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Libraries and the Internet of Things

What does a world where billions of everyday objects connect to each other and share information mean for libraries?

“The Internet of Things connects very much with the Semantic Web and with Linked Data. With Linked Data you’ve got the ability to give a thing a URI. The Semantic Web is a Web of things, conceptually. Tying an actual thing down to a part of the Web is the last mile.”
– Sir Tim Berners-Lee, from a July 9, 2009 interview with ReadWriteWeb

A world divided by the prospect of a world connected

The simplest definition of the Internet of Things (IoT) might be: real-world objects connected to the Internet, sending and receiving data. But beyond that, there is little consensus on what the specific technical infrastructures of IoT might look like; what kind of standards would be required; who should set those standards; what the specific business cases for various industries should be; and the relationships between personal, private data about individuals vs. information about their connected things.

Likewise, in an informal poll of more than 100 librarians, we found that the term “Internet of Things” itself was less familiar than some specific examples of the “smart” or “networked” objects that are beginning to comprise IoT, such as smart watches, medical monitors, smart appliances and self-driving cars (see sidebar below).

But what does IoT mean for libraries? Will connected objects—clothes, cars, plants, utilities, factories, homes, buildings—fundamentally change the way libraries serve their users? Or is this another new technology that is simply more about hype than reality?



OCLC conducted a brief online survey in late 2014 to assess librarians’ familiarity with and views about the Internet of Things and related technologies. More than 100 librarians responded (thank you!) with their thoughts, hopes and concerns around the subject.


  • Inventory control
  • Mobile payments, ticketing and event registration
  • Access and authentication
  • Climate and room configuration, accessibility and way-finding
  • Mobile reference
  • Resource availability for both content and physical plant (rooms, AV equipment)
  • Smart books (features activated/enhanced by other IoT-enabled systems)
  • Gaming and augmented reality
  • Object-based learning
  • Assistive technology


  • Privacy, security and hacking (by far the largest concern)
  • The expense of participating in IoT technologies
  • Staff support and training
  • Decline in use of library resources


  • General knowledge, training, demonstrations
  • Education regarding privacy and security issues
  • Providing accessibility, compatible devices and resources

Several librarians indicated that libraries should wait until the technology is more widely adopted and available until investing time, effort and money into developing IoT services. Or, as one respondent succinctly put it: “For now, sit and watch what develops.”

“These are important issues for us in the profession, and we need to make sure that we are both educating our users about what’s happening in the wider world, and being good stewards of our own data.”
Survey respondent

Some companies are already betting on IoT being as big or bigger than the Internet itself. Despite some ambiguity around the term, technology companies are already creating the sensors, cloud computing platforms and consulting services around IoT...and they are clearly bullish:

“The Internet of Things is a reality today and will only continue to create unprecedented opportunities. Empowering and preparing the next-generation workforce to take part in this global opportunity is a critical piece of fueling IoT innovation.”
– Wim Elfrink, Executive Vice President, Industry Solutions & Chief Globalization Officer, Cisco

If everyday objects require network infrastructure and service provision to participate in IoT, there clearly will be a need for companies to add and support those features. Companies and industries already invested in those products and services are, of course, interested in focusing on the potential benefits of IoT.

On the other hand, privacy and security proponents fear that allowing connected, collected, big data into more areas of our lives has serious downsides. In his September 2014 long-form essay, “The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things,” journalist, futurist and author Bruce Sterling writes:

“The Internet of Things makes no attempt to redress, or even address, the many real problems that the Internet brought to the world… The Internet of Things doesn’t politically reform the failings of the past—in fact, it doesn’t even care about the failings, it simply wants those new forms of digitised command and control.”

There have always been cheerleaders and naysayers on both sides of significant new technology. But whether the Internet of Things ushers in unprecedented new business and personal opportunities or an era of greater, centralized “command and control”…it is not going to happen quickly or easily.

It’s 1995 for the Internet of Things

In a May 2013 post for Harvard Business Review, Dr. Stefan Ferber, Director for Business Development of the Internet of Things & Services at Bosch Software Innovations GmbH in Germany wrote:

“…the mere prospect of remaking traditional products into smart and connected ones is daunting… But embedding them into a services-based business model is much more fundamentally challenging. The new models have major impacts on processes at the corporate center such as product management and production and sales planning. And given the dynamism of the net, the innovations will have to come more quickly.”

Dr. Ferber is right. Beyond the technical requirements of adding Internet functionality to objects—sensors, processors and transceivers at the very least—there will be fundamental changes to today’s business models. It is nearly impossible to predict how a fully connected, data-enabled, service-based infrastructure would impact any specific industry. Expand that to include legal, international and inter-industry issues and things get even more complicated.

To help put some perspective on both the positive and negative hype surrounding IoT, it’s helpful to go back and remember what the Internet was like in its infancy. In 1995 almost all Internet connectivity was slow. Laptops were rare and the idea of a tablet like an iPad or Kindle that you could take to the beach was limited to sci-fi like Star Trek: The Next Generation. Those were still the days when most people didn't have email…or even a home computer. Major players like Google, Facebook and Amazon were still years away, and predicting phenomena like Twitter and YouTube would have been impossible.

That’s where we are with the Internet of Things. We can see some of the early indicators. Some industries have done very well with embedded, connected logistics, which is one aspect of IoT that holds promise as an early “killer app.” Libraries themselves have been using RFID chips for decades to create small islands of connected things that help keep track of themselves. But are there other visible signs, today, that point to how and where the Internet of Things might expand…or implode?

The things aren’t smart...the platforms are

Most IoT objects, though, will require only a fraction of the computing power and sensor packages included in smartphones. A device meant to alert firefighters to sudden changes in moisture, temperature and air pressure doesn’t need a microphone or fingerprint reader. Pollution detection, water quality, noise levels, waste management, parking availability, structural conditions of buildings…none of these needs more than a single-point sensor to help deliver critical data back to a central platform. And it’s there—on service platforms—where the real potential for the Internet of Things starts to become clear.

Today, IoT may seem like early websites circa 1995: separate “islands” of information, providing specific data analysis for individual companies and industries. There will be the “Traffic IoT” and the “Weather IoT” and the “Waste Management IoT.” Eventually, as standards and providers compete and succeed, those platforms will begin to talk to each other and leverage each other’s capabilities the same way that Internet services do today.

Single-purpose IoT systems will provide evolutionary improvements for many industries. Overlapping, connected IoT platforms will give us revolutionary new ways to create smarter environments. And when IoT gets to that stage, it will be an infrastructure that’s as much a part of our world as electricity, indoor plumbing and highways. At which point, libraries will have as much stake in the day-to-day use of IoT as every other business.


But, for today—in a world where IoT is still mostly disconnected, independent devices and systems—what are librarians thinking about the technology?

Libraries & the Internet of Things

At the 2014 ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas, the OCLC Symposium featured a keynote from Daniel Obodovski, author of The Silent Intelligence: The Internet of Things [Full video available at]. Daniel walked the audience through a quick history of IoT, the current state of the art in commercial and consumer “smart things” and a look at where we’re headed.

Daniel talked specifically about connected medical devices, home monitoring technology, sports and fitness devices, wearable technology and transportation infrastructure. At the macro level he emphasized the following:

“In a nutshell, the biggest benefit of the Internet of Things is that it allows us to connect to the ‘analog things’ around us—like machines, plants, animals, our own bodies and so on—in a digital way. With all the benefits of digital communications—speed of light, easy multiplication of data and easy integration with other digital systems. Combined with wireless telephony, we create the state of machine telepathy, when one machine can talk to any other over long distances, unconstrained by wires.”

Daniel went on to explore some of the outstanding issues on the subject, including security and privacy. These issues were top-of-mind for librarians in attendance who participated in a discussion after the symposium. The extensive reach of personal data collection into more areas of our lives is of concern to many in the profession. These concerns were echoed in our follow-up survey conducted online to a broader audience of librarians (see above).

Daniel closed the symposium by remarking that:

“Human creativity doesn’t seem to have limits…computers and sensors don’t possess the capacity to think strategically. They don’t have imagination or intuition… But that seems to be the most important ingredient for creativity and invention. And that’s what opens new horizons and possibilities for us. Where technology, perhaps, helps us better understand ourselves and connect to each other, but never lead or take over.”

“We have a role to play”

Ken Varnum manages library Web systems for the University of Michigan Library and is the editor of the May 2014 LITA Guide, The Top Technologies Every Librarian Needs to Know. Ken also wrote two blog posts about the OCLC Internet of Things symposium for the RSS4Lib blog.

Like some of our survey respondents, Ken acknowledges that IoT probably isn’t going to be a pressing concern for library services in the near future. “Right now, we’re at the ‘do-it-yourself’ stage, for the most part,” he told us, “and most libraries aren’t going to have the resources to do that.”

Ken Varnum, Web Systems Manager Courtesy of Michigan Photography, Austin Thomason

On the other hand, he thinks that many of the home automation aspects of IoT will probably be relevant to library operations once they’re more mainstream. “That could be for thermostats and lights and other environmental controls, or tracking objects—like A/V resources—within the library.”

One aspect of that appealed to Ken—the ability to get some level of data or analytics back from automated systems. “It’s nice for a sensor to turn a light off or turn on a projector,” he said. “But if we can get some data back about how our resources are being used, that can help us plan better.”

But Ken thinks that libraries have a role to play on a couple of fronts. First, in terms of being advocates for transparency when it comes to data collection and privacy. “These are important issues for us in the profession, and we need to make sure that we are both educating our users about what’s happening in the wider world, and being good stewards of our own data.”

Ken also thinks that libraries could play a role by “putting the smart” into various smart objects, places and services. “We have a lot of information that could be very useful to people in a lot of situations. Connecting our services to IoT systems may be another way to redefine our services outside the library building, in classes on campus and wherever people need them most.”

Connecting jobs, education and collections future

In a summary of Gartner’s 2015 technology predictions, Forbes Magazine’s Gil Press reported that the total cost of ownership for business operations is expected to be reduced by 30% through smart machines and industrialized services. Gartner also predicts that IoT technologies will require 50% fewer business process workers…but 500% more key digital business jobs, including integration specialists, digital business architects, regulatory analysts and risk professionals. In short, smarter systems will require smarter workers.

For libraries, Linked Data technologies may play a key role in helping to build “smarts” into collections and systems [See Jean Godby’s article, “Is your library a Thing?”]. IoT providers may also look to libraries to provide a “reference layer” to the Internet of Things, connecting objects to resources that inform, explain or contextualize their use. And, as metadata technology experts, librarians will also be called on to help explain and contextualize IoT itself to the general public.

Both the Internet of Things and Linked Data present major opportunities for libraries to connect their resources and services to more people—and things—in more places than ever before. And while it may be possible for many libraries to “sit and watch what develops,” it’s clear that more should be done to understand how these technologies will impact our users and communities.