Sprinting toward a Lab: defining, connecting and writing a book in five days

A lab is where experimental and research-focused tools, methods, and services are incubated. The starting premise for a lab is often wanting to spur change and make space for new practice and new people. Yet calling something a lab can also signal separation between traditional services and new approaches. Labs, and innovation in general, can seem like a passing fad that promotes shallow thinking about the application of digital technologies. Considering the limited resources and lack of cutting-edge technologies available at most galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAMs), should GLAMs consider opening labs? 

Open a GLAM Lab book cover.To begin to answer this question, the British Library Lab, which opened in 2013, held a meeting in September of 2018 called “Building Library Labs” to start a conversation among practitioners who were currently running a lab or thinking of opening one. There was a lively enough discussion to warrant another meeting in March of 2019 in Copenhagen. The buzz from these events created a community of “labbers” and the lab-interested that has grown to 250 participants from 20 countries. 

Even with this momentum and interest, participants identified a need to articulate lab values, share relevant experience and case studies, and suggest some best practices for those starting up cultural heritage innovation labs. One year after the first gathering in late September 2019, a group of 16 librarians, developers, archivists, curators and academics from around the world (including myself) landed in Doha, Qatar, to embark on a BookSprint, a collaborative and rapid publishing methodology to write a book in five days

At the end of that five days, the authors strongly argue, yes, “Open a GLAM Lab”.

Labs can be directly tied to achieving the missions of GLAMs and they can be inclusive change-makers. GLAM Labs build on the work of their institutions to create, preserve and provide access to collections. They can work with and share new technologies and methods for creating and disseminating expertise embedded in and adjacent to cultural and memory organizations. By explicitly inviting new users into GLAMs and designing new partnerships with communities, labs can address contemporary challenges around reaching new audiences, collaborating with communities, and sharing the value of collections broadly.

Tools and services created in a GLAM Lab are not devised as permanent. Therefore, space emerges where researchers, artists, educators and the interested public can collaborate with a group of partners with the time and remit to explore questions that help create new collections, tools, and services. These outcomes help transform the future ways in which knowledge and culture are disseminated. The exchange, experimentation and data created in a Lab are open, iterative and shared widely, which can feel risky to authoritative organizations. But GLAMs are full of people who are passionate about connecting collections to communities; Labs provide opportunities to combine new ideas with the deep expertise of existing staff and a mechanism to imagine and test future possibilities.

All this positive thinking about the future of digital transformation in GLAMS can be contagious, and we (the authors) hope that it is. But, there is very hard work involved and a resilient mindset is required. Bureaucracy-hacking, risk-taking and reacting to criticism are all everyday activities in a Lab.  It is challenging to  navigate ingrained processes, anxieties, user expectations, and technical limitations while generating momentum toward future progress. Not all experiments or partnerships end with the hoped for results. Labs can help articulate criteria and provide evidence for hard choices that GLAMs make everyday.

As exciting as the new methods and technical possibilities are, people are the center of a GLAM Lab. Only through engaging with people can you change the culture and direction of an organization. A GLAM Lab helps to translate expertise and generosity from across the organization to make collections and technologies approachable and usable. Establishing values for a GLAM Lab provides guiding principles for how to engage with partners and communities. Nurturing staff and taking an inclusive and transparent approach to engaging with collaborators and user communities help to ensure all groups feel welcome and supported in lab environments.

GLAM Lab Booksprint in Action

GLAM Lab Booksprint in Action

People were also at the center of the experience of writing the book. Capturing the collective experience and perspective from 16 people was a unique experience. As we reflected in the Introduction: Making this book was hard but is was also very special. The themes you see reflected in this book: being open to experimentation, risk-taking, iteration, and transformation also capture the methodology of the BookSprint. The process of extracting ideas from sixteen heads and making a coherent narrative under extremely tight deadlines sometimes got messy. There were highs and lows, moments of brilliance, feelings that we’d never finish, and very late nights. We had to push each other to keep going, be uncomfortable, debate, disagree, come to a decision, and move forward to finish. Sometimes we didn’t do this well, but we were always able to come together again. The five days of intense work resulted in a book, but it also resulted in a very bonded group that is galvanized to make positive change. The process allowed diverse experiences and perspectives to meld together into a unified book that we hope you find useful in answering questions about why time, space and resources for experimentation are important to create.

You can download the open access e-book from http://glamlabs.io and sign up for the GLAM Lab listserv for updates. The book is a collective product with contributions from Mahendra Mahey, Abigail Potter, Aisha Al-Abdulla, Armin Straube, Caleb Derven, Ditte Laursen, Gustavo Candela, Katrine Gasser, Kristy Kokegei, Lotte Wilms, Milena Dobreva-McPherson, Paula Bray, Sally Chambers, Sarah Ames, Sophie-Carolin Wagner and Stefan Karner who are from the following institutions. 

  • Austrian National Library, Austria
  • The British Library, UK
  • Fundación Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, Spain
  • Ghent Centre for Digital Humanities, Ghent University, Belgium
  • History Trust of South Australia, Australia
  • Library of Congress, USA
  • KB National Library of the Netherlands, The Netherlands
  • National Library of Scotland, UK
  • Qatar University Library, Qatar
  • The Royal Danish Library, Denmark
  • State Library of New South Wales, Australia
  • UCL Qatar, Qatar
  • University of Alicante, Spain
  • University of Limerick, Ireland

The University College London, Qatar, Qatar University, the British Library and the Library of Congress provided funding to hold the BookSprint. 

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