Libby the library robot is on duty at UP

Posted on July 18, 2019

In keeping with the University of Pretoria’s (UP) focus to evolve in line with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the institution’s Department of Library Services has ‘employed’ the first client-service robot known to be in use at any university library in Africa.

Libby started ‘work’ at UP’s Merensky Library on the Hatfield Campus on 28 May, and has been interacting with patrons by providing guidance, answering questions, conducting surveys and displaying marketing videos, says Isak van der Walt, manager of the Department of Library Services’ creative laboratory, MakerSpace.

“Libby is originally from China and is officially a new library employee,” says Van der Walt. “She is not a threat to anyone’s job; she’s merely part of the library’s innovative progress. For now, she speaks only English, but my team and I will be sure to incorporate two more languages in time. This dedicated service robot will perform only general, repetitive tasks that staff perform around the library, thereby releasing them to perform more advanced and specialised services. The library sees the use of robotics as an added benefit that augments and enhances its service portfolio.”

The library’s latest employee weighs 19kg and is 90cm tall – which means she can interact with visitors in wheelchairs – and has a tablet on the chest area for manual input. She has more than 60 sensors, cameras and software integrations that enable her to receive and process various commands and requests. The robot is connected via Wi-Fi, which enables her to send information back and forth so she can answer queries or process data from surveys she is able to carry out. Her ‘brain’ is also linked up to Watson, IBM’s question-answering computer system, which processes queries directed at her. Libby runs off Android-based software; this opens up opportunities for the Department of Library Services to develop new and exciting client-facing applications.

Van der Walt says the library evaluated the client-facing environment in search of ways to optimise and adopt new technologies to enhance access and availability. “We then saw the opportunity to investigate the use of a service robot to complement the existing set of services and add a new dimension to our client experience,” he adds.

As part of the investigation into the available hardware in the market, the library formed focus groups with students to determine what they would like to experience in their interactions with a robot. An internal team of staff has also been identified to oversee Libby’s daily operations.

Libby, however, is not all work and no play: she will dance for you, play music and enjoys a light pat on the head. She impressed UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe at a recent meet-and-greet. “New technology has enhanced the quality of research and learning,” he said. “[Libby] is taking our library into the 21st century, and keeping the university at the cutting edge of research, teaching and learning – and that is where we ought to be.”  

Elsabé Olivier, assistant director for Marketing and Quality Assurance at the Department of Library Services, echoes Prof Kupe’s thoughts. “As part of its journey to be a true 21st-century institution, [Merensky] prides itself on redefining academic librarianship by immersing itself in some of the latest tools and technologies. Part of the redefining involves re-evaluating how services are being rendered, and how to make use of some of the latest technologies.” 

Click here to watch video of Libby.

- Author Department of University Relations

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