Library Labs Turn to Their Patrons for Project Ideas

University librarians are turning to their patrons for ideas on how to improve library services.

This fall, the new Harvard University Library Lab invited students and faculty and staff members to help enhance the facility’s offerings by proposing projects of their own. The lab will pool the proposals—submitted through an online portal—for review by a board of library officials. Once selections are made, the lab will develop the most promising projects with grant money from Arcadia, a London-based charitable fund to protect endangered natural and cultural resources, and with technical support from computer programmers and the library staff.

“The main goal has been to get some grassroots ideas generated and get people excited about contributing to their own efforts,” said Stuart Shieber, a professor of computer science and faculty director of the Office for Scholarly Communication, which runs the lab.

While Mr. Shieber said a large chunk of projects will most likely be Web-related, the lab is not restricting its search to any one medium. Whether projects affect one academic field or the entire student body, Mr. Shieber said, the lab is also interested in helping people with “ideas of all scales.”

As the lab collects project proposals, library staff members are answering questions from and bouncing around ideas with prospective applicants. Although Mr. Shieber said he expected to see a large number of submissions from faculty members and library staff, he has also received inquiries from students who are “gung-ho about the opportunities.”

The library lab is based on a two-year-old program at the Harvard Law School Library, which works one-on-one with faculty members and library staff members to develop new projects. Although it does not receive outside financing and is restricted to the law-school community, the law library’s outreach to users on new projects served as an inspiration for the campuswide lab. “Much of what we’re trying to do initially is to create the capacity for innovation,” said John G. Palfrey, Harvard Law School’s vice dean for library and information resources. 

Harvard is not alone in its push to get patrons more involved with library programs. At the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab, faculty members and advanced graduate students have been proposing and carrying out library tech projects for the past three and a half years. “Having an R&D group attached to a public-services group allows us to do a lot of interesting things,” said Bethany Nowviskie, director of digital research and scholarship at the university.

Rather than simply looking for one-time solutions to specialized faculty problems, Ms. Nowviskie said, the selection committee seeks out projects that can be used across disciplines and departments. “We’re trying to steer away from one-off boutique projects and look for combinations that will work with many faculty members,” she said.

The project to create the library’s new catalog search tool is a recent example of a specialized project adopted for widespread use. The tool, which is currently in its testing phase, was inspired by an open-source database established by the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, or NINES. According to Ms. Nowviskie, NINES was one of many academic projects housed in the research library, which sets aside office space for faculty. Once NINES—then led by UVa faculty member Jerome McGann—moved in, conversations about the database’s value for the wider campus community developed naturally. “It was a problem that scholars were trying to solve for themselves and it had some very interesting technical and interface implications for the problems that librarians were trying to solve,” Ms. Nowviskie said. “We looked at what UVa faculty were doing there and took some great ideas from it.”

Ms. Nowviskie said the lab allows for valuable experimentation with new library services, even if all projects do not prove successful. “We shouldn’t be glossing over failures. We should be learning from them,” she said.

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