Librarians vs. RobotsAbigail let her glasses slide down her nose so she could look over them at the patron who had just entered the library. Hers was a quiet and well-run library, and she did not allow troublemakers. This one looked like a troublemaker.
The patron approached the desk with the slightly awkward gait that gave away even the best robots. It was unaffected by the over-the-glasses gaze of the librarian, and made its request in a surprisingly human voice.
“Might I get a library card?”
Very polite. Abigail wasn’t fooled. Nor was she willing to discriminate against any potential borrower of books. She might see trouble coming, but even an obvious troublemaker could get a library card, and use it until he gave cause for action. She handed over the application.
“Fill this out. I’ll need to see photo ID and proof of address.” In a way, this was a test. Robots didn’t get government ID cards. They had permanent ID numbers engraved on them. She’d heard that some were trying to pass as human, though, and presenting forged IDs. She sighed and rolled her eyes at Steve.
Steve rolled his eyes back. He’d worked as a bouncer at a nightclub before finding his calling as a librarian. His bouncer physique did wonders for keeping the teens in order, and he could spot a fake ID a half a mile off. When the robot reached for a wallet, Abigail stepped back and gestured for Steve to take her place. She busied herself sorting books. It was a handy occupation, appearing to take all of one’s focus while actually leaving her free to watch the library.
Steve glanced at the ID the robot handed him, and shook his head. “I’m sorry. This is not a valid ID card, Mr. Rochester.”
Abigail smiled to herself. Mr. Rochester. Give the machine credit for trying. Too bad Steve was more of a science fiction guy. Why did the robot want to pretend, anyway? As far as Abigail knew, there was no rule against giving a droid a library card. He just had to admit that was what he was, and show his ID number. Though proof of address might be a different matter.
About then, another patron approached the desk. This was a young woman, but Abigail had a strong feeling that the girl was another robot. Just what was going on here, anyway?
Steve was directing his patron to the reading room, without issuing the card. Abigail’s patron wanted to find books on tropical fish, and she spent a couple of minutes directing the droid to the right section.
Three more patrons were lined up at the desk when she finished, all robots. All were polite, all were terribly demanding, though they did have a dampening effect on the teens.
Only at closing time, when they all filed quietly out of the library, did Abigail realize what they were doing.
“They’re studying our jobs!” The staff had gathered in the back room to discuss the invasion. “Someone has decided we’re expendable.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Sally said. “I mean, I guess they could sort and shelve, and spare us the backaches. I need my job, though.” She stopped talking and looked thoughtful.
“Right,” Abigail said. “But I’d like to see one of them trying to do a reader’s advisory for a 9-year-old who loves Hank the Cowdog and needs something that is just like it only at a higher reading level.”
Steve looked thoughtful, but he didn’t say anything until all the others had vented their worry and their contempt for the machines.
“How long do you think it will take for each of them to read a section of the library? And they won’t forget any of it.”
For the next three days the robots came, and no one knew what to do. They never broke the rules, so they couldn’t be asked to leave. And then the memo came from higher up: the robots were to be integrated into their staff. The bosses made it sound like this would be a great help to the humans, but they could read the handwriting on the wall.
If only the robots weren’t so damned polite, Abigail thought. If they would slip up even once, they could be managed.
And then came the preschool visit.
Classes came fairly often from the local grade schools and preschools, to learn about all the wonders a library could offer. Abigail ordinarily handled those visits, but this time, she professed to be too busy reorganizing their reference system according to suggestions made by the robots (which really were were good suggestions, even if the staff did resent the source).
She assigned “Mr. Rochester” to handle the preschool visit. The boss had, after all, assured her that a week was sufficient time for the robots to learn everything they needed to know.
“Three classes?” Sally asked. “I thought you never allowed preschools to bring more than one class at a time.”
Abigail shrugged. “They say these new employees can handle anything.”
The result became known in robotics literature as the “toddler effect,” and it was two centuries before programming reached a level of sophistication that could adjust to the randomness of toddler behavior, multiplied by 40.
In the short term, it took Abigail and her human crew a week to restore order to the Children’s Room. The robots could have done it faster, and without the aching muscles, but they had fled, and refused to return. All but Mr. Rochester. That unfortunate droid had been decommissioned by a particularly inventive 4-year-old, using her library card, a board book, and, to Abigail’s regret, one of the library’s pet goldfish.
They held a funeral for the goldfish, and presented the budding engineer with a handful of stickers as a prize for her creativity. Abigail caught Steve high-fiving the kid. “My niece,” Steve said.
After that, the librarians went back to running the library in their own quiet way.
|You don't mess with the Ninja Librarian|