Parks Library has app to pair with smart assistant

Library users make 10,000 inquiries about Parks Library's hours each year, but there is a new way -- with fewer clicks or phone calls -- to find out.

The university library is piloting an app, Parks Libro, available in the Amazon Skill Store, that pairs with Amazon Alexa technology to answer specific questions about the library.

Currently, the app can do three things:

  • Search the library's catalog by book title, author or genre
  • Share upcoming events
  • Dispense library hours

Answers come from the library’s Primo search tool and its calendar system.

"We configured the Alexa Parks Libro app to connect to the existing library system so there was no additional investment required there," said assistant director for assessment and planning Greg Davis. "It is just connecting to things we already purchased for use in the library.”

Taking the next step

The next question is if and when to further develop what Parks Libro can do.

"We are always very careful about protecting patron privacy," Davis said. "In our first try, we drew the line that we were not going to do anything that required personal information. That limits privacy risks, but also limits the functionality of the app.

"The next logical thing might be for Alexa Parks Libro to be able to tell you when your book is due, but it doesn’t know your books because it doesn’t know who you are," he said.

Providing personal information would allow this, but it would come as an opt-in for users of the app.

"People have spoken out about smart assistant technology -- not specific to our project, but in general -- wondering if it is a good thing to have Amazon as the 'Big Brother' listening to all of your conversations," Davis said. "Our app doesn't really have anything to do with that concern, but those kinds of misunderstandings are out there.”

Davis said a planned slow rollout of Parks Libro will allow user comfort to grow and provide an opportunity for feedback.

"We don’t want to do anything that would create red flags or hardship for anybody. This is supposed to be a simple, fun aid. That is why we are taking it slow and easing its way onto campus to see the kind of concerns we hear from people," he said.

It started with a list

The idea to add smart assistants to the tools available in the library began about a year ago.

"According to data from research and advisory company Gartner, by 2019, there will be two voice personal assistants per kitchen," Davis said. "Sooner or later students are going to show up on the campus doorstep having used smart assistants, and they will want to be able to ask their smart assistant about the Iowa State Library."

Davis began working on a list of 50 facts about Parks Library that led to a library partnership with ThickStat Inc. Indianapolis, to design Parks Libro. The app specifically is for the library and became available for download in September.

It also is possible in the future to expand the Parks Libro app to other platforms like Google Home and Apple Siri.