ChatGPT: Shall I Compare Thee to … a Librarian?!?

“You could describe Search Bing as a cheerful but erratic reference librarian….”

Kevin Roose. “A Conversation with Bing’s Chatbot Left Me Deeply Unsettled,” New York Times, February 16, 2023

The Times’ Keven Roose may have been “deeply unsettled” by his extended conversation with Sydney, the conversational persona of Microsoft’s new AI-driven version of Bing, the one that declared its love for him while also fantasizing about hacking computers, spreading misinformation, and creating viruses.

But Roose found AI Bing’s basic Search persona – less amorous, less drawn to dark fantasies – no more threatening than … a librarian.

He’s not the first to compare a search engine to a librarian. As early as 1993, Apple introduced a new AppleSearch feature based on a Maryland company’s “Personal Librarian” software.1 By 1995, search engines like Yahoo! and Lycos were described in the press as “computerized librarians”2 and as “essential because they act as reference librarians.”3

Search engines in general were called “magic electronic librarians.”4

As Google came to dominate search, it too was compared to – even considered a replacement for – a reference librarian. Some still see it that way. As recently as December of last year, an early commentary about ChatGPT said that “the internet is the library of human knowledge, Google is the librarian.” (ChatGPT, the author wrote, is merely a “regurgitator” of information.)

Sydney aside, is the comparison of a search engine to a librarian fair? Is it more than a metaphor? Do increasingly sophisticated search engines replicate, even make unnecessary, the role of human reference librarians?

To a certain extent, yes. Search engines can find answers to many general – even increasingly complicated – questions that once required specialized resources that could only be found in libraries and that only librarians knew about and knew how and when to use. (Netscape Navigator, wrote an Internet columnist in London’s The Guardian in 1995, is a place where you “can quickly find thousands of references, and no librarian expects you to whisper.”)5

But just answering questions with straightforward answers – “Do you have this book?” “What was the original name of Tokyo?” “How much did a share of Microsoft cost in 1988?” – is as much a library stereotype as that of the shushing librarian. Librarians have long provided much more than answers to the kinds of questions that today are just a few clicks – or a chatbot – away.

“[I]f you didn’t really know what you were looking for, the reference librarian would help you figure out what you were looking for. It turns out you were looking for something different,” Adam Rogers, senior tech correspondent at Insider (and the grandson of a librarian), told Roman Mars on an episode of the 99 Percent Invisible podcast — “Search and Ye Might Find” — last September.

That was my experience in my three decades as a librarian, at the Boston Public Library, Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, and elsewhere, before retiring in 2021. I’d help students go down rabbit holes, following a process I called “directed stumbling,” learning about things they didn’t know they were interested in and learning, too, how to become better searchers.

Not everyone gets this. Old librarian stereotypes persist. Commenters, and sometimes funders, question the need for libraries and librarians altogether. But do you know who does get it? ChatGPT.

In January, Todd Carpenter, Executive Director of the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), asked ChatGPT about this in his own extended conversation with the chatbot.

“Libraries,” said ChatGPT as part of a lengthy response, “could continue to provide a range of services to support researchers, such as research consultation, data management and preservation, and training in research skills.”

Todd Carpenter. “Thoughts on AI’s Impact on Scholarly Communications? An Interview with ChatGPT.” The Scholarly Kitchen. January 11, 2023

If this chatbot is in love with the idea of libraries and librarians, maybe it’s not as “deeply unsettling” as it may appear.

1 “AppleSearch system had roots in Rockville.” Baltimore Sun, March 29, 1993, p11C
2 Bill Husted. “Yahoo aims to enhance Web ‘fishing’.” Atlanta Journal / Atlanta Constitution, August 20, 1995, pR2
3 Laurie Flynn. “Making searches easier in the Web’s sea of data.” New York Times, October 2, 1995, pD5
4 Dave Hipschman. “The Internet’s magic librarians.” Santa Fe New Mexican, April 11, 1995, pD3
5 Steve Harris. “Child’s play on the Net.” The Guardian, September 15, 1995, p6

The Emerging Internet Through Trade and Industry Magazines, 1994-96

In October 1993 I started working at the Kirstein Business Branch of the Boston Public Library, then located in downtown Boston. It was a busy place, filled every day with local business people, from CEOs to young people in their first jobs, as well as entrepreneurs, investors, job seekers, students, and the simply curious, all with business research needs . 

Kirstein and its rich collection of resources were available to anyone who came through the doors of the three story building in the narrow alley where Kirstein had been since 1930. (The library is still around today, renamed the Kirstein Business Library and Innovation Center and located in a renovated space in the basement of the main library in Copley Square.)

The first floor of the Kirstein Business Library in 1930. It looked much the same when I worked there from 1993 to 1995. (Photo credit: Boston Public Library)

One of my responsibilities was maintaining the hundreds of business and trade magazines on the third floor of the library. They ranged from broad, well-known magazines like Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, and Inc., to niche trade magazines and newspapers like Women’s Wear Daily, Travel Weekly, Supermarket News, Broadcasting & Cable, Modern Plastics, and many more.

Before long, I started noticing a growing number of articles about the internet, in the bigger, more general magazines at first, but increasingly in the niche publications as well. In October 1994 I launched a monthly publication, sharing and summarizing such articles.

I called it Tradewinds: A monthly round-up of Internet coverage in trade and industry magazines. It was emailed to subscribers – there was no cost – as a simple text file. The first three issues had just a brief introduction, followed by summaries  of recent articles, organized by industry.

The banner and introduction to the first issue of Tradewinds. The computer I was working on did not have much in the way of graphic capabilities (and neither did I.)
An example from the October 1994 issue of Tradewinds summarizing an article in Travel Weekly

1995 brought changes, for me and for Tradewinds. In January I left Kirstein for a new job at Baker Library at the Harvard Business School. Tradewinds moved with me, published (beginning with the January issue) under the auspices of the library. By February, it was on the Web, though subscribers — I had about 500 –could still receive it via email.

In April, I started including essays, summarizing trends and patterns that emerged from my reading of the trade coverage of the internet. The first one looked at a new way of thinking, in the age of the internet, about the old adage that says the three most important things in real estate (or retail) are “location, location, and location.” In the online world, said a consultant quoted in the fashion industry publication DNR, “the word takes on a whole different meaning.”

Subsequent essays focused on trade press coverage of such topics as new approaches to customer service, revenue streams, trade associations, small business, broadcasting, and the impact of the web on the trade press itself.

The July 1996 issue of Tradewinds was the last one. I had too many other responsibilities, including building and managing the library’s first website. With two young kids at home, I couldn’t devote my spare time to the newsletter, and I let it die.

But the essays still live. They provide a window into what business people almost 30 years ago thought the internet was going to mean for them. It’s fun to see how differently it turned out.