RFID Machines in British Libraries Are Producing Charming Found Poetry

In the city where Shakespeare was born, a new literary giant emerges: library book return scanners

Stratford-upon-Avon is usually thought of as the birthplace of Shakespeare, but perhaps in the future it will be known as the birthplace of our greatest accidental machine poet: an RFID-based book scanning machine that turns returned titles into verse.

Patrons at the Stratford library and other libraries in Warwickshire, England can use the machines to easily check out and return books—just stack them in the scanner, and the machine can read their details from a chip embedded in the spine. If you like, it can print out a receipt confirming your return. Librarians also use the machines to record books that are dropped off, and last month, a Stratford staffer noticed that some of those receipts were downright lyrical.

Since then, several other Warwickshire libraries have joined in—all in the spirit of fun, says Stephanie Bellew, a reader development librarian at Warwickshire Libraries: “There is no rivalry/competition between our libraries — we’re just sharing the words and hopefully others will join in or simply gain pleasure/inspiration from our offerings.” However, perhaps due to its literary heritage, the Stratford branch is still the most prolific (and, as below, occasionally disturbing).

Machines are notoriously bad at generating or even interpreting literature—see, for instance, our reporting about an artificial intelligence trying unsuccessfully to write the first line of a novel, or this article on the difficulty of machine translation. Usually, when they write something decent—like those predictive text novels and scripts that blow up Twitter occasionally—it’s because there’s been a massive amount of human editing on the back end.

The RFID machine in the process of creating. (Photo courtesy of Stephanie Bellew)

Is there human involvement in this case? Well, humans write the book titles, which is probably primarily responsible for the success of the RFID poems; they’re using a limited number of input strings, all of which are already meaningful phrases. Humans also select which books to check out, which can lend a theme to a poem. But librarians swear the scanners do the rest themselves. Bellew spoke to a Stratford library staffer who insisted that selecting titles in order to force a good poem would be “going against the essence of the art.” She herself is a little more lenient: “I definitely think that there is room for ‘manipulation’ with this art form and I’m convinced that there are some very clever library staff out there who will be producing some amazing ‘carefully crafted’ poetry as we speak,” she admits. But if they are, “we should celebrate this as a win for creativity.”

Verse by the RFID machines includes this paean to father-child relationships:

This ballad of the homesick witch:

And this lightly disturbing three-part series that we’re thinking of as “Nikola Tesla animates the Bride of Frankenstein”:

“We are really appreciative of our wonderfully creative staff and the fantastic job that they do, and it is so great to be able to showcase this to the wider world,” Bellew told us. And we are also proud of the machines. It’s nice to know that when they take over, we’ll still have poetry.

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