When the Varna Regional Library Pencho Slaveykov closed its doors for 13 consecutive weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, Ellie was the only one left working to communicate with customers. She took over many of the questions, took care of the requests for re-assignment of the borrowed literature, and she did it over time, because 34% of the library’s customers made their inquiries at night. Ellie is the library’s smart digital librarian – an AI chatbot that saves the time of at least 2 librarians to allow them to handle tasks that match their qualifications. To this day, 3 years after its creation, Ellie has processed over 15,000 customer questions and is responsible for 23% of the requests for re-assignment of borrowed literature, one of the most successful functionalities of the chatbot. There is a story about Ellie’s success. Today the conversation is with her “mother” and the visionary behind this and many other digital projects of the Varna Regional Library, the director Radka Kalcheva.
The path and the professional realization of Radka Kalcheva for more than 25 years have been acquainted with the library. Before taking over the leadership of the library, Radka was in charge of the IT department there. As a person with a technical and library education, Radka combines the knowledge and the mission from both worlds – the world of technologies and that with the aroma of books. Thus, the Varna Library, the oldest cultural institution in the city of Varna, becomes a leading library institution in Bulgaria, which successfully combines its role as a depository of Bulgarian literature with the mission of being the main engine in the search and application of innovations in the information society.
- Radka, what was your opinion of chatbots before using the technology?
I was not familiar with this technology, I only had fragmentary information about it. I happened to attend a presentation of Umni, which inspired me for the idea of introducing a chatbot in the library’s activities. I’ve always noted that I like to “steal” ideas from business, which I then adapt and apply to the library operations. Some of our most successful projects have been adapted from businesses that are very far from the cultural institutions. Once introduced, such services, especially the digital ones, quickly become the new normal for the Bulgarian libraries. I dare to say that the Varna Library is a pioneer in the introduction of many digital services.
- What is your impression of the chatbot technology after you have already been using it?
Like any technology, this technology needs a process of adaptation – both those who use it and the technology itself must “fit” the sector. I find that the time for chatbots in libraries is yet to come. The implementation of artificial intelligence has great potential. The culture of those working in the sector needs to change – the process has already started, for chatbots with conversational artificial intelligence to be used to their full potential.
- What is the functionality of your chatbot that you like the most and why?
The opportunity to take over conversations with clients, which in our profession are a major part of our duties.
- How are your customers accepting the AI chatbot?
Perhaps many of them do not understand that they are talking to an automated system. There are no direct negative reviews. The fact that the chatbot communication continues and is successful, suggests that most users are positively accepting the technology. Statistics on user activity report that the time zones in which there is active reader-librarian-reader communication are not limited to the traditional working hours, but also extend into the range of 17.00-24.00. In 2020, this was 34% of the readers, and in 2021, night chatting reached 42%. The chatbot successfully fits into the concept of “extended” working hours of the library and successfully replaces the employees in the specified time range. Ellie has become a familiar, convenient, and useful tool that is used as a means of routine communication with the library.
Since the beginning of the Covid crisis in March 2020, we have found that the chatbot is the “right person” who can provide answers to all the questions that users ask 24/7. Ellie represents the library’s structure to the users, explains library policies and terms, responds to user messages, helps them to extend the term of borrowed materials, navigates through the library catalogs, and directs users to the library’s digital services. Since Ellie’s activation, there has been an exponential increase in communication between readers and the library.
- What is the staff’s attitude towards Ellie?
Well-intentioned. Ellie is accepted as an assistant who eases the staff’s performance.
- What do customers search for the most in the chatbot – what do you think are the trends in your industry?
Most users want to get information quickly. A chatbot working as an assistant librarian should have a minimum of “knowledge” on a wide range of topics from all knowledge areas, which in our case are summarized to 12-15 areas. Users expect conversation-type communication with a “live” person, so the chatbot must be able to adequately answer a variety of questions.
- How does a chatbot help solve library and customer issues now?
One of the main problems that the chatbot solves is related to the staff. There is a clear reluctance of most employees to undertake activities related to social media. The reasons are different. On the one end, it’s the additional burden of another type of non-verbal communication with customers, and on the other end are the employees who do not have accounts and avoid any social media activity. A large part of young and active users want the library to be active in communication and to respond to any inquiries as quickly as possible. In this regard, the chatbot is the perfect employee and saves tedious typing in the messaging platforms.
- What else would you like the chatbot to be able to do, which is according to the technology and its functionalities?
The wishes are related to the AI itself – a further refinement of text message recognition algorithms is needed and, if possible, to get closer to people’s emotional behavior.
- Do you think AI chatbots have potential in your industry and if so, why?
I think the technology has a lot of potentials. Besides being an assistant librarian, who re-assigns borrowed books and answers all kinds of messages, I think chatbots will find use as consulting librarians. This is a reference to a future project where the chatbot will be able to have a conversation, advise readers about the books they want to read, recommend book titles, and show the book on the shelf 😊
- Does the use of a chatbot make the library more competitive than before?
In the cultural sector, competition is not strongly expressed but, definitely, the library is more adequate to the requirements of the readers.