fiction in his spare time. He is Chair of ALT (Association for Learning Technology) East England, and an associated chartered member of ALT (ACMALT).