Streamlining Information Services Using Chatbots

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Library Technology Reports, November/December 2013 (49:8)


The most common questions coming to your library by IM or Chat, such as inquiries about location, hours, policies, or patron access to specific material, can all be answered by a chatbot, saving valuable staff time. A chatbot effectively creates a natural language processing interface to your catalog and databases, providing answers to library users by structuring language to a database's requirements. David Newyear developed the award-winning Emma the Catbot and, with co-author Michele McNeal, implemented it at the Mentor Public Library. He has since transformed it into an open source virtual agent for libraries, infoTabby. This issue of Library Technology Reports presents dozens of code examples in AIML, an easy-to-learn markup language for anyone familiar with XML or HTML, enabling you to start simple, with a virtual agent that can answer FAQs and build toward a natural conversation. This report offers guidance on such topics as

  • Creating a simple working chatbot with a small number of AIML tags
  • Sample coding for answering the basic library-hours questions
  • How to use Javascript to pass a query to a third-party database, such as Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Free and premium services from Pandorabot to experiment with or implement a free virtual assistant for Android
  • Implementation ideas, from text-only catalog enhancement to kiosks

Michele L. McNeal

Michele L. McNeal is a reference librarian in the Science and Technology Division at the Akron-Summit County Public Library, where she continues to work to introduce artificial intelligence (AI) to information services. Prior to her current position she served as the library's Web Specialist, developing and managing the library's website, Intranet, and III WebOpac, as well as assisting staff with blogs on Wordpress MU and digital collections using Content DM. She also served as the Coordinator of Information Services at the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education.

David Newyear

David Newyear has presented with Michele McNeal on AI and library services at several conferences, including IUG, ALA, LITA National Forum, Ohio Library Council Convention and Expo, Libraries 2.0, and Computers in Libraries. His automated reference assistant, "Emma the Catbot," won the 2011 PLA Polaris John Iliff Innovation in Technology Award. He worked in both academic and public libraries for 13 years and now develops AI applications.

Library Technology Reports

Published by ALA TechSource, Library Technology Reports helps librarians make informed decisions about technology products and projects. Library Technology Reports publishes eight issues annually and provides thorough overviews of current technology. Reports are authored by experts in the field and may address the application of technology to library services, offer evaluative descriptions of specific products or product classes, or cover emerging technology. Find out more information on this publication and how you can subscribe here.