Alumni spotlight: Meng Qu and the future of libraries

Meng Qu
Meng Qu, an alum of the iSchool’s MA Library & Information Studies program (photo courtesy of Qu).

Years before the COVID-19 pandemic made virtual learning mainstream, Meng Qu ‘18 suspected online education was poised to grow rapidly. Equipped with a degree in Instructional Technology, Qu was curious about where future innovations in digital learning would take root. One answer, she found, was the library. As a result, she decided to pursue an advanced degree in library and information studies.

Qu first heard from a friend that UW-Madison’s MA Library & Information Studies program was one of the best in the country. In addition, she recalls her friend touting the Information School (iSchool) as a “friendly environment, filled with good people.”

Ultimately, that environment helped launch Qu’s career as a web services librarian for Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a pioneer at the intersection of libraries and technology.

Fond memories

In the iSchool’s MA program, Qu’s interdisciplinary coursework focused on topics like information architecture (LIS 646), data management and information retrieval (LIS 711), and user experience (UX) design (LIS 611). She fondly noted several iSchool faculty and staff members who made a real impact on her academic journey:

  • Kristin Eschenfelder, former iSchool director and current associate dean for the School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences (CDIS). According to Qu, Eschenfelder “really helped [me] enlarge my knowledge about websites” and “always made students’ benefits her priority.”
  • Dorothea Salo, iSchool distinguished teaching faculty member. Qu referred to Salo as a “mentor” who was “extremely knowledgeable about computer programming and coding skills.”
  • Tanya Hendricks Cobb, MA graduate program manager. Qu called Cobb a “great student manager” who was able to help answer “all kinds of questions.”

In the six years since her graduation, Qu has led several professional projects—from publishing scholarly research to creating artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots—which she called “a direct result of the knowledge and skills I acquired during my career at the iSchool.”

Innovative projects

In 2018, following graduation, Qu accepted a role as web services librarian for Miami University. One of her first tasks was to lead the redesign of the libraries’ website, a project in which she employed many of the skills she learned at the iSchool.

“I definitely used what I had learned in information architecture courses,” Qu said. She noted that UX research skills, especially in analyzing patrons’ needs, were also invaluable for the redesign. “We did surveys, interviews, and even eye tracking, and we measured mouse clicks, scroll distance, and more,” Qu added. The results informed a successful revamp of the library website, designed with its users in mind.

In addition, Qu was lead author of a recent research paper published in the journal Education and Information Technologies that developed a new method to “monitor space utilization and analyze visitor patterns in academic libraries.” By leveraging wi-fi connection data, Qu and colleagues created a novel tool to provide both real-time crowd-level information for potential visitors and a comprehensive “visitor analysis dashboard” for librarians, delivering a cost-effective solution using readily available wi-fi data.

Finally, Qu led the creation of an AI-powered library services chatbot for academic libraries, equipped with OpenAI’s GPT-4 model. The chatbot can help patrons find specific books or research articles, make room reservations, or identify the best librarian to answer subject-based questions (for example, you can ask the chatbot to “find me a librarian in Computer Sciences,” as in the image below). Qu said the chatbot is designed to “provide enhanced support in answering online questions from library patrons.”

The chatbot was unveiled in a video demonstration in December, but it has not yet been released for public use.

Library chatbot
A library services chatbot developed by Meng Qu and colleagues at Miami University. This image (courtesy of Qu) is from a video demonstration of the chatbot’s use cases.

Qu envisions the chatbot being used as a smart research assistant. “You can ask, for example, ‘can you recommend some materials about machine learning?’ And it can answer.” That’s because the chatbot has the EBSCO Discovery API, a tool embedded in code that allows patrons to access EBSCO’s vast research database by asking the chatbot using natural language.

The future of libraries

Emerging technologies like AI are transforming work, and libraries are no exception.

“When I was young, I would go to the library and see a repository of books,” Qu said. “But in the digital age, not every library needs to constantly enlarge its physical repository. Now, we can digitize almost everything. We digitize textbooks, we digitize images, we put metadata into images, and we make images more quickly retrievable.”

She continued, “With the growth of AI and machine learning, I think we will be able to give library patrons a more personalized experience and faster research assistance with technologies like our chatbot.”

By integrating library services with cutting-edge technology, Qu is helping to shape the future of libraries.

To learn more about the iSchool’s master’s degree programs, visit the MA Library & Information Studies or MS Information webpages.

Written by Thomas Jilk, marketing & communications specialist.