Hackers and robots: Inside Singapore’s new libraries

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Libraries are generally not high tech – books have been around for a few centuries now. And they seem unlikely targets for online criminals.

But Singapore government disagrees. It is using robots in libraries, and beefing up its security, Ramachandran Narayanan, Director of Systems, Applications and Operations at the National Library Board tells GovInsider


The government doesn’t want to draw too much manpower away from industry by employing more staff. Instead, the libraries are taking people away from manual tasks by using technology. The agency has piloted a shelf-reading robot and an auto-sorter machine to do these jobs instead.

shelf reading robot

The shelf-reading robot finds misplaced books in the library. “It scans all the shelves [with an RFID reader] and produces a list of books that are sitting in the wrong place,” Narayanan says. It gives a photo of the book and shelf it’s sitting on so that librarians can locate it and put it back in the right place.

The robot was developed with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, and has been piloted in the Pasir Ris library. It plans to expand to others, but first needs to sort some technical glitches. “We are working with A*STAR to find suitable industry partner to design a robot with sufficient battery life to do this job in one night”, he says.

Another machine used in Singapore’s libraries is the auto-sorter. It sorts books that have been returned or browsed, making it easier for staff to return them to the right shelves.

Data from the auto-sorter could look at what kinds of books are most popular, he says. Libraries can now do this only for books borrowed, leaving out those that people browse in the library but don’t take out. Data analysed from the auto-sorter will give the agency a more accurate idea of what books it should stock.

More broadly, Singapore is changing the role of libraries altogether. They are becoming more of a community space, rather than one for quiet reading. New libraries have more open spaces to host discussions and talks. The revamped Bedok library will have a dedicated space for seniors. It will have books in larger print for them to read and also host trainings and talks for the elderly.

Robots, hackers and apps may not be the first thought when libraries are mentioned. But behind the dusty bookshelves is a new world of tech innovation.

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