AI and the Transformation of the Library: Exploring New Information Processes and Practices

In a recent post, I argued that libraries have an important role in creating a better information environment for human as well as artificial agents. That post touched on the long history of libraries and information technologies, as well as current concerns related to generative AI from the perspective of information ethics. In this post, I explore various ways we can expect AI to transform library processes and practices. Given the need for proactive design and intentional use of AI within and beyond libraries, I focus on the importance of information practices.

AI and the Information Lifecycle

The configuration of libraries has always been linked with the lifecycle of information: information is created, transmitted, and used to create more information. Within this cycle, libraries perform specialized functions—such as collecting, organizing, preserving, and mediating access to information—so that information may be used and generate new information.

Libraries have taken on different functions within the information lifecycle throughout history. Some years ago, I argued that complexities associated with digital materials caused libraries to reposition themselves within this cycle: they have shifted closer to the point of the creation of information to ensure immediate and long-term access to it. With recent advances in AI—especially generative AI—library functions within the cycle are changing dramatically as well. Automating more information processes that were previously performed by humans will require proactive and ethical design, as well as ongoing oversight. To enable us to use AI intentionally and wisely, we need to develop new information practices for both information professionals and users of information.

AI and Information Practices

Information practices consist of skills that enable participation in our increasingly complex information environment effectively and ethically. In After Virtue (Notre Dame, 2007), Alasdair MacIntyre argues that practices depend on and can cultivate virtues. A practice, according to MacIntyre, is:

  • a coherent and complex combination of skills;
  • a socially established and cooperative activity; 
  • dedicated to securing moral goods internal to it;
  • embedded in a moral narrative or framework about the goods and ends involved;
  • participation in a shared moral tradition with standards of excellence upheld by other expert practitioners and supporting institutions.

Using the virtues Shannon Vallor identifies in Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting (Oxford, 2016)—which she argues are the virtues most crucial for flourishing in our current technosocial condition—the relationship between information skills, ethics, and virtues can be aligned in a way such as this: 

Information PracticesInformation Virtues
Information SkillsInformation Ethics
Reflect on intentions, the nature of information, and information needsAttention; Equity, Diversity, and InclusionSelf-Control; Courage; Perspective; Technomoral wisdom
Discover, interpret, critique, manage, and synthesize informationAuthenticity; Access; Privacy; SecurityHonesty; Humility; Empathy; Flexibility
Use information ethically and effectivelyAgency; Intellectual Property; Community and CitizenshipJustice; Care; Civility; Magnanimity

Artificial and Human Agency

As we allocate more of our work and agency to AI, we need to be attentive not only to how automated processes are designed and managed but also to the creation and cultivation of related information practice—which are also formative practices. 

Here is a high-level framework showing how new automated processes could be balanced with human (in)formation practices that are ethical and virtuous:

Information FunctionAutomated Processes (In)Formation Practices
Selection– Creation of new materials to collect
– Selection of materials for use 
– Disciplined, courageous, and wise reflection on information needed for selection and use (e.g., research) 
– Discerning selection of diverse and inclusive resources
Mediation– Classification and description of materials
– Analysis of collection materials
– Discovery and research assistance (e.g., conversational AIs)
– Use analysis of resources, services, and spaces
– Equitable, safe, and secure access to resources, services, and spaces
– Honest, humble, and charitable critiques of information sources and networks
– Just, caring, and civil synthesizing and sharing of information

All of this requires much more development and specificity, but I think it points to the need for us to focus more on information practices as we continue to automate more information processes.

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