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Building a GLAM Lab

Formulating values is an important early step for Labs and this chapter helps generate ideas on how to do this. It also advocates for defining design principles for Labs as a way of working in an experimental environment and suggests tips on positioning and starting a Lab.

Published onOct 29, 2019
Building a GLAM Lab

Is there such a thing as the perfect Lab? No two Labs are built the same way, but some essential first steps can be beneficial to all. Formulating values is an important early step for Labs and this chapter helps generate ideas on how to do this. It also advocates for defining design principles for Labs as a way of working in an experimental environment and suggests tips on positioning and starting a Lab.


There is no such thing as the perfect Lab, and none of the authors of this book have created or will ever create one either. But being bold and courageous is the first step towards a Lab. Once you decide to set up a Lab, don't be constrained by focusing on the institutional reality within which it will operate. Permitting institutional, situational or financial circumstances to obstruct blue-sky thinking inherently constrains the aims and potential impact of a Lab.

Thinking big: Formulating your values

Formulating core values is an important and evolving step in implementing a Lab vision and may take some time. Values need to be flexible enough to evolve as the Lab evolves. They can be a guiding beacon and should help light the way to the type of cultural institution you hope to create. Thoughtful values can help sustain a team through tricky situations and help show the way forward. Setting aspirational values for the Lab and sharing them helps identify challenges; experiment with new ways of working and negotiate competing priorities. They are a crucial reference point when talking about the purpose and benefit of a Lab and are useful in prioritising projects, services and resource allocation.

Below are some values that could be relevant. Each Lab will need to find the values that resonate for the team and institution, and their communities:

  • Radical openness is a way of behaving as well as a state of mind. It's about sharing, exposing gaps and pushing boundaries, without 'fear or favour'.

  • Transparency of process, of decision-making and of practice in Labs engenders trust and wins institutional allies.

  • Experimenting in Labs enables creativity and innovation. Thinking differently develops team and organisational skills and resilience.

  • Collaboration is key. Collaborate within the Lab, within the organisation, with stakeholders, partners, and of course with users.

  • Creativity. Be creative. Play with the collections. Think outside the box. Ask questions. Explore new ways of arriving at answers.

  • Inclusive. Be inclusive and create a safe environment for multiple voices.

  • Boldness. Labs offer a space for formalised disobedience and this necessitates being bold.

  • Ethical. Labs push boundaries and that should be embraced in an ethical framework.

  • Accessible. Labs ensure that data and collections are understandable to humans and machines and should therefore consider modes of accessibility.

To see how values might be implemented and communicated, examples of this are shared below.

Example of values:
- Digital Strategy, Library of Congress (LC): Throw open the treasure chest. Connect. Invest in our future.
- Manifesto, ÖNB Labs: Sharing is our core principle. Favour quality over quantity. Let's tell good stories.
- Values, KB Labs: We're open, we experiment, we connect. We learn.
- Values, DX Lab: Collaborate. Experiment. Create. Engage. Be Open. Surprise.

Designing a Lab

Design principles help Labs to direct and define their work. They should reflect on the reasons a Lab has been set up, how it can be useful to the staff, and help to communicate why things are done in certain ways. It is important to find the best method for the Lab to function and work together with other staff. Using a human-centred design approach (design thinking, user experience methodology) can work well for teams, but it can take time to find the right method that suits Labs and the organisation. The Agile methodology is often used by digital teams. Following a prescribed Agile method may work for some Labs and not work for others. It takes time to get the design process up and running and to get the organisation and the staff comfortable with a new approach. The illustration below shows the use of notes in a brainstorming session.

Sticky notes, grouped and analysed:
brainstorming, prototyping, and designing session

Labs work is defined by constant prototyping, allowing the design outcomes to shift and change depending on what is discovered. This can be challenging for staff who like to know the end-game before the start of any project. Labs exist to challenge, test, find and develop new ways to gain access to collections, data and experiences. Labs need to have the space to do this and do it with confidence; knowing that if they fail or end up down an unexpected path, these are ok. Setting out design principles can help with this. Therefore, it can be important to define the design principles of Labs and have that communicated.

Establishing design principles

Defining flexible and responsive design principles will be important as they are something that Labs can refer to when required. Design principles will help to define the way the Lab thinks about itself and the way it works and engages with internal staff, external contractors and creators, as well as audiences. They shape the outcomes of any experiment / project and can remind the organisation of why the Lab exists and what it is there to achieve. Design principles should be clear and concise, reflect the work that needs to come out of the Lab, and be a manifesto for how the Lab works. Communicating your principles internally and externally builds awareness and community. Be open to changing and modifying the design practice over time.

Setting up the design practice for Labs in a cultural heritage organisation will depend on many aspects and will be different for each one. Things to consider include:

  • Skills within the organisation.

  • Size of the organisation.

  • Appetite for working in an experimental way and taking risks.

  • Consider online only versus online and in-gallery (in a physical space).

Labs need the support of the organisation and the staff in the work that they achieve. It can be challenging, especially for smaller Lab teams which need to gain additional skills support from staff, researchers, partners and creatives to help them achieve their goals. Getting staff involved from the beginning, when Labs are being set up, has many benefits. It gives the organisational staff a chance to communicate their ideas about the way in which the Lab may work and the kind of research and development that they may undertake.

Design principles toolkit

Based on the setup of the organisation, one of the following options can act as a guideline to define design principles.

If no vision statement is present:

  1. Plan how you want to model your Lab.

  2. Start with keywords.

  3. Explain / define the keywords.

  4. Talk to your team and staff about it.

  5. Re-evaluate what you have created.

  6. Expand the principles to your organisation.

If the parent organisation has a vision statement:

  1. Consult widely with the staff from the organisation.

  2. Pick up keywords from the meeting.

  3. Explain and define the vision.

  4. Formulate your principles.

  5. Re-evaluate the principles with your team.

  6. Expand it within your organisation.

Collaborative design principles

Running a collaborative workshop at the start of setting up a Lab is one way to achieve putting the design principles together. This approach can be used to host several drop-in sessions for interested staff over a period of time. A drop-in session might include the following elements:

  • Looking at work of peers, including outside of the sector such as online shopping, banking or the music industry.

  • Ask staff to bring one example of an experience that they love and get them to present it and talk about why they chose it. This does not have to be digital. It will provide an open opportunity to talk about possible design principles used for each case.

  • Make a presentation on what other cultural heritage Labs are doing and what they have achieved or failed at, then discuss.

  • Get to the truth of what the staff really think the organisation needs in terms of an experimental, Research and Development (R&D) approach to certain ideas, areas and what they would like the Lab to focus on for the first year.

  • Ask the staff to write down one design principle they think is important to them that the Lab could adopt.

After the drop-in sessions the next steps are important:

  • Collate all design principles from all staff to refine them.

  • Discuss and review each one of them.

  • Align them to the organisation's strategic plan.

  • Communicate them back to the staff.

  • Test the final principles.

  • Agree on the design principles.

Review the design principles for each project / experiment that the Lab undertakes and ask whether the proposed project is addressing these principles. They should be high level and help to guide the Lab forward. Some projects may not always cover all of the design principles, a project may just use one of them for some things and that is ok.


This is a non-exhaustive list of design principles for guidance:

  • Audience first: know your users, do it because it matters or there is a need, not because it is shiny.

  • Design creatively: with data and partners.

  • Don't overbake: it is important to prototype and test your products with users as soon as possible, don't overcomplicate.

  • Innovate: embrace experimentation and ask why things are done in a certain way.

  • Iterate: digital innovation isn't the same as producing an exhibition or a publication. Digital products, services, collections and experiences are not static outputs. Refine your offerings as you learn from your users.

  • Build digital experiences - be adventurous.

  • Be open: it is important to give back to the sector.

  • Constant prototyping.

  • Embrace risk: being the first to try new things always contains elements of risk. The gains can be great, but there is also learning to be had in failing.

  • Collaborate: sharing knowledge and resources can only benefit Labs and organisations. Promoting a culture of openness and generosity is important to the success of Labs.

Design Process

After selecting your design principles, move into the designing phase. Human-centred design, design thinking or user-centred design, is a design approach which considers user needs before designing a service or a product and throughout the subsequent stages of production. Design for people first, not technology. It is vital to make sure that user research is done. Use a method which summarises knowledge from multiple sources. This could include the development of typical users' personas. These are not based on a fictional combination of ideas about a user but need to be grounded in extensive research on groups of users represented by the persona. Additionally, scenarios can be used to describe a typical sequence of actions and actors for a specific task. One possible design process flow is illustrated below.

The user-centred design process (adapted from ISO 9241-210:2019)

The process includes evaluation of the final design. This can be done with different methodologies, such as observation, focus groups and surveys, and should always involve users. Ideally the group of users involved in the evaluation differs from the group with which the requirements were developed. However, if there is a specific user community which ‘owns’ the project, the evaluation may be done by the same people who contributed to the identification of needs. The outcome of the evaluation may confirm that the design is consistent with the user requirements, but this is not always the case. The designed solution then needs to be reworked, or the user requirements should be recaptured. The pace of technological change means no solution is final — for continuous use, the design needs periodic review.

Participatory design

A popular version of the human-centred design process is participatory design integrating communities into the design process thereby giving them an active role in the various stages of concept, design and implementation. Identifying active representatives from a relevant community of users, such as Indigenous communities is crucial. It is important to bring their voices and opinions to the development of experiences / products so as to better serve these communities in a respectful way. This is important to ensure that collections, experiences and services are diverse.

'If people don’t see themselves as part of your work, they won’t see your work as an essential part of their lives' OF/BY/FOR/ALL

There are different ways in which you can include your community / users into the design approach, such as:

  • Invite your community to initiate a concept for a design.

  • Ask them to create content and experiences.

  • Discuss how they imagine the product/experience and ideal user personas should look.

  • Provide feedback on mock-ups.

  • Discuss final look and feel.

  • Assess specific functionality.

  • Discuss expectations on final designs and outcomes.

  • Contribute to any policies which define aspects related to the user participation.

  • Contribute to the documentation of the experience / product.

Participatory design is addressed in the following example from the DX Lab.

Example: #NewSelfWales, DX Lab
#NewSelfWales was an exhibition to create a gallery of community generated photos, uploaded from a photo booth in the gallery or via Instagram. DX Lab used a design process to establish design principles and vision, identifying how the exhibition space was to be used, considered opportunities and challenges for users, and iteratively refined and tested.

Realising a Lab

Now that the values and design principles of the Lab are defined, it is time to make the Lab a reality. This is an ongoing process that is covered in detail throughout the book. However, this section covers some building blocks to consider before launching, and that can help to get the Lab up and running.

Positioning within the organisation

Positioning can refer to Lab offices, and also to the location within the organisational structure. Ideally a Lab is an independent team within the parent institution, but this does not mean it cannot be integrated with the organisation. Here are two options of Lab locations in an organisational structure:

Top of the organisational chart

Placing a Lab high in the organisation facilitates quick communication to the management team and provides a certain amount of freedom as the Lab may or may not be concerned with institutional politics. If the Lab team consider themselves outside institutional politics, this might lead to the Lab being detached from other departments, making it difficult to integrate Lab outcomes into the institution.

Two options for positioning the Lab in the organisational structure

Within a department

If a Lab is placed within a department, it should be positioned where it has the best connections to internal partners. Think of, for instance, Research Services, the Collections Department, the IT Department or Public Engagement. Embedding the Lab within the organisation facilitates a good flow of information and innovation into the organisation but can require a longer planning period to create room in the organisational structure. It also makes the Lab less agile as it might be placed under several management layers.

These are the two mostly commonly encountered options, but naturally others can exist.

Selecting a Lab office

The Lab team should be working from an office where they have easy access to the people they will be collaborating with outside of their unit. Sharing amenities such as a coffee machine and break room with internal partners facilitates integration of the Lab and team into the organisation. Think about where external partners can be welcomed to the Lab, for example, security measures necessary for welcoming students and researchers for events or consultations. Beware of locating the Lab office in a remote area of the building or even in a separate location, as this adds an additional barrier to inter-departmental communication. Possibilities for Lab locations are explored in the next two examples.

Example: The Lab at the Glucksman Library, University of Limerick, Ireland
The Lab is situated in the public space of the library, ensuring all students and staff can drop in. Within this space, the Lab team has an office near the Lab which is accessible to any partners.

Example: KBR Digital Research Lab, Royal Library of Belgium
As the KBR Digital Research Lab is the result of long-term cooperation between KBR (Royal Library of Belgium) and the Ghent Centre for Digital Humanities (GhentCDH) the Lab Researcher will be employed by two organisations located in different cities. Where the KBR Labs Office(s) will be physically located will be an interesting question to explore.

Creating the Lab's identity

A Lab's identity represents its values but should also be connected to the parent organisation. Finding a name, creating a look and feel, and a logo — in short, developing a recognisable brand for the Lab that reflects its direction, approach and perspective, shapes the identity and positions the Lab within the organisation's branding ecosystem. A recognisable brand that echoes the message of the Lab will help inspire staff and potential collaborators and funders, an example of which can be found below.

Example: Logo, ÖNB Labs
The ÖNB Labs uses the inverted logo of the Austrian National Library as their brand. This originated from the crowdsourcing initiative of the library and was designed by Paul Sommersguter. The inversion is based on the idea to focus on the input of the general public to the library and as such visualise participative initiatives of the institution.

Consistent use of the Lab's identity in all communication channels helps with brand recognition. This involves selecting a domain name for the website (essential for a Lab), email addresses, social media handles, etc. Also crucial is how they relate to the parent organisation's institutional online presence, as shown in these examples.

Example: Labs domain names | |


Once the Lab has defined its values and principles, is positioned within the organisation and has its own brand, it is time to think about the impact that the Lab wants to make. Demonstrating impact and value is imprecise, but the topic is a common discussion in cultural heritage organisations. It therefore makes sense to design for impact. Internationally, the use of language around the value of culture and numbers is problematic, so it is important to be clear about what a Lab wants to do and why.

Measuring impact

Impact can take a multitude of forms. This could include qualitative metrics around value or prestige, social and economic impact, audience impact (engagement or user satisfaction) and organisational impact (such as departmental and procedural transformation). Quantitative measures around access to and uses of collections, tools, services and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), and the volume of projects or Lab outputs can be easier to measure.

It is also possible to measure savings from producing low-cost and rapid prototyping solutions before rolling out a tool or service at scale. Additionally, a Lab can track cost savings when an approach is not continued after a pilot or when Labs retire or shut down a tool or service. There are a multitude of other impact indicators, many of them being qualitative, such as user satisfaction or the impact it has on the career of researcher. These are more difficult to capture but they can be significant.


Evaluating the impact of Lab work serves multiple purposes and the rationale for evaluation will help determine the methods and outputs used. Evaluation provides vital information about the usefulness of products and services to users which in turn helps Labs make better resourcing, design and development decisions. Evaluation can provide numbers and qualitative impact metrics, it can demonstrate the value of a Lab to stakeholders and finally, it can support Lab teams by recognising the value of their work.

Just as Labs measure and evaluate many different types of impact, they also use many different tools and techniques to do so. Tools for straightforward data and user metrics are plentiful and often freely available, such as Google Analytics. More sophisticated tools for measuring social, artistic or economic impact exist, such as the
Europeana Impact Playbook. It should be noted that some of these tools may require specific skills and thoughtful use. If these free options are not sufficient, organisations may need to invest in particular software, skills, partnerships or consultants for impact evaluation.

Example: Impact Evaluation, British Library (BL) Labs Projects
BL Labs conducted two independent evaluations in 2013 and 2016, both were initiated midway through both phases of the projects. They were used to provide evidence of the impact of each phase of the project and the reasons why it would be necessary to secure further funding for the next round of the project. The methodology involved interviews of internal and external stakeholders, case studies, and questionnaires. One of the major takeaways was that the British Library's digital infrastructure was not ready for computational research at scale for many of its digital collections on-site. Evaluation summaries and tools used for both pieces of work are available for reuse and contextualising to each individual organisation.

First activities

Once the Lab knows what it is and where it wants to go, it can be helpful to identify fast, easy and cost-effective activities to start with. Examples of some of these quick wins include:

  • Uploading public domain data to an open platform such as Zenodo or

  • Establishing a web page with a list of available collections, Lab people to contact, and create a general e-mail address for enquiries.

  • Establishing a social media presence.

  • Introducing Lab (virtual) office hours where users can talk to a Lab team member.

  • Encouraging staff to expand their skills by doing open tutorials available such as Library Carpentry and Programming Historian.

  • Applying to existing technical infrastructures for research projects to provide computational power for a Lab.

  • Develop an elevator pitch to share the Lab's story when needed. See below for tips on how to do this.

Start with the low-hanging fruit

Elevator Pitch

Having an elevator pitch ready to explain the purpose and identity of the Lab to staff, external users, funders, and the wider professional community is essential. Practising and perfecting a concise speech helps to tell the story of the Lab, especially to executives and others with limited time.

Having key facts about the Labs project ready and prepared makes it easy to convey important information succinctly. Doing so frees up time to connect with the conversation partner — asking about their work, things they're passionate about, like special collections or projects. It can be helpful to start the conversation with a question, and to close it with an invitation, to establish an ongoing dialogue.

The key facts could include some of these elements:

  • Vision and mission of the Lab and how it contributes to the institution's vision.

  • Why now is the time to have a Lab.

  • Numbers detailing your Lab, like staff numbers, funding, projects, timeframe.

  • Concrete examples of success stories.

Making the story positive and attaching it to the overall narrative of digital services or digital innovation at the institution is helpful, as the next example shows.

Example elevator pitch: Key facts about British Library (BL) Labs
Since its launch six years ago, it have supported over 160 cool projects using the library's digital collections and data. Four large-scale artworks that its partner David Normal created using a freely reusuable digital image collection created by BL Labs was exhibited first at Burning Man in 2014, which was attended by 50,000 people. Subsequently they brought the art works to the British Library and installed them outside in our piazza for everyone to enjoy. Mission statement: BL Labs promotes, inspires, and supports the use of the Library's digital collections and data.

Key points

Building a GLAM Lab involves:

  • Defining core values to guide future work.

  • Fostering a culture that is open, transparent, generous, collaborative, creative, inclusive, bold and brave, ethical, accessible and encourages a mindset of exploration.

  • Grounding the Lab in user-centred and participatory design processes.

  • Being able to communicate clearly what the Lab is about.

  • Establishing quick wins to get up and running.

  • Finding tangible ways to define and measure value.

  • Influencing and possibly redefining institutional evaluation metrics to advance the Lab's core vision and values.

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