Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Library Labs

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Library Labs

Article excerpt

While I unfortunately missed their presentation at ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim, I was so impressed by Mackenzie Brooks's and Margaret Heller's slides that I immediately contacted them about writing for "Accidental Technologist." Their concept of "Library Labs," where experimental services are developed in collaboration with community members, struck a chord. This is what every library needs; a low-overhead means to check out new technologies and test drive innovation. I think that any librarian, whether they work for a massive university or a small-town library, can find useful takeaways in this column.--Editor

Eric Phetteplace, Editor

The term library lab may evoke visions of banks of servers and a huddle of research programmers typing furiously. Yet even small libraries whose enthusiasm for new technology may outweigh their resources can adopt the library lab concept. In this article, we will discuss the background of library labs. We will then present some tactics that any library can use to create its own program or improve projects already in place. We hope to leave you feeling ready and excited to start researching emerging technology in your department at whatever scale you can manage.

First, we define a library lab as any library program, physical or digital (or a hybrid) in which innovative approaches to library services, tools, or materials are tested in some structured way before being made part of regular workflows, programs, or mission. We sometimes use the words pilot or beta as labels for this type of work. The lab means that these items are collocated and approached with focus and a system of regular evaluation. Of course, there can be a physical lab as well, but that is not necessary.

When we ask librarians about their library labs, the common response is "we don't have enough time, skills, money, staff, etc." The absence of these resources is all the more reason to have a library lab. We surveyed many projects that call themselves "library labs." Some have a rich culture of innovation, but others show how a library can "do more with less" in a creative and proactive manner. These two are not mutually exclusive, of course--"doing more with less" can turn into a culture of innovation.


The concept of "failing faster" or "celebrating failure" has been popular in the library literature (especially blogs and conference presentations) over the last few years, but we find these term inappropriate for much of the experimentation that goes on in libraries. The first "library labs" projects that we examined were started at Vanderbilt University and Ohio State University in 2005-6. These both used a model of "rapid prototyping": putting free or homebuilt technology testing out in public. Examples include browser search bars, Facebook apps, and updated staff intranets. Not all the products were implemented (and in the case of Vanderbilt, even the platform would eventually be replaced), and this helped these libraries highlight what they were doing with emerging technologies.

For the purposes of this project, we examined forty projects, some of which were taken from Library Labs on RSS4Lib (, and some of which we found through additional research. Thirty-one were in four-year college or university libraries, one in a community college, five in public libraries, two in special libraries, and one at a government library. These are projects that are explicitly called "Library Labs" or something similar, and most of them are modeled on either Vanderbilt's Test Pilot page or the Ohio State University's Library Labs. The vast majority of labs identified as such are located in university libraries. Some great examples of such projects include the Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory at Harvard Law School and North Carolina State University Library's Digital Initiatives Department. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.