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2 minutes to read Posted on Friday February 14, 2020

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Milena Dobreva

Milena Dobreva

Senior Lecturer , University of Strathclyde

Innovation through GLAM Labs

Milena Dobreva is an Associate Professor in Library and Information Studies at UCL Qatar, as well as one of Europeana 2019’s Unsung Heroes for her work with the Europeana Research Community. In this post, she discusses the concept of a GLAM lab and her contribution to Open a GLAM Lab, a book for everyone interested in experimentation with digital collections.

main image
A man conducts an alchemical experiment with an alembic, in the foreground, in the background a female figure representing the world observes a man of the new school of chemistry who prepares an oxygen experiment with a glass jar and a candle
Richard Corbould
Wellcome Collection
United Kingdom

What is a GLAM Lab?  

In 2006, Gregory Crane, an avid explorer of the ways humanities scholarship benefits from large scale digital libraries, asked the question What Do You Do with a Million Books? The expectation was that in the future, intelligent tools would transform the use of digitised materials by analysing and combining different objects for a reader’s benefit. 

With more experimentation with digital objects than ever before taking place in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) labs, we are now closer to this vision. Labs with various names (innovation labs, data labs, or simply labs), have started to appear across multiple GLAM institutions to meet the demands of digital content users. 

The recently published book Open a GLAM Lab, introduced in this post for Europeana Pro, defines a GLAM Lab as ‘a place for experimenting with digital collections and data. It is where researchers, artists, entrepreneurs, educators and the interested public can collaborate with an engaged group of partners to create new collections, tools, and services that will help transform the future ways in which knowledge and culture are disseminated.’ 

The word lab assumes that we have ingredients and tools which we use to experiment with different processes, and in doing this, create something new. It seems a bizarre metaphor for the GLAM setting where the ingredients are different digital objects, in many cases carefully and painstakingly curated. However, GLAM Labs are living up to their name. They use digital ‘ingredients’ (the objects) and the most advanced technological tools they can identify (or in some case develop) to distil the essence of digital content which the users of today are seeking. 

Each lab is unique because the ingredients and interests of the users of digital content in different institutions are unique. However, these labs are also similar in their role as drivers of experimentation, innovation and digital transformation in their organisations. 

In addition to aggregation projects, GLAM labs are another way that institutions can facilitate the reuse of large digital collections. Both of these approaches experiment with innovative delivery of content from large-scale heterogeneous collections but unlike the GLAM Labs, aggregators do not always offer physical space and dedicated staff to work on specific projects alongside users. However, they both address the issues around access to very large collections and suggest solutions to the 'million book' challenge.

The GLAM Lab book 

The growing International GLAM Labs Community is seeking ways to share experiences and support individuals new to the datafication of collections. The book Open a GLAM Lab was created following an innovative, five day booksprint with 16 experts. The event was co-hosted and financed by UCL Qatar and the Library of the University of Qatar with additional financial support from the British Library, the Library of Congress and Booksprints Ltd.

Katrine Hofmann Gasser (Royal Danish Library), Sarah Ames (National Library of Scotland), Stefan Karner (Austrian National Library), Gustavo Candela (Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes Foundation), Sally Chambers (Ghent Centre for Digital Humanities)
Abigail Potter
Sep 2019

The book provides examples of how labs have supported new types of activities in the digital cultural heritage domain, and provides inspiration for readers. 

Case study 1: Labs and User-Generated Content

#NewSelfWales was an exhibition developed by the DX Lab at the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, to create a gallery of community-generated photos, uploaded from a photo booth in the gallery or via Instagram. The project started in 2018.

Case study 2: Labs and Citizen Science 

By the people is an online volunteer programme at the Library of Congress, Washington,  which invites members of the public to transcribe hand-written documents; these accumulated documents are a great source for scholars. The programme uses the crowdsourcing transcription and tagging platform Concordia, developed by the library and launched in 2018. 

Case study 3: Labs and Art

In 2019 the British Library Labs, London, hosted an artist in residence, Michael Takeo Magruder, who experimented with an online map collection, data generated by the public about each map and computer-generated code to produce the Imaginary Cities exhibition. 

Launched in 2019, Off the Shelf is another example of an exhibition which was the outcome of a GLAM Lab (the DX Lab at the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney). It allows the visitor to browse some 650 book covers and encourages them to read some of the hidden treasures in the State Library.

Off the Shelf
Annie Tong
The State Library of New South Wales
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence

Since its launch in Open Access Week 2019, the book has had some 4000 reads on the website and some 1000 views on QSpace, the open access repository of Qatar University. As a local host, I am particularly happy it had been nominated for the annual Digital Humanities Awards (under the category ‘ Best Use of DH Public Engagement’)!