AI-Search Tool Talpa Burrows Into Library Catalogues

July 19, 2023

Vea4_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_thumb_t[1]Note: This essay is the work of a real and still-alive dinobaby. No smart software involved, just a dumb humanoid.

For a few years now, libraries have been able to augment their online catalogue with enrichment services from Syndetics Unbound, which adds details and imagery to each entry. Now the company is incorporating new AI capabilities, we learn from its write-up, “Introducing Talpa Search.” Talpa is still experimental and is temporarily available to libraries already using Syndetics Unbound.

7 15 biijwirn

A book lover in action. Thanks MidJourney. You made me more appealing than I was in the 1951 when I got kicked out of the library for reading books for adults, not stuff about Freddy the Pig.

Participating libraries will get a year of the service for free. We cannot know just how much they will be saving, though, since the pricing remains a mystery. Writer Tim Spalding describes how Talpa works:

“First, Talpa queries large language models (from Claude AI and ChatGPT) for books and other media. Critically, every item is checked against true and authoritative bibliographic data, solving the problem of invented answers (called ‘hallucinations’) that such models can fall into. Second, Talpa uses the natural-language abilities of large language models to parse and understand queries, which are then answered using traditional library data. Thus a search for ‘novels about World War II in France’ is broken down into subjects and tags and answered with results from the library’s collection. Our authoritative book data comes from Syndetics Unbound, Bowker and LibraryThing. Surprisingly, Talpa’s ability to find books by their cover design isn’t powered by AI at all, but by the effort of thousands of book lovers who have played LibraryThing’s CoverGuess cover-tagging game since 2010!”

Interesting. If you don’t happen to be part of a library using Syndetics, you can try Talpa out at one of the three libraries linked to in the post. The tool sports a cute mole mascot and, to add a bit of personality, supplies mole facts beneath the search bar. As with many AI tools, the functionality has plenty of room to grow. For example, my search for “weaving velvet” did return a few loom-centered books scattered through the results but more prominently suggested works of fiction or philosophy that simply contained “velvet” in the title. (Including, adorably, several versions of “The Velveteen Rabbit.”) The write-up does not share when the tool will be available more widely, but we hope it will be more refined when it is. Is it AI? Isn’t everything?

Cynthia Murrell, July 19, 2023


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