November 25, 2014

Looking Through the Labrary Lens: Lessons from the Library Test Kitchen | Library by Design

In fall 2012, the Harvard Labrary—a temporary “pop-up” space in an empty storefront in Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA—was opened as a public gallery for design student projects from the semester-long Library Test Kitchen (LTK) seminar at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

Describing the Labrary, LTK instructor Jeff Goldenson said that it’s “a place where libraries can outsource risk and innovation,” a “pop-up R&D department” that explores ideas too disruptive for a traditional library location (for more, see “Making Room for Innovation” by Goldenson and Chattanooga PL’s Nate Hill). By bringing student projects to the public and inviting interaction and response, the Labrary became an exploration of what it means to be a library space. Though it was only open briefly, the Labrary suggested new ways of looking at non­traditional library space design.

ljx130502lbdwebBack1a Looking Through the Labrary Lens: Lessons from the Library Test Kitchen | Library by Design

SPACES POPPING UP (From l.–r.): Labrary’s Bookface installation; Makers seek to design at the Bubbler program at
Madison Public Library; Brooklyn Public Library’s Info Commons recording and video space.
Brooklyn Public Library photo by ©2013 Philip Greenberg; Bubbler Photo courtesy of Madison Public Library

Unfinished or use raw space

To create the Labrary, seminar students and instructors painted walls, built a rough-hewn ergonomic stage in one corner, and added track lights. This blank canvas allowed students to adapt their work to the space and vice versa.

If your library is undergoing a renovation or building a new space, don’t plan every square foot right away. With an unstructured area to grow into, you can take advantage of new trends. Or plan to leave the space raw, with the expectation that its use will change over time.

For instance, the unfinished basement of the new Fountaindale Public Library, IL, was reserved for future, unspecified use. After two years of surveys and analysis, the library built Studio 300, a digital media creation space for the general public. Six audio recording studios, two video recording studios, and three group collaboration rooms take advantage of the lightless, temperature controlled, and sound-isolated basement space. Studio 300 opened on March 16.

Before the Madison Public Library, WI, shut down the main library to move to a new building, it held a one-day, one-night art show and fundraiser called BOOKLESS in the empty structure. More than 5,000 artists and visitors graffitied the walls, danced and played music, and otherwise tore the place apart. The vibrant event inspired library planners to rethink the new media center as the touchstone of a creative and collaborative series of systemwide programs: the Bubbler (see below).

It’s not just about the gadgets

At the Labrary, Harvard students and members of the public alike came to work on projects. One class meeting was even held in the cozy inflatable reading room—a ten-foot-tall inflatable Mylar room with bean bags and cushions on its carpeted floor.

In public libraries, something like this might be a library-based coworking space. Coworking areas allow for more noise than a traditional library and offer a more work-focused environment than a coffee shop, without the expense of a commercial space. As Emily Badger writes in The Atlantic: Cities, “[Libraries] offer a more familiar entry-point for potential entrepreneurs less likely to walk into a traditional start-up incubator. Public libraries long ago democratized access to knowledge; now they could do the same in a start-up economy.”

What that coworking space might look like varies widely. The Orlando Public Library, FL, has a single coworking room that the public can reserve for $10 for two hours, with table, chairs, whiteboard, TV, and phone.

Taking it to the next level, Arizona State University (ASU) and the Phoenix Public Library have partnered to develop the ­Alexandria Network: “support for the innovation economy through ­EUREKA spaces, which combine elements of coworking space with expert library fact-finding services and ASU start-up resources.”

Let visitors make their own fun

As a student showcase, the Labrary let the public engage with student projects on the theme of the “future of libraries,” ranging from Bookface—an installation that photographed visitors lying with their faces obscured by a laptop, then published those images to Tumblr—to tables that emanated ambient noise to keep the space from getting “too” quiet. Ben Brady, a coteacher of the seminar, said that at the beginning, “a lot of people were asking ‘What is this place?’ and with the student projects in place, people were more engaged with exploring the space themselves.”

Engagement with the space can encourage a feeling of temporary ownership, which in turn encourages things like informal class meetings, displays of work by local artists, a wide variety of collaboration, and even dance parties.

One way to encourage informal engagement is through library Maker spaces, from a created space in the middle of the library stacks (Westport PL, CT) to a new dedicated wing (Fayetteville Free Library, NY). Maker spaces can offer both formal programs and unstructured access to the tools of the Maker’s arsenal—3-D printers, large-format printers and scanners, small electronics kits, and more.

In addition to more curriculum-oriented tech, the Taylor Family Digital Library at University of Calgary, Alta., has a computer-based DJ station for students to record their own remixed tracks.

Some aren’t permanent

The Labrary was a temporary effort from the start, with few of the construction choices of a permanent space. If libraries build with impermanence in mind, they can benefit from the lightweight infrastructure of a mutable space.

When the café in the lobby of the Oak Park Public Library, IL, closed, the library chose to use the room for monthly interactive library-focused installations. The Idea Box is small and fronted with glass. Installations have ranged from a public-created and -curated magnetic poetry “collection” to presentations from live artists and folk musicians and interactive night sky exhibits.

Back at the Madison PL, each Bubbler program may last an hour or two, or be a week- or month-long gallery of work or interactive experience. It can be anywhere, include any topic, and even be brought off-site as needed.


Jennifer Koerber is Web Services Librarian, Boston Public Library, and an independent trainer and speaker in emerging technologies and the social web.

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