The Harvard Labrary: A Design Experiment in Library Futures

Since November, the Harvard Labrary—a temporary ‘pop-up’ space in an empty storefront in the middle of Harvard Square—has been a public gallery for design student projects on the future of libraries. The projects come out of this fall’s semester-long Library Test Kitchen (LTK) seminar at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. With an open door every Monday through Saturday, the Labrary invites passersby to come in, interact with the projects, or just sit and work.
[portfolio_slideshow centered=true autoplay=false] Since November, the Harvard Labrary—a temporary ‘pop-up’ space in an empty storefront in the middle of Harvard Square—has been a public gallery for design student projects on the future of libraries. The projects come out of this fall’s semester-long Library Test Kitchen (LTK) seminar at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. With an open door every Monday through Saturday, the Labrary invites passersby to come in, interact with the projects, or just sit and work. The Library Test Kitchen was developed by instructors Jeffrey Schnapp, Ann Whiteside, and Jeff Goldenson to prototype library ideas, in part an outgrowth of the Harvard Library Transition that began as an institutional reorganization process started in 2009. Schnapp’s description of the project also notes its broader scope:
“The Harvard Library system is in the midst of unprecedented transformation. As part of the process, the system’s own Innovation Lab has financed the Library Test Kitchen for a second year. Not just as an engine of local change, but also as a driver of innovation on a national and international stage. The course assumes the form of a studio devoted to critical and speculative thinking, hands-on problem solving, fabrication and making. In addition to the Harvard libraries, the course’s network of clients and collaborators includes major public library systems nationwide.”
“Make things, test, make again,” explains Goldenson. “As a kind of R&D department, the Harvard Library invests in the students to help explore its own future and the future of libraries in general.” Supported by the Harvard Library, the Innovation Lab granting entity, and the Provost’s office, the Labrary was an unexpected addition to LTK halfway through the semester, after the space became available. Faculty and students rose to the challenge of not only finishing their own projects, but also building out and staffing the Labrary in a few weeks. “We got the keys October 28th. We had the doors open to the public by early November, and student work was finished and installed on December 4th,” says Goldenson, who is the primary person staffing the Labrary. “Since we were only going to be in the space for a short time, we wanted to tread lightly and install something fast, exciting, and inexpensive,” explained Ben Brady, a former student in the seminar and now a co-teacher. As a result, while the walls are painted, the concrete floor and irregularly-shaped stage in one corner are unfinished. A dominant feature of the Labrary is a 10-foot tall Mylar inflatable reading room in the front corner. It's the first thing visitors see when they enter, and was custom-built for the space in just a few hours by Brady and current seminar student Arielle Assouline-Lichten. Open the zipper, and inside the room is fitted out with rugs and beanbags. Positive pressure created by the fan on the floor keeps the room inflated. “It's not a student project, but the reading room does bring people’s attention to their environment,” muses Goldenson. “It helps visitors see the Labrary space itself as a designed environment to encourage a culture of experimentation, openness, and risk.”

Learning from the Labrary

The Labrary gave the future designers (in both senses) a chance to get their hands dirty and learn by experiment. “More than anything, this class is about making and exploring your ideas,” said Brady. “[This was] a unique opportunity to get real experience dealing with real space while still a student. Students were forced to deal with budgets, schedules, sourcing of materials, and contracting services.” Jessica Yurkofsky, another former student and co-instructor in LTK, adds, “Although LTK doesn’t require a pop-up space, students have benefitted tremendously from being able to really design for use and to see visitors engaging with their work.” Current student Nicolas Rivard agrees. “It’s much more productive to have these [class] discussions here than in a classroom.”

The Labrary as Town-Gown Liaison

The Labrary isn’t only serving the seminar participants, though, or even just the students who use the Harvard libraries. The Labrary bridges the gown/town gap simply by being there. Located one block from the center of Harvard Square, foot traffic is high. On a rainy Saturday, 45 people wandered through Labrary in just the first four hours it was open. Visitor comments made it clear how keenly aware they are of the semiotics of the space, saying things like ““Having the door open is huge. It invites you in,” and “It’s like a very casual coffee shop.” Said co-teacher Yurkofsky, “Harvard Square is an incredibly unique environment to have a space like this, where anyone can come in. One of the most exciting parts has been interacting with visitors and learning about their amazing (and often relevant!) experiences and skillsets. In a couple of cases, we’ve even been able to incorporate their work into the space.” Co-instructor Brady described the change in visitors as the Labrary grew. “As the space began, a lot of people popping in were asking, ‘What is this place?’ Now, with student projects populating the space, people are not needing things to be explained as much and are more engaged with exploring themselves.” Goldenson feels the Labrary’s outreach is important because “very often, the public never sees the creativity that comes out of the university.” For his part, having spent most of the past four weeks in the Labrary, “I’ve learned an immense amount about the community.” However, he admitted, “It’s also been draining. I’m more used to making things, not making culture.”

Projects and Programs

There are more than a dozen student projects on display in the Labrary, encompassing the physical, digital, theoretical, and experiential, and ranging from playful to practical. Among them are:
  • Bookface—In one corner is a stage with a duct tape ‘victim’ outline and a laptop suspended over the head. Nicolas Rivard designed Bookface to encourage visitors to reflect on their relationship with technology, while posing in a murder mystery photobooth. Press a button and a camera in the ceiling takes a picture of the ‘victim,’ face obscured by the laptop. The image is uploaded to Tumblr and shared with the world.
  • Topical Tables—The main work surfaces in the Labrary are donut-shaped Topical Tables. Speakers underneath the tables play a low-volume murmur of sounds. Developed by Hattie Stroud, the tables provide “just enough” noise, preventing the absolute silence that can be more distracting than helpful.
  • Graham Grams—Rola Idris and Pablo Roquero’s Graham Grams use a device similar to a credit card imprinter to let visitors print an edible telegram with icing on a graham cracker while (possibly) thinking about the impermanence of information and communication.
  • The Speaking Library by Chris Molinski is an online archive of audio tracks recorded anonymously at the Labrary, documenting a collective oral history of libraries.
Events at the Labrary have ranged from intimate brown-bag lunch discussions with Harvard Library staff to a standing-room-only presentation on Library Futures with  Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in conversation with Jeffrey Schnapp. While the Labrary crew don’t always get the numbers they’ve hoped for—these are largely daytime programs, after all—this has encouraged a very relaxed, intimate dialogue at most events. One was even held in the inflatable reading room.

The Labrary as Sandbox

The Labrary bills itself as “A Harvard Library experiment, open to the public.” Not a traditional library space, it has become more than just a gallery for student work. Dan D’Oca, urban planner and Library Test Kitchen guest lecturer, described it as “a sandbox. Every town should have one.” Goldenson expands on this idea. “It’s a place where libraries can outsource risk and innovation,” experimenting with ideas that might disrupt a full library location. One question this library-labeled sandbox asks is: What is a library besides the collections? What else is a library for? Vaughn Tan, PhD candidate in organizational behavior and sociology at Harvard University, thinks this is a question that should be discussed and debated more often. “There’s a lot of talk about how libraries should change, but very few ideas of how they should be shaped.... Every library should figure out what they want to be and just do that. Don’t try to be all things to all people.” (As an example of a library already engaged in this process, Tau cited the innovations that the National Library in Singapore, his homeland, has made in matching public libraries to public needs. “They are community outreach libraries with a lighter weight physical infrastructure,” and most of the buildings are around 2000 square feet and located in shopping plazas and malls.) One of the answers to “what else is a library for?” that the Labrary suggests is creating unexpected interactions. “We have a projector [hanging from the ceiling]” says Goldenson. “Students who come here to work will plug in their laptops and project their screen as they work. Stuff being made—in progress—is totally interesting. People will stand outside and watch. And it probably keeps the students from checking their email and getting distracted, because they know that people are watching them work.” Sometimes, the watchers will comment on the work being done, or offer feedback on the ‘performance’ through normal audience noises. These moments of random, opportunistic collaboration could easily spark new ideas for the creators. Temporary ownership of the library space encourages things like informal class meetings, displays of work by local artists, a wide variety of collaboration, and, later this week, a dance party. Quips Goldenson, “This is making the library space behave more like a library book. ‘Take out the library for a night!’ ” Said Karina Qian, master’s student at the Kennedy School of Government, “There’s no other space at Harvard where lots of different people can come and interact. A great cross-section of people come in here. [Musician] Amanda Palmer came in, and so did George Papandreou [former Prime Minister of Greece and Visiting Fellow at the Kennedy School this fall]. They should have something like this all the time. It’s integrated with the city and with Harvard Square. It’s good to have people from all walks of life come together, different kinds of Harvard people and the public.” While all this sounds very adult and intellectual, there are simpler joys to be discovered in an un-libraried library space. When asked what their favorite parts of the Labrary were, three girls answered, “The typewriters! And the silver thing! [the inflatable room] And the Bookface thing.” The woman with them guessed that if they could put the typewriters into the inflatable reading room, the girls would be all set.

After the Labrary

On December 21st, the Labrary closes its doors. The student projects will disperse: Some will be installed in Harvard Library buildings, some may travel to other innovative library spaces (such as the 4th Floor at the Chattanooga Public Library), and some will go home with their creators. One or two may even be considered for Harvard Library Innovation Lab grants for further exploration. Seminar students Rola Idris and Pablo Roquero will also collect seminar coursework, transcriptions from events, and images of the Labrary into a self-published book. Everything about the project will be publicly available, including the book and instructions for the inflatable reading room. Goldenson sums it up: “Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk with the students and process the Labrary project. We already know that Harvard University and the Harvard Library are really happy. This isn’t what they expected, but they’re happy. The Labrary allows for a freer dialogue on where the Library (and libraries) are going. The Harvard Library is changing. Let’s get the students to tell us what the future is.”
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Anonymous Also

I work in the Harvard Library system also. Anonymous is (succinctly) expressing concerns shared by many staff here in both lower and higher positions. It is demoralizing to have the Labrary receive funding and attention when it does not help us provide the resources our patrons are asking for, and when departments whose function it is to keep their individual library open are stretched thin and told there is nomoney for even one more FTE. We have action plans, for Pete's sake. We know how to join and form committees, how to speak up, how to operate a library as well as innovate it. The hundreds of hardworking staff here are personally and professionally dedicated to what they do, and they're very, very good at it. The Labrary isn't evil or a bad idea. The Labrary staff are among the hundreds of hardworking staff I just mentioned. Innovation is both awesome and necessary-- but for our leaders to put money into innovation for its own sake while our libraries are struggling IS demoralizing and condescending. As the previous commenter pointed out, these frustrations aren't unique to Harvard, so I'm not sure why it seems so unwelcome for us to say this. Can't we discuss innovation and change in the same context as the discussion of maintaining the missions we've already set for ourselves?

Posted : Feb 27, 2013 04:07

Mary Faith Chmiel

I think Anonymous has already expressed exhaustion from being overworked and under-supported (with resources like staffing and materials, and with recognition and/or appreciation). Anonymous may have taken on the role of victim, but rather than expressing support for Anonymous' sense of futility and frustration, Christina, you take the popular route of blaming the victim. There is no doubt that libraries are under-appreciated in our society. Again and again librarians are asked to do more and more with less and less. And because librarians believe in service, again and again librarians shoulder the challenge and persevere. But this must stop. Libraries and librarians must stop being a doormat to the public and to academia. And projects like the Labrary merely inspire people who know nothing about libraries to think they know how to 'fix' libraries. Helloooo? There is nothing wrong with libraries that an injection of serious money won't solve! Libraries are our intellectual infrastructure and they've been just as neglected as our transportation infrastructure, and are in equal need of greater resources.

Posted : Jan 04, 2013 01:58


Okay i see that you are wanting a lot to be done however, why are you not that instrument of change or innovation? How are you contributing to making your library better even with the LESS? All libraries have to do more with less it is HOW they do with that LESS that makes the Library stand out. What is your Action Plan for your library? have you spoken to your uppers? have you joined a committee or created a committee to address these ideas or wants or needs? When was the last time you attended conference? Have you contributed or volunteered with you professional tribe in a while? Now might be a good time for a refresher like a conference to get your ideas flowing and refresh yourself in library and our tribe. Complaining about what should be done and what the situation is only goes so far and your responses have indicated that you are very frustrated with the current status quo..then why not DO something about it? It doesn't have to be grand. It doesn't have to make the news or LJ or anything like that b/c your first priority is to your patrons. I really feel for you and have been angry with administration and for funding projects that to me just seem like a waste, but innovation and trends are always experiments. Trail and error and all that jazz. I really hope you can create a project or develop an idea that will change or improve service at the library you work at. Things at a branch level when prosperous and beneficial have a way of going viral. Good Luck to you.

Posted : Dec 28, 2012 12:04


OK, here's the problem: if this was space to "play" in for those with time to play. There is still all that work that has to be done, and none of those who don't have enough time to get the work done have time "play". Most of us who are long-time library employees are trying to cope with the same (or even more) responsibilities with fewer resources and fewer staff. So the people who have time to "play" get both the fun and the glory, and, display very little working knowledge of actually delivering services. I don't think this diminishing support for the everyday work is a Harvard-only thing. As serial subscription prices have risen, the budget for staff has been diminished in many places to attempt to compensate. I'd like to see a legal and economic laboratory. I'd like to see some smart people figure out how to slice through the legal and economic landscape that has placed a huge burden on libraries. Among other things, I'd like to see visionaries address the costly (to universities) academic publishing model and stop the profits (and budgets of libraries) going to publishers like Elsevier.

Posted : Dec 27, 2012 04:01


I agree with Nate. The creative spaces are indeed interesting and a great way to feature the Library in a different manner. As i was reading the article I was thinking about my own home office and how it is a Library, a study for quite time, a place of relaxation with my tv in it, my closet is my creative space with craft projects and beads and vintage paintings, and for one hour a night, a gym. It's the most multifunction room second only to my Living room. I think Libraries can be many things but the experiementation has be abe to be measured and the experiement results need to have someway to come back to Library and improve it. Improve what or how we are serving our respective communities. If it's an exhibit..then draws people and they learn about our other programs and offerings and hopefully return to participate in a yoga class, a small business class or baby time and bring a friend or two with them. I think we are getting into the realm of blending a gallery or museum with the Library. It's a good thing. we are related fields. there is room for the standard..the information pathways and the expression of creativity.

Posted : Dec 26, 2012 07:58

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