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Smart Libraries Q&A: The internet of things

Smart Libraries Newsletter [March 2019]


How do you think the internet of things will impact libraries in the future?

The internet of things (IOT) has made a massive impact on the general consumer and business realms. The “smart home” movement is in full swing. High-speed internet access and in-home Wi-Fi are almost ubiquitous among all but the most modest income demographics. A recent Forbes article states that over 50 million homes in the US now have either an Amazon Eco or Google Home smart speaker.3 Any television of recent vintage can integrate with smart home systems and can respond to voice commands. We increasingly rely on video cameras, baby monitors, and other home surveillance technologies for additional security and convenience. Thermostats, lighting, and other appliances are routine parts of our programmable home networks. Commercial and industrial settings likewise take advantage of specialized, networkconnected devices for automation, efficiency, and for data collection and analytics. Smartphones likewise become part of these smart networks, often serving as the controller for other devices, even when outside of the home. Each of these devices operates though an IP address and is part of the IOT.

The IOT provides many benefits, but it also comes with significant concerns. These devices can intrude on privacy, collecting and transmitting data regarding our personal movements and private conversations. We naturally make tradeoffs between convenience and wanted features versus a certain level of provision of personal data. The terms of service or privacy policy of each device will detail what personal data is collected, stored, or shared. These policies are rarely read, and it is technically difficult to verify that the behavior of the devices is compliant.

The security of these devices can also be problematic. Any internet-connected device must operate with fully secured hardware and software to prevent unwanted or malicious use. Many IOT devices include computer processors and operating systems that may be subject to security flaws. Desktop or laptop computers, tablets, and smartphones are usually programmed to regularly update their software to fix security bugs and implement new features. Unfortunately, many other internet-connected devices may not have easy ways to fix security flaws and may operate indefinitely on the versions of the firmware and software installed at the factory.

Libraries today make use of technologies considered part of the IOT, and I would anticipate increased interest in the future. Physical facilities continue to be a vital part of libraries that can benefit from many different types of technologies to enhance their effectiveness and enrich the experience of their visitors. Some examples include

  • Beacon technology to enable messaging between a visitor's smartphone and specific spots in the building. These devices could provide enhanced information or references related to exhibits, collection areas, makerspace equipment, or other points of interest.
  • People-counting technologies can help a library monitor the number of visitors in each section of the library and patterns of movement to help optimize the physical layout of the space and the placement of service points or collection materials.
  • Products are already available that package multiple technologies to enable unstaffed library facilities to provide after-hours access or even 24-hour unattended access. Devices would include door security that can be opened with a valid library card, surveillance cameras and other devices to ensure the security of patrons and of the facility, and self-service equipment.
  • I can also imagine future libraries going beyond the current capabilities of RFID tagging and equipment to create new ways of helping library patrons easily find and access physical library materials. Would it be possible, for example, for each item to be its own internet device that could be integrated into shelving maps or retrieval services? Such technology would need to be very carefully controlled to preserve the privacy of patrons relative to their use of library materials. While it would be helpful to track materials at a very granular level in some situations, it would be catastrophic for privacy if it were used to reveal what materials a patron consulted in the library or borrowed.

The IOT today is a growing part of the technology infrastructure that surrounds daily life. These technologies will undoubtedly find new applications in libraries with the potential to make a positive impact on the services we offer. But it will be essential for libraries to work through all the issues of privacy and security as they implement these devices. In our homes, we can make personal decisions regarding the tradeoffs between wanted features and erosion of privacy. In the library context, patron privacy is a strategic priority and these devices must be implemented only when they can be verified to comply with stated patron privacy policies.


  1. John Koetsier, “Amazon Echo, Google Home Installed Base Hits 50 Million; Apple Has 6% Market Share, Report Says,” Forbes, August 2, 2018, google-home-installed-base-hits-50-million-applehas- 6-market-share-report-says/.
View Citation
Publication Year:2019
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 39 Number 03
Issue:March 2019
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:24101
Last Update:2023-01-18 04:42:20
Date Created:2019-03-06 17:02:16