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Breathing new life into Singapore’s libraries with innovation
Ms Joti Upadhya is leading the development of NLB’s inaugural ChatBook, an interactive AI prototype that allows users to engage or even “debate” with books conversationally.
Ms Joti Upadhya is leading the development of NLB’s inaugural ChatBook, an interactive AI prototype that allows users to engage or even “debate” with books conversationally. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

This NLB senior manager develops interactive spaces with AI, offering novel storytelling experiences and improved library services

Imagine walking into a library and being able to put your own twists to stories and watch them come to life with text and visuals generated by artificial intelligence (AI).

Not only that, you can also change elements such as the genre and character of well-loved stories such as The Wizard of Oz and Attack of the Garfish from The Malay Annals.

That is the capability of StoryGen, a new generative AI prototype recently launched as an immersive experience at the Central Public Library on Victoria Street.

As the way the public consumes content changes, the National Library Board (NLB) also has had to innovate new ways of engaging and attracting its patrons.

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Driving this culture of innovation is Ms Joti Upadhya, a senior manager in the Innovation Office of the Strategy Division under the Partnership and Strategy Group. As part of a team, she develops, implements and champions products and services that make libraries more interactive.

“NLB continuously embraces innovation to ensure that we meet the evolving needs of our stakeholders, and provide high-quality services and resources to the public. This is particularly important in an era of rapid technological change, where organisations that fail to innovate and transform risk become obsolete,” she says.

Part of her role also involves fostering a culture of innovation within NLB.

“We encourage experimentation and risk-taking by creating an environment where new ideas are welcomed, and where employees are empowered to innovate both in their work as well as in implementing new initiatives for our patrons,” she says.

The Strategy Division, of which Ms Joti is a part, brainstorms and generates ideas with senior management to continuously improve on what NLB can offer to the reading and learning community.

NLB staff also get the chance to experiment and innovate through the BlackBox Innovation Festival, an internal biennial innovation event that invites staff to propose ideas to enhance the learning and discovery experience of library users.

Putting ideas into action

Ms Joti is also working with a different team on the development of another generative AI prototype – ChatBook.

Currently in its user-testing phase, ChatBook is available on a web version and on WhatsApp. Users can engage or even “debate” with books in an interactive and conversational manner.

When they ask ChatBook a question, it will provide responses based on the content ingested from published books, NLB’s online resources and more.

“The use of a book as the basis for the conversation also allows users to consume the book in a different way, adding a depth and richness to the experience that differs from chatbots,” says Ms Joti.

ChatBook is currently in the prototype phase where it has so far learnt the content of the book Seven Hundred Years: A History of Singapore as well as selected NLB resources.

“In this particular case, it also offers an opportunity for patrons to learn about Singapore’s history through conversations with a book,” she adds.

Users will also be given recommendations to buy or borrow the book, or delve deeper into NLB’s online resources on the topic.

“Each role has taught me something new and helped me grow both personally and professionally.”

Ms Joti Upadhya, senior manager, National Library Board, Strategy Division

Learning opportunities at every stage

As she drives innovation at NLB, Ms Joti herself is also constantly learning and upgrading her skills within the organisation.

She first joined NLB as an arts librarian in 2012. Since then, she has had opportunities to take on different roles – from planning arts programmes as a librarian to designing libraries of the future as a library planner and ensuring the smooth running of Bishan Public Library and Central Public Library as a branch manager.

“Each role has taught me something new and helped me grow both personally and professionally,” she says.

In 2019, she was also awarded a NLB postgraduate scholarship to pursue an Executive Master of Public Administration with a concentration in Leading Innovation and Managing Change at Hertie School in Berlin, Germany. She says one of her biggest takeaways from doing her master’s was that action must be taken for innovation to be effective, and that results carry more weight than plans.

Upon her return to NLB, she created a facilitation guide to help the staff better contextualise the operating shifts and the efforts that will be required as part of LAB25 and other transformation endeavours. LAB25, which stands for Libraries and Archives Blueprint 2025, is the organisation’s five-year road map to transform Singapore’s libraries and archives to become more accessible to everyone.

Now, as she leads the development of ChatBook, she has to plan user-testing sessions, identify the success metrics and manage the feedback from testers to know how to enhance it.

“While the process can be iterative and we are navigating a lot of uncharted territory, I enjoy helping to develop a long-term vision for the organisation as this involves exploring new ideas and identifying opportunities for growth and development,” says Ms Joti.

About the NLB Undergraduate Scholarship
The National Library Board (NLB) Undergraduate Scholarship seeks to develop and nurture talents to champion NLB’s mission. Scholars will have the opportunity to be part of NLB’s transformation efforts through the LAB25 (Libraries and Archives Blueprint 2025) programme.
They can work on cross-divisional projects and have various opportunities to work with stakeholders – including patrons as well as public and private sector organisations – to develop outreach programmes, educational initiatives and other offerings that promote the value of libraries and archives.
The scholarship is a fully funded programme that covers tuition and other compulsory fees, return airfare (for overseas scholarship), maintenance and other allowances (where applicable) and includes an internship.

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