May 11, 2018

Flash Briefing | Office Hours

How high is Mount Rainier? That question was one I remember from my reference class “scavenger hunt” assignments way back in my master’s program at Indiana University. It was also one of the first questions I asked our new Amazon Echo during the holidays as I experimented with Alexa as a virtual assistant. Since then, I’ve added three more “Dots” to the house that now control multicolor light bulbs, electrical outlets, and other smart home functions. I was slow to jump on the Internet of Things bandwagon, but now I’m sold. The numbers say that I am not alone, with TechCrunch reporting Amazon sold millions of Alexa devices over the holidays. More than one trendsetting report has noted that virtual assistants and artificial intelligence may be the next big thing. Exhibits and product launches at the recent Consumer Electronics Show offered all sorts of assistant-enabled devices. What would H.G. Wells say? Are Alexa and Siri a voice activated path to the world brain?

Alexa, what’s in the news?

Data from Google provides a glimpse into the households using these devices. Surveying 1,600 voice assistant owners, researchers found that 72 percent of people say the devices are often part of their daily routines. Some 52 percent of those surveyed have the device in a common room and 41 percent reported feeling as though they are talking to a friend or another person, “saying ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and even ‘sorry.’ ”

I am one of those folks who almost unconsciously thanks Alexa for turning on my office lights or playing a Fleetwood Mac song while I cook dinner. More than once, I caught myself and wondered, am I weird? The numbers above indicate it is indeed a thing, and I wonder how human virtual assistants will become as the technology improves. Cue a Weird AI gone mad episode of Black Mirror here, but the fact remains: people seem to take to a device that learns how we ask for things and speaks to us in a voice we understand.

Alexa, help

The study by Google also highlighted the top reasons people turn to their voice-activated speakers and virtual assistants. First, the devices allow users to multitask more easily in the home. It’s easy to create a calendar entry or add a “to do.” Second, virtual assistants do things faster than other devices because of the ease of voice commands as opposed to launching apps and finding settings. Users can curate a “Flash Briefing” from Alexa, a series of audio clips such as news, weather, and much more, known as skills. A simple command plays the briefing any time of day.

Librarians and information scientists should take note of these reasons virtual assistants have become invaluable to users. Google reported it empowers them to get answers and information instantly and simply, making their daily routine easier. Isn’t this what we want for the people we serve as well? And isn’t this evolving technology a perfect example of Zipf’s principle of least effort?

Alexa, create a to-do

I’d suggest libraries of all types should incorporate virtual assistant speakers and the like into technology classes, one-on-one support offerings, and discussions about privacy. Google’s survey did not include questions about privacy or surveillance. This merits conversation if our devices are indeed “listening.”

Libraries have the smallest presence in the virtual assistant landscape. Setting up my Flash Briefing, I was pleased to find hot fiction and library blog offerings from the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) as skills I could add to the morning news Alexa provides. I added LAPL’s blog to the mix and discovered Alexa would read recent posts to me as part of the briefing. Will more libraries follow? What’s the return on enabling content for virtual assistants? This feels like that uncharted territory that began with the first library blog or library IM account. Kudos to LAPL for exploring these options.

Of course, the more interesting functionality will come when we can ask our virtual assistants to look up books at our local libraries, place holds, and even read the books to us. With Amazon, Apple, and Google in control of a major part of the virtual assistant market, this may be a long time in coming.

For now, I will continue to learn how Alexa works and thank her when she tells me that Mount Rainier is 14,411 feet tall.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens ( is Associate Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

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  1. Why on Earth would someone need an entire class to learn about Alexa?

    • Librarian X says:

      The internet of things is changing the way people access information. It’s up to us, as librarians, to understand how those systems work and how our profession can respond — not out of fear but from an educated position.

  2. Leigh Anne Focareta says:

    Well, except that Mt. Rainier is actually 14,410 feet tall, according to the National Park Service:

    There’s apparently been a lot of different measurements taken over decades, which is fascinating history:

    But in this case, Alexa took the path of least resistance, Wikipedia, which references news articles from 2006 and 2008, respectively, to get its answer. The National Park Service’s website was last updated in July 2017.

    It will probably seem awfully pedantic to make a fuss over 1 foot of mountain, but as an info pro, I’m obligated to go with the most current, authoritative source for my answer.

    Sorry Alexa. Next time I want to hear Toto’s “Africa,” I’ll definitely give you a ring.

  3. hanrahan says:

    This represents the forward thinking we’re getting from library school faculty? Our profession is doomed.

    • Phil Bradley says:

      I wonder if you actually read the article? Alexa et al are new tools that are used to disseminate information of one type or other and accurate or not as the case may be. Consequently these are going to be widely used by the average person in the street and students and existing information professionals need to know exactly what their advantages and disadvantages are.

      We also need to know how libraries and information centres can use these tools to their best advantage. This means exploring them in depth, and keeping up to date with new developments. I wonder if you would also have made a similiar complaint 30 years ago about CD-ROM technology, and more recently about the internet itself. If similar closed thinking is replicated across the profession that’s what will doom us!

    • hanrahan says:

      Sorry Phil, “information professionals” don’t need to jump on every tech innovation in embarrassing and desperate effort to establish relevance. Consumer products for the masses don’t need librarians for “one-on-one support offerings.” Don’t we have better things to do? Your CD-ROM example proves my point – did CD-ROMS require exploration “in depth” or actually affect library services in any substantial or enduring way even during their heyday and even though storage media is crucial to librarianship? Did librarians make hay out of teaching about CD-ROMS? That nonsense like the possibility that Alexa might “look up books…and even read the books to us” might be considered creative or forward thinking in librarianship is what will dooms us! And this from library school faculty!

    • Phil Bradley says:

      It’s not, and never has been about jumping on tech innovations and “embarrassing and desperate effort” is a cheap and quite frankly rude comment that completely undermines your position. It’s the job of information professionals to look at *anything* which may have an impact on the way in which information is processed and received. I don’t particularly care if something is a consumer product or not; most things become that at one point or another and to dismiss products out of hand like that is shortsighted to say the least.

      In answer to your question regarding CD-ROM you are completely mistaken. I worked for a CD-ROM publisher providing technical support to librarians and I can categorically state that they completely changed the way in which library services were provided. The provision of information to the desktop, the facilitation of information rather than gatekeeping, the changing expectations of what end users wanted, the way that librarians were able to fully embrace and control technology in ways they had never done before were all crucial. If you’re unable to see the importance of this you may want to do some more research, but I can assure you I know what I’m talking about because I was there and involved with it first hand.

      Alexa can already do a wide variety of things, and will do considerably more in the future. None of us know exactly what it’s strengths and weaknesses will be, or indeed what it will lead to. We have to always be aware of possibilities and that means exploring it. Learning new things, exploring and trying out different things is forward thinking; the only way we will be doomed is by ignoring possibilities and staying in safe little ruts of limited knowledge or exploration.

  4. hanrahan says:

    “It’s the job of information professionals to look at *anything* which may have an impact on the way in which information is processed and received.” Nonsense, but perhaps a good explanation of why librarians are so often ineffective – they have no idea of their purpose! Yeah, we should be on top of innovations, but in the context of how they help us to add value to the knowledge-building enterprise. Not every tech tool related to “information” is relevant to our work. Failure to understand this does indeed keep us in “safe little ruts” where we can crank out foolishness like this article and be amazed that a product might do something mind-blowing like “read the books to us.” Dude’s a visionary! Nice that you saw how CD-ROMs “completely changed the way in which library services were provided” – as a publisher’s rep! But they didn’t!

    • Phil Bradley says:

      Oh dear, you really do have issues don’t you! You complain that librarians have no idea of the purpose of these tools, but in the same breath are complaining that they are looking at them to see if they do have a purpose. Unfortunately you can’t have it both ways. Until we explore how new tools or resources can help us we don’t know how or if they can add value to a knowledge building enterprise. I agree that not every tool will be relevant but without being open minded enough to explore them we won’t know, will we?

      Your abilities at comprehension leaves a little to be desired, since I wasn’t a representative for a CD-ROM company, I worked with librarians to radically change the way in which they could provide information to their clients. And that was over 20 years ago, and with hindsight it was even more of an important technology than I thought it was. I also note that you were unable to refute a single point that I made about it, and instead tried a poor attempt to discredit me personally. However, since you’re also trying to do the same thing with Mr Stephens I consider myself in good company.

      Your attempts to discredit this article appear to rest on bluff and bluster, without a shrewd of evidence and nothing to back up your opinion. When challenged you simply revert to form in a tedious reiteration of the same non-points. Debate the points, produce evidence, make a credible case built on facts or take that chip on your shoulder and stay in your silo while the rest of us do what we can to improve the world our clients live in.

    • The Library Cat says:

      Hi, Phil,

      Is this an article? Reads more like an advertisement. Are we going to save the world by selling more Amazon products? If so, does Marvel know about you and the Prof here?


  5. hanrahan says:

    Phil, my point was about librarians not knowing their own purpose, not the purpose of tech tools! Are we here to to hawk irrelevant tech products, or explain how cool they are? You make claims about the radical nature of the change CD-ROMs made on librarianship, but don’t bother with evidence or a rational argument. My point is that hyping tech with no reasonable library context embarrasses, rather than advances, the profession. Library 2.0, anyone? Exploring every tech tool is not a sign of open-mindedness, it’s a sign of confusion and ignorance about the role of the librarian. Nice touch criticizing my “abilities at comprehension” by pointing out my error in referring to you as a “representative” of a CD-ROM company when you simply stated ” I worked for a CD-ROM publisher” assisting clients.

    • Phil Bradley says:

      I don’t think anyone is hawking any products at all. They are being investigated to see if they have any value either to information professionals or clients. Until that happens we can’t know if they are useful or not. I think I’ve given a fairly good overview of the value of CD-ROM based on my own experience, which you have failed to refute having been given plenty of opportunity. You’ve also criticised it without providing any evidence or rational argument, but feel free to quote chapter and verse.

      I honestly don’t see any hyping going on at all, and I really don’t understand how you can say that a tool, which has to listen to what we ask, interpret it, search a database for what it understands as the best answer and return it to the user has “no reasonable library context”. It must be a strange library that doesn’t have a requirement to provide a service like that to users. In fact I’d like to see far more; a comparison of Alexa, Apple’s offering, Siri, and Google Home. You refer to the role of the librarian, but fail to say what that it; I would be genuinely interested in what you think it is, given that you’ve ruled out investigating ways in which clients may be helped in the future. Oh, and if you were uncertain as to my role at SilverPlatter the best course of action is to stop and check first, and not to make assumptions. That’s what I was always taught in library school.

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