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Introducing GLAM Labs

Cultural heritage institutions need a digital shift. Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) Labs will make that shift happen. Operating at the intersection of digital cultural heritage, innovation, technology and creativity, they provide significant benefit.

Published onOct 29, 2019
Introducing GLAM Labs

Cultural heritage institutions need a digital shift. Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums (GLAM) Labs will make that shift happen. GLAM Labs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They use experimental methods to make cultural heritage collections available in innovative, engaging and unexpected ways. Operating at the intersection of digital cultural heritage, innovation, technology and creativity, they provide significant benefit for organisations, users, society and culture.

Defining a Lab

Throw away your preconceptions about what a Lab is and imagine something different.

In a GLAM Lab, there are digital maps, photographs and manuscripts, 3D virtual objects of Egyptian heads and vases, digitised books from the 17th century with pictures of strange animals, sound recordings of machines and violin music, old TV programmes, millions of pages of text from newspapers, video games from the 1980s, websites which no longer exist, and computer programs which worked on machines that no one makes any more. There are people coming in and out; to chat, to tinker, to transform, and to share.

Cultural heritage organisations have historically provided access to and preserved cultural heritage. The shift towards the digital has presented new opportunities for experimentation and innovation. The fast pace of technological developments impacts society and culture worldwide. Some institutions may not be ready for this. This is the world of GLAM Labs. Labs and Lab-style work challenge the traditional approach and use new, existing and emerging technologies to make their collections available in innovative, engaging and unexpected ways. Labs experiment, collaborate, take risks, sometimes fail, and always push boundaries.

GLAM Labs history

Early Labs appeared in the USA and were quickly followed by the establishment of cultural heritage Labs in Europe and Australasia, and they are continuing to spread across the globe. One of the first was New York Public Library Labs, 'an unlikely crew of artists, hackers and liberal arts refugees', which has influenced the work of many current Labs. 'Given a strong directive to experiment, but with minimal access to the New York Public Library (NYPL) digital infrastructure (and without any remit to digitise new collections), NYPL Labs operated at the forefront of innovation in digital cultural heritage' (Vershbow, 2013).

Another great example from the museum community were the Cooper Hewitt Labs at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. Set up by Seb Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging Media, and his team, they wanted to imbue digital transformation across the museum during the renovation of the building. The museum decided to increase the digital activities of the organisation and to find new and innovative ways for the audience to get access to, find, research and enjoy the collection. Cooper Hewitt Labs was not a dedicated team as such but rather a digital team that did Labs work as well as their daily jobs.

The influence of these pioneers in the Labs community continues to provide inspiration and learning opportunities. Labs are collaborative places that explore ideas and provide opportunities for creative technologists, artists, researchers, universities, schools and communities to work with people who are interested in using digital collections, for example, through fellowships, grant programmes and placements.

Added value of GLAM Labs

Regardless of whether a Lab exists purely online or also has a physical space to operate in, all Labs provide experimental ways of working that seek to expose organisational gaps and challenges. They are the glue that brings institutions, technology, people and brings communities together. Information Technology (IT) and web teams that build and maintain the organisation's websites, services and infrastructure generally don't have the resources or time to work in a Lab-style manner.

Operating at the intersection of digital cultural heritage, innovation, technology and creativity, Labs provide the skunkworks (Nowviskie, 2013) within an organisation (an experimental laboratory or department of an institution, typically smaller than and independent of its main research division). This isn't to say Labs don't use or integrate existing services, collections and institutional knowledge: they do. They take elements of existing core services, knowledge, skill and engagement practices, such as digitisation, collections, exhibitions and communities, and pivot and reimagine their collective relevance to collaborators and audiences.

Types of Labs working in cultural heritage

There are different ways in which Labs have developed and the style in which they work.

Types of labs

National and State-based Library Labs

Some national and state-based libraries have adopted Labs. They focus on in-house and partner-led experimentation with collections and public engagement, as well as technical support and advice for users. With a broad outlook, these Library Labs (as is shown below) create opportunities to engage with communities which may not be serviced by traditional services, such as researchers using data collections, creative technologists, artists and entrepreneurs.

Example: KB Lab, Netherlands
The KB National Library of the Netherlands set up the KB Lab in 2014. The Lab hosts tools, datasets and a researcher-in-residence programme where the Lab team collaborates with early career researchers.

University Library Labs

Located within universities, these Labs have a pre-defined audience, focusing on the teaching, learning and research community, and encouraging the use of and engagement with the collections in courses and longer-term projects. The Labs in the university libraries are built to open up and reuse cultural heritage collections and data in an innovative and creative manner. Such Labs increase the opportunities to captilise on emerging trends in faculty teaching and student learning. They may also benefit from existing infrastructure and engagement activity around open access and open data, and complement or encompass makerspace-type activities within libraries.

Makerspaces are primarily hands-on creative spaces where users can experience technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) or produce creative outputs such as 3D modelling and printing. Organising events and bringing together university library teams is essential to sharing expertise, lessons learned and projects achieved. Those teams need to iterate and enhance the learning and teaching visions and missions effectively through their Labs. The following is an example of a university library Lab.

Example: Lab service, Glucksman Library, University of Limerick
The Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick provides a Lab service. Included as part of a major building extension project concluded in 2018, the Glucksman Library opened up a physically based Lab built around collaborative spaces, highly specialised computers for working with collections and research data, and a large-scale data visualisation Lab. The Lab provides both a teaching function for post-graduates and researchers and a dedicated space for creativity and innovation. The Library Lab supports the strategic aims of the university around digital transformation and entrepreneurship.

Museum or Gallery Labs exist within a variety of museum and gallery settings. Art, science and history museums are all grappling with cultural shifts towards experience and engagement, both online and in their physical spaces. Museum or Gallery Labs look to bring together design, technology, culture and research to transform how stories are told and how collections are conceived and used, both internally and with the communities they serve. Indeed, within the museum sector worldwide there is a strong decolonisation movement that is quickly becoming core to Labs work. Dedicated thought, experimentation and collaboration around decolonising digital (and consequently physical) collections is redefining institutional relationships with communities and helps galleries and museums to find new community relevance and pathways for mutual understanding. For instance, the North Terrace Cultural Precinct Innovation Lab (South Australia (SA) GLAM Lab) operates within a museum.

Example: North Terrace Cultural Precinct Innovation Lab
North Terrace Cultural Precinct Innovation Lab (SA GLAM Lab) is a new cultural heritage Lab that brings together four state government-funded South Australian institutions; the History Trust of South Australia, the South Australian Museum, the State Library of South Australia and the Art Gallery of South Australia, establishing a South Australian centre for excellence in digital cultural heritage and effecting digital and cultural transformation across the city's cultural precinct. The Lab is an interdisciplinary collaborative space where all four institutions share knowledge, resources, skills and expertise to advance new cultural, audience and research practices, as well as access to and experimentation with digital collections.

Archival Labs

Archives are as yet under-represented in the GLAM Labs space in comparison with their library and museum counterparts. This could be related to a number of issues, such as the hierarchical complexity of archival records and the limited amount of digitised content. A Lab-like initiative is the emerging transdisciplinary field of Computational Archival Science which the University of Maryland, College of Information Studies defines as 'the application of computational methods and resources to large-scale records / archives'. An example of an archival Lab is shown below.

Example: Digital Lab, The National Archives, United Kingdom (UK)
The UK National Archive’s Business Strategy, Archives Inspire, defines the strategic goal of becoming 'a digital archive by instinct and design'.
The National Archives’ Digital Lab is a dedicated environment for experimentation. It is a place that enables innovative, interdisciplinary and collaborative research. 'A safe space to do dangerous things'.

Individual Labbers

It is important to note that GLAM innovation doesn't just happen inside institutions. Some of the biggest influences on the way in Labs have developed their work and practice has been through dedicated and passionate individuals (such as the historian in the example below) who do Lab-style work. They saw the need for institutional transformation early and their activities are focused on new modes of storytelling, engagement and exposing gaps.

Example: Tim Sherratt
Tim Sherratt is a self-described historian and hacker, who researches what is possible with cultural heritage collections and politics. Tim builds online experiences using collections. He has been one of the early adopters of using technology to find new ways of working, and then gifting that back to others through his expansive sharing of knowledge and code, building of tools and visualisation methods. Tim has been a big inspiration to many peers in the sector, especially to people setting up a Lab.

Benefits of a Lab

Deciding why an institution needs a Lab is a crucial process. Firstly, it is important to think about what the Lab can bring to the organisation and how it benefits the community. This chapter describes possible gains for the organisation and society. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach and the following is not designed to be comprehensive. So, where do you start and why?

Benefits to the organisation

Accelerate change within the organisation

Labs advance and can influence change within institutions through creativity and innovation. Labs transform the organisation's operations and lead to new thinking about the many roles within the institution and the function of the institution itself. As such, Labs are a way to accelerate change within the organisation. By working at the forefront of technologies and digital cultural heritage, Labs generate new learning for the institution, take risks. With this can come innovation and the ability to change the way in which an organisation works, introducing new skills and knowledge to improve existing services.

Collaborative opportunities

Within cultural heritage organisations, Labs promote collaboration within the institution by drawing upon existing expertise around collections, access, and metadata. This promotes learning throughout the organisation and enables transfer of ideas.

Labs expand and deepen partnerships with other organisations, bringing together collections and expertise. Furthermore, the activity of Labs in sectors which may not always be serviced by traditional cultural heritage organisational services, such as artists, entrepreneurs and creators, can lead to new cross-sector collaborations.

Skills development

By applying new technologies, Labs encourage the development of new skills. Neudecker (2018) writes that Labs foster 'development of internal staff, fostering digital skills and generally creat[e] more engagement with digital collections across the whole organisation'.

As collections are made available as data, new skills are needed to manipulate, use and enhance them. This encourages the adoption of skills such as computer programming, data cleaning and data manipulation — all of which are relevant to cultural heritage organisations. Staff who are exposed to new ways of working in Labs learn new skills that can make their work easier. These skills can then transfer back to their department and role, and influence the way in which they work.


Labs can rapidly prototype and test emerging technology and processes at a much smaller scale and cost. This research can ultimately lead to a large cost-saving exercise for an organisation, as a proof of concept is easily developed and tested.

Maintaining relevance

As technologies rapidly change, cultural heritage organisations need to adapt to remain relevant. Labs help their organisations in this task. The new approaches that are tested and take hold in the Lab facilitate adoption of innovative and modern tools and methods for content delivery and user engagement.

Benefits to the users

New ways to use and share collections

By making collections available in new forms, and often at scale, Labs encourage novel engagement with cultural heritage organisations' collections. Furthermore, as advocates of open licensing and open data, Labs enable and advance the reuse of cultural heritage data, which was previously not possible. This provides opportunities for cultural heritage collections in a variety of contexts, including to advance research, for commercial use, to offer new insights, to create new artistic interpretation, or simply for enjoyment.

Insights into cultural heritage organisations

By making collections available in machine-readable formats, Labs encourage and enable analysis of collections, offering new insights for organisations and users, a deeper understanding of which collections organisations hold and why this is the case. Through Lab research, organisations can adapt their purchase strategies based on usage statistics. Furthermore, data visualisations can throw a new lens on collections to help generate new research questions.

Career development

Lab opportunities such as scholarships, grants, fellowships, internships and drop-in programmes have proven their value through the development of careers. By having an opportunity to collaborate with the Lab, develop and produce a prototype of an idea at a smaller scale, researchers and creative technologists can demonstrate to future employers and collaborators what they are able to achieve.

Benefits to society and culture

Cultural heritage institutions are gateways to culture — but questions of whose culture, and how this is framed, are problematic. In making collections available as data and engaging diverse audiences, Labs can present uncomfortable truths about the diversity, or the lack thereof, within (Western) cultural heritage organisation collections. Historical collection policies can be highlighted — and crucially, challenged — by the work of Labs and Labs users, promoting greater transparency about the role of collecting strategies for cultural heritage organisations and encouraging and focusing efforts to address issues such as inherent biases which arise from this.

Where Indigenous cultures have been colonised, the result of digitisation has been the continued colonisation of their cultural heritage by these organisations. Labs work in the space of decolonisation and are acutely aware of the need to prevent recolonising the digital space when it comes to representing Indigenous digital heritage. Through experimentation and engagement, Labs can redefine how institutions work with communities represented in and by their collections, to seek diverse collaborations to reimagine how their stories are told, how cultural heritage ownership is conceived and to create new pathways for mutual understanding.

Key points

GLAM Labs are:

  • Instrumental for effecting the digital shift in cultural heritage institutions by challenging traditional approaches.

  • Bringing institutions, technology, people and communities together through experimental ways of working.

  • Based in a variety of cultural heritage institutions including national and state-based libraries, university galleries, libraries, archives and museums.

  • Operating at the intersection of digital cultural heritage, innovation, technology and creativity, Labs benefit organisations, users, society and culture.

Evelin Heidel:

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