Thursday, August 23, 2012

Public library services to small businesses: A dream for the Anglo-Caribbean?

Just had to post about the Bradely Collins'  American Libraries article on public library services to small businesses (Collins, 2012). It is an important article that captures my dream and vision for the island public libraries of the Caribbean. After reading the article, I have itemised the services, resources and other ways that libraries can facilitate the development of small and medium businesses. You can read the entire article for yourself via the referenced URL at the end. In the mean time, I provide you with a summary of the most salient points.

 Business library services to include are, but are not limited to
  • business resource workshops or seminars (outside resource personnel can be invited to present)
  • librarian attending business functions and connecting with business interest groups in order to identify needs and how the library can partner with them to meet the needs
  • market research assistance
  • business networking opportunities

Resources would include, but are not limited to:
  • online business databases
  • pathfinders for business resources 
  • pathfinders outlining steps involved in business start-up
  • business and career collections - dedicated section to these
  • access to trade journals that fit local demographic
  • computer access
  • books and multimedia on creating and running a business
  • sample business plans and other business templates
  • databases on community demographic information and industry trends

Facilities would include, but are not limited to:
  • fax and copier services
  • computers with Internet access
  • providing meeting places for business interest groups
  • spaces for meeting and training

With respect to the English speaking Caribbean region, I perhaps should undertake an Anglo-Caribbean study or survey some time in the future to see how many if any public libraries are actually offering any of these business library services to their populations. It would be useful to discover how well Caribbean public public libraries fare in this area. On a more personal note, I am dreaming to see the day when a Caribbean public library will develop a section or department specific towards Business, Science and Technological Innovation, with the mission of developing and managing specialised collections for business development and scientific and technological innovation.


Collins, B. (2012, July/August). How public libraries are a boon to small business. American Libraries
vol. 43, 28-31. Retrieved August 23, 2012 from

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Prototypes of virtual agents that provide business information

While browsing, I have discovered prototypes of virtual conversational agents that do provide business (or company) information online. They are available on this online directory:

I have even discovered pre-existing virtual agents that offer legal and financial information online:

Even though I have not evaluated these agents as yet, (which might make for a useful future project), I believe that these discoveries support my perspective that conversational agents can be used to convey business information. It is just a matter of deciding what knowledgebase or database of business information or even company information that one wants a conversational agent to store.

Hence, I see that business librarians can perhaps adapt the conversational agent towards providing company information. Already in business information there is what we commonly call the company profile (See Abels & Klein, 2008, p.42 for definition of company profiles) . Or industry profile for that matter. Hence, a conversational agent could be designed to answer questions about what company produces what products and services. Information provided could also include whether the company is publicly traded or private. The agent could also be designed to indicate the ownership structure of the company.


Abels E. G. &  Klein, D. P. (2008). Business information: Needs and strategies. Bingley, UK : Academic Press/Emerald.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

How should the future e-book be designed?

On April 10, 2012, I was interviewed in an ebook/i-book project. Students from the Media, Information & Technoculture programme in my faculty at Western had created an i-book or e-book (their terminology was "i-book"). The students therefore, were conducting testing of the i-book and getting reactions to it. I volunteered to participate and give my reactions.

I had to navigate the i-book through the iPad. This was not a pleasant experience for me, as the iPad mediated between me and the information in the book. I found it hard to locate what I wanted due to the need to understand the iPad's gesture technology.

As I compared it with my experience using the physical book, I felt it was much easier to manipulate the physical book, due to the fact that I know exactly what to expect. As I turned the cover page, I would expect to see title page and table of contents. With the i-book, it was not clear where these were. In addition, the pages took a long time to load. There was neither instant or immediate access to the content. I also had to be searching the screen and scrolling and figuring where the familiar information that I expected in a book was, like index etc. With the book as a physical object, there is less need for mediation and greater opportunities to manipulate the book as an object and locate the information I needed (provided it has indexes and table of contents). Plus I knew exactly what to expect, which is not a guarantee with the iPad mediated i-book that I examined.

This experience also brought to light my earlier discussion and review of Laurel's views on computer interface metaphors. In a previous blog post I spoke about the need for humanities to inform computer design. Well, my experience tells me that how we currently think and go about designing e-books is all wrong. Which brings me to the idea of how folklore can help us create better concepts and designs for the e-book.

I read in my university's science library newsletter about a Harry Potter story where Harry Potter interrogates a blank diary by writing a question and receiving a written response (Goodman, 2012). This story inspired some scientists in Australia to create bioactive paper that can conduct blood tests (Goodman, 2012). This bioactive paper receives the input of human blood and outputs results in text informing users about what their blood type is (Goodman, 2012).

Bearing this in mind, I feel that the future of our books need to be more interactive and designed similar to the ideas that Laurel (1993) expresses in her book Computers as Theatre. This is why I feel that the future book must break with the tradition of trying to imitate the printed or traditional book, and take on a totally different paradigm. In this regard, I recommend the artificial intelligent conversational agent to help book publishers transcend into the perfect e-book paradigm.

The agent is specifically applied in education as virtual tutors or virtual coaches in e-learning (Rubin, Chen & Thorimbert, 2010). Some agents have been designed as talking characters from literature, history or science. One example is the Shakespearbot, ‘an interactive chatbot designed to assist in the learning of the life and works of William Shakespeare’ (, 2012). Designing AI conversational agents to simulate talking characters could potentially impact the publishing of future e-books. Agents could in fact be designed as talking books. Rather than permit sequential access to information, an AI talking book could provide a more direct approach to helping users find information located in the book. Hence, the potential for future e-book users to ask books questions in natural language of what they want to know or find out and retrieve direct answers in the same is also a possibility. However, current publishers seem oblivious to this idea. industry data suggests that only two non-English publishers are currently applying the agent, but more for the purposes of customer service, rather than seeing the application as a talking publication (See Figure 1). While publishers may not yet see agents as having a potential to transform the industry, Rubin, Chen & Thorimbert (2010) propose that libraries use agent for storytelling and for even leading book discussions.

Figure 1. directory’s 2 search results for chatbots used by publishers.

In fact, even Laurel (1993) propose agents as storytellers as well as guides to information in a multimedia database. Agents can be performers that tell the user what is contained in the book and even suggest what to click next based on the user is currently reading. This is important as findings from Hertzum, Andersen,  Andersen, and  Hansen (2002) indicate that people when interacting with new information sources such as virtual agents want to develop some assessment of them before they can trust them. Hence whatever information the agent can provide to help people assess their value as information sources can help in establishing trust (Hertzum et al., 2002).

As such, I suggest that the future books take a leaf out of Harry Potter's page and design future e-books to be interactive responding to user input in modifying the information displayed. I also suggest that future e-books incorporate multimedia performances that indicate to users what the book is about and what sources inform the book. Further, I suggest that agents be employed to help users navigate books to content that they need. Since the traditional book has become a disembodied storyteller, let us reincorporate the traditional embodied storytelling practices through conversational agents in the future e-book.


Goodman, M. (2012, August). What’s your type? The Pipeline, Western University The Allyn & Betty Taylor Library Retrieved from

Hertzum, M., Andersen, H. H. K., Andersen, V., & Hansen, C. B. (2002). Trust in information sources: Seeking information from people, documents, and virtual agents. Interacting with Computers, 14(5), 575-599. doi:10.1016/S0953-5438(02)00023-1 

Laurel, B. (1993). Computers as theatre. Reading, Mass. : Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., c1993.

Rubin, V. L., Chen, Y. & Thorimbert, L. M. (2010). Artificially intelligent conversational agents in libraries Library Hi Tech, 28(4), 496-522. (2012). About Shakespearebot. Retrieved from

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How to design virtual agents as storytellers that provide non-fiction information?

I have been reviewing and reading some books informing me about how agents can be used in storytelling and information provision. One of these great books is the one by Laurel (1993) entitled, Computers as theatre.

Laurel’s (1993) foundation work has inspired some of the system or application prototypes featured in Prendinger and Ishizuka (2004) and Lombardo and Damiano (2012). It is Laurel that introduces to human-computer interaction designers the idea of the theatre as an interface metaphor for designing computer applications. For Laurel, the theatre, drama and performance are useful for instructing the design of computer interfaces and human-computer interaction.

Laurel begins her argument on the premise that there is need for a more humanistic approach to computer design. Laurel discusses that engineers designing human-computer interaction do not produce good humanistic design that will please human beings. She indicates that the engineering and mechanistic approach that dominates computer human interaction and design alienates wide spread adoption and use of computers, which can be corrected with the softer and more human appeal approaches of the humanities.

While the computer is traditionally conceptualized as a tool for advancing human work, Laurel argues that the computer is a medium rather than a tool that like the performance communication of theatre and drama, represents thought and creates a space for imaginative experiment and expression.

Laurel provides advice for interface design for human-computer interaction between interface agents and human beings, suggesting that interface agents should be designed based on dramatic characters rather than full-blown simulated human personalities, because dramatic characters can affect how human beings structure their thoughts, expectations and behaviours. If real-like characters are used, then people have certain expectations of real-like human communication. Laurel thereby provides instructive arguments to the design of virtual agents or artificial conversational agents or other role playing characters that interact with human beings and serve as interfaces to computer software systems. For Laurel, the agent characters of a system must pass a kind of anti-Turing test in order to be effective. It must be predictable, that persons can predict its actions with greater confidence and certainty than real people

For those that question whether or not fictional characters can be used to represent serious communication, Laurel provides an argument. In a section of her book, Laurel discusses how the Greeks used drama, showing that people of the ancient world never used storytelling, myths or folklore for trivial or entertainment purposes, but instead they used it to convey important information about past, present or future. In discussing Aristotle’s philosophy, Laurel points out that historically poetry was used to represent serious action and that the ancients deemed art as useful for moral instruction. In Greek drama, mythology represented their world and humanity’s place in it. In other words, Laurel presents arguments that indicate that the fictitious performance of storytelling was useful in helping ancient people think about their societies and suggests that this approach can also inform modern computer-mediated communication.

Laurel also provides an example of a project that features 3 agent characters/guides that provide multimedia access and narrative approach to navigating information in a database. The project also demonstrates the feasibility of using fictional characters to provide access to non-fiction information sources. In the project, the 3 agent characters or guides embodied 3 alternative perspectives about various topics in American history: a frontiersman, a Native American and a settler woman. These agents were designed based first person narrative account of incidents and topics related to the westward expansion in America. The sources of these accounts were derived from diaries and journals of real historical persons that experienced the expansion. The agents as such were cast as anthropomorphic storytellers performing stories in video format.  These characters represented and provided context to information sources in the database.

In order to establish the credibility of the agents, the agent performers through a video segment introducing themselves, describing their real-life professions and the source materials used and lessons learned. This established the agents as storytellers rather than fictitious characters, thereby reinforcing their credibility.

The agents by representing varied point of views allows for multiple representations of events and knowledge, while giving the user various perspectives from which to explore the content and the knowledge in the knowledgebase. Laurel suggest that this approach is natural in that in the real world human beings do not “navigate to” information, but rather experience information coming to them from a variety of sources (page 183).

Besides storytelling, Laurel describes the guides as recommending to users other information that the user might want to look at next in the database, based on the guide’s perspective and the information that is currently being displayed. The user can then click on the guide’s (hyperlinked) suggestion displayed in the guide’s suggestion box and the item or information will appear. Through the use of guide’s suggestion, information and action unfolds like an elaborate story created by one or more characters in collaboration with the user. Laurel suggests that this multimedia and narrative approach is natural in that it mirrors the kind of information that one receives in the real world, being varied, multisensory and having different effects on the person receiving the information. In addition, Laurel points out that the evidence suggests that information communicated as facts usually lose contexts and relationships, in contrast to information communicated as art or experience, which maintains and nourishes connections.

In conclusion, Laurel introduces the idea of agents as storytellers or performers that can be used to tell stories based on characters experience and point of views, and make/offer recommendations about other information to look at in databases based on the guide’s point of view and user’s current interest or curiosity.


Laurel, B. (1993). Computers as theatre. Reading, Mass. : Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., c1993.

Lombardo, V., & Damiano, R. (2012). Storytelling on mobile devices for cultural heritage. New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, 18(1-2), 11-35. doi:10.1080/13614568.2012.617846

Prendinger, H., & Ishizuka, M. (2004). Life-like characters: Tools, affective functions, and applications. Berlin; New York: Springer. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Thesis Idea Update: Providing Access to Entrepreneur Blogs through Conversational Agents?

I have been working for the entire summer on two guided reading papers, after which I will prepare for comprehensive examinations, all things going well.

I just wanted to post an update on my thoughts as to a possible direction for my thesis. As some of you know, I have an interest in the use of conversational type agents for providing online information to entrepreneurs. As it stands today, I am not sure if I have the time to develop a prototype adequate enough to be tested for dissertation purposes. Hence, I am considering to just include agents as a chapter in the thesis, perhaps proposing that agents be considered for future in connecting business persons to stories shared on the Web.
I guess the larger vision is to create a system for sharing business information, that captures people's business stories in whatever format, and make that accessible to users. This could be through conversational interaction with virtual agents or otherwise (which may involve multimedia information retrieval). 
Since no such system exist, but would have to be created, I guess I have limited options, especially constrained by time. I could undertake a project where I would collect the online stories shared by  Jamaican/Canadian entrepreneurs (or both) in whatever online format (social media or regularly Web), and then index and categorise them into motifs. These categories and motifs I would input into multiple conversational agents: the trickster personality for stories that feature wit and intelligence to outsmarting bureaucratic obstacles; the victim personality for stories that deal with tragedy and the hero personality: that deals with stories about overcoming odds and attaining success.

Based on Technorati  2011 report, I know that a large percentage of blogs are created by entrepreneurs who are sharing their stories. I also know that based on a Pew Internet Research report, bloggers are seen as storytellers (Lenhart & Fox, 2006). I see the possibility of indexing and categorising these stories to be the source materials for developing the agents. However, I also believe I could provide access to these entrepreneur blogs or stories  without the use of conversational agents, as I can use a blog or content management system to index and organise a kind of directory to entrepreneur blogs and stories on the Web.
Possible research questions thus far for such a project:
  1. What knowledge is being shared via social media by entrepreneurs' storytelling?
  2. Are current motifs and categories of organisational storytelling literature adequate for indexing and categorising entrepreneurs' storytelling via social media?
  3. To what extent would making entrepreneur stories accessible via the Web be useful?
If I was able to create an adequate agent, I would add this question for testing:
4. Would such stories be more accessible if users interacted with virtual agents rather than browsing and keyword searching?


Lenhart, A., & Fox, S. (2006). Bloggers: A portrait of the internet’s new storytellers. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from 

Technorati. (2011). State of the blogosphere 2011: Introduction and methodology. Retrieved 6/13/2012, 2012, from

Advice for those who want to get into a PhD program

I attended the job talk put on by the student chapter of the Canadian Library Association for Western University (formerly University of Western Ontario) at Faculty of Information and Media Studies. While there, my fellow PhD colleague Yimin Chen, gave some tips to students in the Masters in Library and Information Science programme for getting into graduate school.

Essentially Chen states that a student must be able to articulate in a few paragraphs

  • What you specifically want to study or research?
  • Why is what you are interested in important?
  • How do you plan to study it?
Chen also states that students interested in PhD must minimally possess an opinion, self-confidence and conviction about your opinion and be able to articulate that opinion well.

Other useful advice was offered for those seeking employment. Lisa Quinn, Acquisitions Editor at a small university press, indicated that the key to getting a job outside of libraries is to look at one's skill sets. What do you possess in terms of skills that can benefit an organisation? Secondly, one must be aware of what type of work one would like to do.

Crystal Sharp, an independent information professional, also offered advice that students interested in being entrepreneurs. Sharp suggests that student interested in entrepreneurship must be prepared to keep up with changing technologies, business practices and government rules and policies.