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GLAM Lab Teams

There is no Lab without people. This chapter discusses the qualities to look for in the Labs team and how to go about finding allies within and outside the institution. Furthermore, it offers ideas on how to create a nurturing environment for teams to thrive in.

Published onOct 29, 2019
GLAM Lab Teams
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There is no Lab without people. This chapter discusses the qualities to look for in the Labs team and how to go about finding allies within and outside the institution. Furthermore, it offers ideas on how to create a nurturing environment for teams to thrive in.


Forming the Lab team

The crucial components when forming a Lab team are the right set of knowledge, abilities, skills and structure in the team. These are, however, the most elusive to define and locate. Lab teams need to know about GLAM collections, be familiar with, and curious about, current technologies. They should be aware of legal issues, have communication and outreach skills, and the ability to get things done. Lab members need stamina, passion, they need to be flexible and to see possibilities.

Skills

A Lab team has to build bridges between collections and IT staff, so diplomacy and patience are required. A Lab team has to figure out how to complete tasks in complex bureaucracies. This requires ingenuity and the ability to work at different paces. Lab teams need to encourage their colleagues to work outside their comfort zones, requiring powers of persuasion and the ability to absorb risk. The work can be both invisible and high profile, and it requires high levels of collaboration and the ability to be self-directed. Lab teams play a central role in moving their institution through its digital transformation, so looking for the ideal combination of skills for the Lab contributes to its success.

Composition

There is no ideal team size or composition. The number of team members and their competencies will depend on the ambitions of the Lab, its vision and the context in which they live. Job titles vary. Some examples are: manager, innovation specialist, digital heritage specialist, digital curator, developer, advisor, and user experience specialist. Ideally, the mix of knowledge, skills and abilities complement each other.

Culture

Establishing a healthy and flexible culture is essential for a well-functioning Lab. The work can change from day to day and the scope can be as narrow as cleaning a dataset and as broad as being responsible for an organisation's digital transformation. Having a team that is able to work at all levels of the institution and able to manage complex relationships is key. Being clear about the goals, values, and norms of the Lab helps staff navigate their way forward and it helps new colleagues and your collaborators know what to expect. As shown below, LC Labs has its own manual.


Example: Library of Congress, LC Labs Manual
Inspired by Labs in other sectors, Kate Zwaard, Director of Digital Strategy and Chief of the the LC Labs team, created a manual that captures the culture and values of the team so that new members and their partners have a common starting point.


Setting up a team

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for setting up a team, though there are several successful models, each based on the realities of the institutional context. Resources and budgets will most likely determine team size composition. Labs can operate independently and be embedded across an organisation. Fellows, researchers, interns, and volunteers are often found in Lab teams to augment or contribute to specific projects. Existing staff may launch a Lab, staff may be brought in for the task, or a combination of both.

Team setup

The following examples show the diversity of Lab team setups:

A team with an agile, smaller setup with technical and creative skills is that of the DX Lab at the State Library of New South Wales in Australia. It has three staff members, a Lab Leader, a Technical Lead, and a Lab Developer. This Lab team is aimed at collaboration within the organisation. The team collaborates with visiting scholars, fellows and digital drop-ins.

A team where the Lab has core staff, benefits from additionally assigned staff within the institution, and collaborates with external users, is that of the Library of Congress Labs. It is managed by the Director of Digital Strategy and currently has a team of four Senior Innovation Specialists and one Innovation Specialist. This core team does not include developers but assigns them from other departments within the institution to work on specific projects. The team also regularly collaborates with visiting scholars, fellows and Innovators-in-Residence who create various experiments.

A team with a complex structure where the entire IT department of the library is involved in developing tools and specialised core staff members from a network close to the users of Lab services is the KB Tech Labs at the Royal Danish Library. The Lab is within an institution which is both a national and a university library. The Labs structure is distributed — there are three physical Labs in the Copenhagen University and three further Labs are currently at the planning stage. All these Labs have / will have a core manager. In addition, the IT department of the library has a team of 30 developers who are involved periodically in developing services for the Labs.

Meet a Labber

Here are Questions and answers (Q&A)s with some of this book's Labbers to give an example of people working in a Lab.

Labbers 1: Mahendra Mahey, BL Labs Manager, British Library

What's your background?
I have worked as a teacher of social sciences, English as a Foreign Language and computer science, a community builder in the technology sector, and as a manager in digital technologies in further and higher education.

What skills do you bring?
I am a good manager, a natural networker and community builder.

Why do you want to work in a Lab?
I am absolutely passionate about opening up the British Library’s digital collections and data to everyone for interesting, innovative and inspirational projects.

How would you describe your outlook or mindset when working in Labs?
I want to inspire my colleagues about the potential of using our digital collections and technology in ways they may never have thought about before; to effect cultural change within the organisation to become more open and sharing. I especially want to bring new people into the British Library who would never previously have considered working with us.

Labber 2: Kristy Kokegei, Director of Public Engagement, North Terrace Cultural Precinct Innovation Lab

What's your background?
I have a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in immigration history and I started in museums as a curator.

What skills do you bring?
I bring engagement skills, research skills, intimate knowledge of museum databases, digital asset management systems, collections and some specific skills around Indigenous data management.

Why do you want to work in a Lab?
I want to work in an innovative space within the Australian cultural sector. I want to push boundaries and open up hierarchical silos.

How would you describe your outlook or mindset when working in Labs?
Passionate and perhaps a bit playful, inclusive. I want to bring everyone along. I want to build a safe experimental space for all the talented creative people within our organisation.

Labber 3: Stefan Karner, Technical Lead ÖNB Labs, Austrian National Library

What's your background?
I'm a computer scientist, but I've also studied jazz vocals and a smattering of humanities for a while. I've worked as a social worker and IT administrator, and as a freelance software developer just before joining the ÖNB Labs.

What skills do you bring?
I consider myself very social and vocal, and I like modelling, designing and building software.

Why do you want to work in a Lab?
I joined because I thought I could contribute my skills to help keeping the library relevant in the 21st century, and work with interesting people while doing it.

How would you describe your outlook or mindset when working in Labs?
Connecting with knowledgeable colleagues and learning about different topics and technologies on a regular basis is really invigorating. Being part of a somewhat disruptive enterprise and trying to effect change in an institution that's perceptibly rooted in the 19th century is challenging though.

Team allies

Locating Lab allies is helpful to the success of any Lab. Labs do not exist in isolation, and community building is a core part of Lab work. For a Lab to have lasting impact, it must be integrated into the organisation and have the support of staff at all levels. Labs are often involved in projects that are new, creative, and innovative. Staff who are not involved or who do not feel involved or consulted can feel left out. It is important to make clear that the Lab's work is complementary to, and builds upon, the work of traditional cultural heritage organisation activity, and both should benefit from one another. Alienating colleagues by making decisions without including key stakeholders or setting up an 'us and them' mentality will leave a Lab without allies. Try to consult as widely as possible with staff and collaborators, make friends along the way, and progress without losing the balance between talking and doing in the context of institutional politics.

Reaching internal stakeholders

Share the message and ethos of the Lab widely. Internal newsletters and existing staff groups are excellent places to start internalising needs and ideas. Internal staff are stakeholders and users of the Lab. Providing opportunities in the Lab explicitly for staff, and a staff research fellowship, or offering temporary placements, acknowledges their contribution and creates advocates. A good example is the
British Library Labs Staff Awards.

Management

Allies within the organisation's senior management can become key advocates for Lab work. They can help make and support the case for funding, leverage resources within the organisation, promote culture change, and promote the principles of openness and sharing from the top down.

Champions

Champions provide a way of communicating the Lab messages within the organisation. These are useful allies to have in any team, and at any position in the hierarchy in the organisation. Champions are important to locate early on, but it is also useful to continue to seek new ones out as staff turnover and organisational culture changes.

Key areas to establish champions within are:

  • Curatorial staff: gateways to the collections, relationships with these colleagues are important to cultivate early. If you can establish a champion within this area, it smooths the process of finding out about available collections.

  • Staff with technical skills: these can appear in unlikely places! Skills assessment can help in understanding the technical proficiency staff have. They can be invited to join projects and embed Lab skills within their own teams.

  • New recruits: establish a relationship with new staff early, raise awareness of the Lab and the possibility of collaboration.

Expeditors

These people are unblockers. They smooth and speed up processes, solve problems (or get others to solve them), encourage quick (but informed) decisions, and promote productive, efficient working practices. They can exist in any part of your organisation, given that personal relationships are the strength these people offer.

External champions

Influential figures from the research, creative and GLAM sector communities can back the Lab, add weight and recognition. Such champions can lobby within the organisation and ensure that the Lab becomes, and remains, a valued entity. Furthermore, external champions can be brilliant and generous promoters of Lab's projects and activity to the wider world.


The International GLAM Labs Community is a world-wide group of people. Please join! If you want to connect to the International GLAM Labs Community, please visit the website http://glamlabs.io and also register for the mailing list http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/GLAMLABS.


Letting teams thrive

Labs thrive if they are able to create a nurturing environment for all team members and have a number of interconnected elements.

Agency and flexibility

Giving Lab teams freedom to decide on projects and to manage the Lab's budget enhances the flexibility. They can then pursue promising developments in collaboration with users, which improves the sense of agency and responsibility. This in turn enhances job satisfaction.

Recognition

Building institutional structures to ensure that good work is acknowledged is part of a nurturing work environment. Recognition can be intrinsic, taking the form of positive feedback, and extrinsic, such as bonuses. Sometimes a good job is rewarded with more work, as is shown in the diagram below.

<p>Don't reward a Labber by giving them more work</p>

Don't reward a Labber by giving them more work

The Labs' achievements are a result of team work and it might be hard to see individual contributions. Recognising the work of the whole team not only celebrates an achievement but also supports the team spirit and emphasises the Labs mindset of sharing.

Culture of failure

Being in an experimental environment naturally leads to taking risks and results cannot be predetermined. Allowing failures and learning from them is an essential part of a positive Lab culture. If an outcome is not what was expected, this does not negate the hard work that went into it, nor the idea that sparked it. The example below, for instance, shows how a failure can result in unexpected outcomes.


Example: Testing emerging technologies, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes
The Labs team decided to apply word embeddings to a corpus of text of the author Miguel de Cervantes. Since the corpus was limited to 20 works, the results were not as rich as expected. However, the knowledge acquired in the process was worth it for other experiments based on conversational agents.


Continuing professional development

Labs are part of a culture of constant change — in technologies, user expectations and scales of digital operations. This inevitably requires investments in continuing professional development of Lab team members. They come from very diverse backgrounds and there is no one-size-fits-all education path for Lab members, but their curiosity is what connects them. The following example includes how the KB Tech Lab allows its developers time to innovate.


Example: Innovation week, Royal Danish Library
Once or twice a year, the IT Department works together for the KB Tech Lab and all developers have a full week to innovate. No business as usual type work is allowed, and the management enforces this. The developers tend to choose either to do some self-study (one example: read up on Java 11) or to implement a good idea they have been sitting on. Afterwards, the results are presented internally, developer to developer and also in-house in the form of an open house where all staff are invited. Some results end up on the KB Tech Lab website.


Labs apply a combination of approaches which help their staff members develop the desire to learn. These approaches can include:

  • Provide training: Identifying areas of need and addressing them with in-house training or training provided by third parties. This can for example be done through Library Carpentry.

  • Learn by doing: A substantial amount of learning in Labs happens through experimentation. Making space for this contributes to the development of skills and knowledge. For example, reserve 20% of the staff's time when allocating workloads.

  • Peer learning: Not all challenges are new, and peers both within and outside the institutions are a good resource to help solve an issue. Hosting colleagues from other institutions and sending staff members for placements can be beneficial.

  • Labs community learning: There is an active international GLAM Labs community which regularly organises events and has several communication channels. These channels can be utilised to quickly solve problems by posing a question to them or connecting to a peer. They also provide news on tools, information about new Labs, and other useful pieces of knowledge.

  • Learning from other communities: Labs can also learn from other communities, such as the research software engineering community.

Key points

GLAM Lab Teams:

  • Have no optimal size or composition, and team members can come from all walks of life.

  • Need a nurturing environment and a healthy culture to ensure a well-functioning Lab.

  • Might be augmented intermittently by fellows, interns or researchers-in-residence.

  • Must be integrated into the organisation and have the support of staff at all levels.

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