Digital Strategy Year in Review

This is a guest post by Leah Weinryb-Grohsgal from the Digital Strategy Directorate. Leah outlines below some of the major milestones reached by the Directorate in 2019.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Exciting changes are afoot for digital transformation at the Library of Congress!  This post reviews some of the things we did last year to open our digital collections, connect with our users, and encourage digital innovation for the future.

You may have heard that we have a new Digital Strategy, which we adopted in October 2018.  The first ever Library-wide Digital Strategy, it’s intended to be a living, changing document.  In fact, we updated the Digital Strategy in April 2019 based on public and Library staff feedback. We plan to do so again in the future in the spirit of continual change and improvement.

Now, we’re moving forward with implementing the Digital Strategy.  We’re thinking big and thinking small, and looking ahead to the blue sky horizon of all things digital at the Library.  Our plan is to “throw open the treasure chest, connect, and invest in the future.”  LC Labs, launched in 2017 and now part of the Digital Strategy Directorate, continues to be a place for experimentation and provides a friendly interface for our technical side.

Image from A Library of Colors app by Library of Congress Innovator in Residence Jer Thorp

Image from “A Library of Colors,” by Jer Thorp.

Collections in the Cloud

How do we throw open our collections when those collections involve vast amounts of data?  As staff member Laurie Allen explains, for many years libraries have built infrastructure around traditional models of research.  But research using huge amounts of digital information, like the data found in Chronicling America or our Web Archives, requires a different—and unknown—infrastructure.  And each year brings new digitized and born digital materials to our collections.

In 2019, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the Library of Congress a grant for “Computing Cultural Heritage in the Cloud.”  This project will help us learn about what data people want, how they want to use it, and how we can provide access to collections as data at scale.  We’re underway—and look out for upcoming librarian and researcher opportunities soon!

Innovation Takes up Residence at the Library

Another way we’re trying to throw open the treasure chest is through our new Innovator in Residence program.  Researchers, scientists, artists, and others come to the Library to showcase innovative uses of our collections and encourage us to see our content in completely new ways.  As LC staff member Jaime Mears puts the question: “What is the potential for research, for inspiration, for joy?”

Our very first Innovator in Residence, Jer Thorp, explored serendipity, developed the Library of Color app, and released a podcast.  Two new innovators, Ben Lee and Brian Foo, have just begun their residencies.  Foo is identifying free-to-use audio and moving image collections for use in sample-based hip hop music.  And Ben will extract and caption photos and illustrations from our collections and build an exploratory search interface.

New Communities, New Approaches

Our LC Labs unit within Digital Strategy focuses on experimentation and piloting—even when it comes to finding new ways to connect.  Writing a book in just one week was one such experiment last year, when our very own Abigail Potter attended a “BookSprint” in Doha, Qatar.  “Labbers” from around the globe discussed the value of opening Labs in GLAMs (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums)—and they finished the book!  It’s called Open a GLAM Lab, and it suggests that labs open to experimentation, risk-taking, iteration, and transformation are critical to the digital shift in cultural heritage organizations.  With no time for extensive research or wordsmithing, Potter thought that the process brought out tacit knowledge—the sorts of things you’d share in a hallway conversation.  And, as Potter reflects, the quick BookSprint process itself puts these values into practice.

Photograph of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Laboratory of Anthropology, 1943

Collier, John Jr., photographer. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Laboratory of Anthropology. United States, 1943. //

Machines Learning and Our Collections

Another hot topic in the library innovation world is machine learning.  What is machine learning?  Well, as LC staff member Eileen Jakeway points out, in some ways the term is a misnomer.  Machines don’t learn on their own, but via a great deal of human labor.  Machine learning, Jakeway says, is “training computer algorithms to recognize sets of patterns across large datasets.”

Machine learning tools are useful for dealing with huge amounts of data.  Last year, LC Labs embarked on a “Summer of Machine Learning,” including a ML+L (Machine Learning + Libraries) summit.  We learned that there is major potential for using machine learning in library settings.  Given the size of many cultural heritage collections, Jakeway points out, machine learning may offer a significant advantage for accomplishing identification and organizational tasks like identifying subjects in photographs, connecting records, and removing duplicate images.

Photograph of girl using adding machine, 1930 to 1935

4. Nesmith, photographer. Girl Using Adding Machine. United States. [Between 1930 and 1935?] //

Testing Machine Learning Approaches

We undertook to find out how with a 16-week collaboration with researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Led by LC staff members Meghan Ferriter and Abigail Potter, the group is experimenting with using machine learning and artificial intelligence to extract text and images from collections, classify documents, and perform quality assessment of individual items and pages.  After six weeks on site at the Library and several more months’ remote work, the group produced a prototype and report with recommendations that will be shared with the public in the spring.

Newspaper page image from Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

The dispatch-news. (Lexington, S.C.), 14 Jan. 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. //

Much More in Store

These are just some highlights of our 2019 in digital transformation at the Library of Congress.

There’s also a lot going on with the Library’s By the People crowdsourcing program: new campaigns, new features, and new materials available for tagging and transcription.  There’s so much in store as we step forward implementing our Digital Strategy.  Stay tuned here for 2020 updates.  If anything catches your attention, we’re here at [email protected] or @LC_Labs!

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 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.  Read more »

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