Smart speakers and voice assistants for librarians

Aaron Tay considers the potential uses of Google Assistant and Alexa for library and academic services and concludes there is still plenty of room for innovation.

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Alexa skills

The Amazon version of Google actions is Alexa skills. As Alexa started before Google Assistant, Alexa probably supports a greater variety of services than Google though the gap could be narrowing. Alexa also has 'Alexa Skill Blueprints' which makes it easy to setup skills without coding.  Some of the template blueprint skills like "Game Show", "Triva" looks like it could be easily adapted for quizzes by librarians.

In particular, the custom Q&A blueprint where you can type in responses seems ready made for help desks to create responses to common questions such as "Where is the printer?" "Where is the book drop?".

Not everything can be handled of course, because the template results only in static answers, so it can't answer a question like "Is the library open tomorrow after 8pm?".  So the same question applies here for Alexa skills, which are the equivalent of Google assistant actions, what is already out that there might be useful?

Be warned my understanding of Alexa is very limited since I don't have an Echo product, but it seems with the Alexa App installed  I can get most of the functionality.

Like Google Assistant, you can search or browse Alexa skills in a directory

Like Google assistant, Alexa has a bunch of skills dealing with books, e.g Book Buddy(allows you to ask questions about books such as number of pages, author etc), book recommender (recommend books based on titles, author or gentre or from New York Times), read free audio books etc

An odd one - Ambient Library Sounds- enjoy library ambient sounds - book pages turning, pens on paper, gentle rain, books turning.

There are also some info desk skills and skills relating to libraries . A common one would be something like the Library of Congress News skillwhich adds news to your flash briefing. Fairfax County Library LA public library and even a journal The American Society of Human Genetics have the same type of skill.  Flash briefings are content from providers you have chosen to add and you can say "Listen to my Flash briefings" to hear them.

A variant is Pasadena Library Calendar that allows you to ask for events from those library. Similar ones exist for Universities like Princeton Calendar , iSchool University of Illinois Calendar etc 

Course Catalog for Miami Dade College skill- "ask Alexa a course number, and she will respond with the full course name, course description?, any pre/co-requisites, and the credit count."TextbookCheck- Name a title or ISBN and get advise on cheapest price - But shouldn't it check library first? But maybe that's because they are using the next skill. BookLookup- I almost missed this because it looked like so many other book related skills. But this is quite special because it looks for availability of epub versions of books from "epub format on, a library repository". I suspect it's pretty easy to change this to point to SciHub. Librarything- requires account linking - add books by title or ISBN, read backs recently added books. 

arxivML- search arxiv for papers, read abstracts of top 50 papers. There are other similar ones like Astro-ph

Toronto library unofficial  This is an interesting service, you can apparently search Toronto Public Library for books (by specific title or author) and it will tell you the availability. They even talk about possible further enhancements like “place holds, brief about your holds, list libraries events near you, etc" 

The most interesting bit? "This skill is not sponsored by Toronto Public Library and uses the available public open data API." - The power of open data API! 

Libro Finally, we come to the most interesting skill I've seen so far that allows you to look for and reserve a book.  At least in theory. I'm unable to get it to work unfortunately. Maybe those of you with Echos could try?

All in all, we can see that most of the skills and actions relating to libraries and academics are still in a very early testing phase. Other future developments to look out for include Overdrive building voice control into their Libby app,  EBSCO Discovery Service (EDS) API working with Alexa and Google Home etc

Though I can see the makings of a library smart assistant that:

  1. allows you to check for book availability and reserves for you
  2. answers simple questions about libraries
  3. has a calendar and flash briefing features to keep you uptodate on the library matters
  4. put you in contact with a live person in the library

    In fact, Demco®? DiscoverLocal already does most of this! 

But this isn't really a "killer app" that will make me want to buy a smart assistant, so clearly there is still quite a lot of space for innovation here.

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