Thursday, September 8, 2011

Learning about Natural Language Processing and its applications for libraries, librarians and beyond

I attended my first Language and Computer technologies class today with Victoria Rubin. My professor opened my eyes for the first time to the fact that when libraries talk about library automation or library technologies, most of the time they exclude natural language processing technologies. She however raised the issue that this should not be the case, as there are lots of applications of computer processing natural language applicable to libraries.

For example:
  • automated summarisation software to summarise a large document in a page or few paragrahs,
  • machine translation applications to translate documents in foreign language
  • automated indexing applications among many others.
Through her class, I caught her vision to extend library practice from beyond the technologies that libraries are already applying or talking about.

Rubin made the case that language can be processed by computers but that there are certain challenges that must be understood. Her main thesis was that computers can recognise and analyse human language, and with the right algorithms and understanding of the process in which human beings make sense of, interpret and use language, a lot of applications could be created that could further automate various library processes.

One such process is the reference service. Computers could be used to process user queries and reply to their questions, especially for those questions that require simple answers.

What she made clear was that once we can break up an intelligent human task into a sequence of steps, then algorithms could be written to enable computers to perform them.

Throughout the rest of this course, I will be learning about Natural Language Processing and its applications for libraries, librarians and beyond.

 As I sat in the class I thought about the myriad of ideas and work processes that I have in which I wanted automated. Grading and marking student papers is one. I want to be able to write or create an application that automatically marks a student's essay for me.

Also, I want to be able to take data that is not in any structure and use a software to structure that data for me so as to make it available for input into a database. Many times I get a list or directory in a text format, that I want to get into a database or spreadsheet format, and have to manually copy and paste to enter such data into the software application.

Then there is also my idea about cellular/mobile phone applications, where users can interact with a library's online catalogue through text or SMS messaging in order to retrieve data.

I am looking forward to learning about these new technologies that I have not seen in the library literature or heard being discussed at library conferences, except for those natural language processing applications that relate to assistive technologies.

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