Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Innovation in libraries: the University of Johannesburg Library

Innovation has been a buzzword in all industries amidst this “new normal” and libraries are having to change their approach rapidly in these challenging times. OUP representatives set out to find examples of truly innovative libraries from across the world and the first one in our series is focused on the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Library, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It was most certainly a year of challenge and change for everyone within the UJ Library, similarly to the rest of the world, but amidst this the UJ Library has launched many new initiatives—from their very own bot to a new free mobile application. We spoke to library representatives from the university, including their Marketing & Special Projects representative Ms Reneka Panday, to get an idea of some of the interesting and unique projects that their library is working on.

Tell us about an innovation in your library?

BOTsa, the UJ Library chatbot, was officially launched on 29 January 2020. BOTsa means “ask” in Setswana. The chatbot was developed to answer basic library-related questions and user queries 24/7 and refer enquiries that could not be answered by the bot to the library staff to respond to via email.

The library chatbot is an open source-based chatbot powered by Snatchbot, a bot-building platform. It was at the beginning of 2019 when the library thought of putting in place an automated customer service mechanism to alleviate the pressure presented to staff by the huge number of students that flocked into the library’s information desk with similar library queries, particularly at the beginning of the academic year. This became hugely successful during the lockdowns in 2020 as the university learnt to move to a virtual classroom option.

What is your library doing differently during the pandemic to enable people to access library resources?

As a result of COVID-19 and a national lockdown in South Africa, the UJ made an unprecedented decision that has necessitated a shift to online teaching and learning. UJ Library launched its new e-library app with the goal of providing students with the UJ Library in their pocket.

The library has seen the digital transition of our students and institution, and we have seen and identified the challenges that digital has brought to the institution.

The app provides hassle-free access to the university’s books, guides, information, bots, and online training, among other functionalities.

If budget was not an issue, what innovative feature would you add to your library?

UJ Library is on a quest to be the largest e-Library in Africa and would like to experiment with augmented reality, which is a hot topic in the tech world. “People are curious about its deployment in various domains, from medicine to gaming. So why not implement it in libraries too and combine digital with reality?” says Ms Alrina de Bruyn, Director of Marketing and Events, UJ Library.

Some of the areas that UJ Library would experiment with if budget was not a constraint are:

  • Virtual reality events—like visit the library from anywhere in the world
  • Experience your favourite book through virtual reality
  • Virtual reality teaching and library training experiences
  • High-end, state-of-the-art online international conference platforms.

Additionally, UJ Library is already looking at blockchain technology, which we are hoping to use to build an enhanced metadata system for libraries to keep track of digital-first sale rights and ownership, connect networks of libraries and universities, or even to support community-based borrowing and skill sharing programmes.

OUP wishes UJ Library the best in their quest for becoming the largest e-resources library in Africa!

Feature image by Sergey Zolkin

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