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User Communities

This chapter discusses existing and potential relationships with users. Rethinking relationships with users and partners can help create clear and targeted messages, tools and services.

Published onOct 29, 2019
User Communities

User communities are central to Labs. Identifying and understanding them facilitates engagement and collaboration. This chapter discusses existing and potential relationships with users. Rethinking relationships with users and partners can help create clear and targeted messages, tools and services.

Understanding users

Labs engage with a wide audience with varying expectations, needs and digital skills. Thinking about different user groups helps to target and tailor Lab activities; there is no default Lab user.

Lab user groups

Aim and motivation

Users can be grouped based on their main motivation and aims in engaging with the Lab, such as researchers, creatives, learners and entrepreneurs. Further subdivision might be helpful to build services and engagement activities; the needs of a humanities scholar quite possibly differs from that of a cultural startup. Students might need to be engaged differently from PhD researchers.

Skills levels

Different levels of digital skills shape the type of services and activities that are useful to users. Many activities of Labs will address this specifically and facilitate skill building.

Engagement type

Users can also be grouped according to their engagement type — on the scale from consumers (who are searching for digital resources) to contributors (who contribute to the development of digital content and / or are experimenting with it).

Institutional affiliation

A Lab might also define different levels of support and engagement for external users such as researchers from a specific university, to internal users such as colleagues from other departments.

Targeting a specific user group helps design tools and services matching their needs (as displayed below). Potentially, user studies and evaluation methods can be conducted, as mentioned in the chapter, Designing a Lab.

Attracting users


Labs thrive on collaboration and working with a broad range of users allows Labs to reach their potential. It can produce greater outcomes and lead to more opportunities for the Lab and their users. Engaging with users who explore collections, contribute to tools, transcribe or tag documents helps to make and strengthen connections between the Lab, its parent organisation, and the communities it engages. Engagement is not formalised but can lead to more formal partnerships.

Engaging with researchers

Making meaningful connections with user communities can integrate their knowledge, skills, or resources into a Lab. Reciprocal learning is a common outcome, especially when working with universities and research centres.

Example: Royal Danish Library and HumLab
In the spring of 2016, the Royal Danish Library and its HumLab invited students and researchers to join a series of data sprints in the exploration of digitised material. While the participants had different skills, most of them came from humanities, fewer had a technical background, and even fewer were from social science. In turn, the library as data providers and curators brought a variety of competencies. The evaluation motivated the library to further develop the API documentation and interface. (Laursen et al., 2018).

Engaging with colleagues

Staff from an organisation should also be given the opportunity to use the Lab as a place for experimentation. They have deep knowledge of collections and processes and lots of ideas on how to create positive change. Staff are often key to the success of a Lab. Their expertise can be applied in a Lab to influence different areas of the organisation. Their domain knowledge and network are important to expanding the community.

Engaging with public users

Inviting volunteers into an organisation to offer their energy and expertise to contribute is a powerful engagement mechanism to reach diverse communities. Retirees, school children, history buffs, and other members of the interested public are often engaged through crowdsourcing programmes. These people may not be the traditional user or visitor, but they are often enthusiastic and passionate about the projects, and they make important contributions to institutions.

As Nina Simon writes in her book 'The Participatory Museum' (2010), the power of bringing in the community as partners creates a more dynamic, relevant and essential place in our organisations.

Example: By the People, Library of Congress
By the People is an online volunteer programme at the Library of Congress which invites the public to transcribe hand-written documents. Its primary goal is to engage new audiences. 'By the People' seeks to enhance trust and approachability with users and invite them to contribute their knowledge and skill to the Library (Ferriter, 2019). The transcriptions are created by volunteers and reviewed by them and then returned to the website to improve search and discovery.

Engaging with user communities

Developing opportunities for under-represented communities is important and fits well with Lab values of being open and sharing. Inviting these communities to work with Labs honours their expertise and perspectives and gives them a sense of belonging and investment in an organisation and its mission. Ensure the Lab is a safe and welcoming environment.


Designing outreach and engagement programmes to engage broad communities of users is important to start a conversation. Users and partners are sometimes in close proximity, like staff or local researchers, but often a Lab has to go out into the community and design bespoke events and programmes to engage users. Outreach can be as simple as joining a local meet-up or another existing group that meets regularly. Outreach can also be high-profile events with invited speakers and recorded keynotes where big announcements and grand plans are shared and everything in-between, such as data sprints, virtual meetings, training courses, and hack-a-thons.

Example: BL Labs Roadshow
A prime example of an event that connects a Lab and its community is the British Library Labs Roadshows that have been running since 2015. The Lab team goes out every year, to between 10-20 UK universities to promote the work of BL Labs and its digital collections.

Example: WikiHackatón at Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes
Other events are focused on the use of open data to develop innovative tools and services that exploit Wikidataand Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes dataset as data repositories, such as WikiHackatón. The event is organised by the University of Alicante, Wikimedia Spain and Fundación Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. The most recent event brought together 50 people, mainly students of the University of Alicante, where 10 ideas were developed in two days.

Documentation, tutorials and webinars might be generated in events that are later adopted and contribute to the enrichment of other services. Outreach is useful not only to mobilise and disseminate a collection but also to propose innovative projects and to gather feedback. Incentivising participants with awards or prizes can be a great method to encourage the reuse of digital collections in innovative ways. Consider involving multiple partners and users in an event, most have something to contribute. For example, universities can often provide both spaces and expertise. Strategic outreach programmes with set goals, and ways to measure impact help a Lab grow.

This case study shows how BL Labs engages with new users in schools and colleges whilst ensuring keeping in line with the institutional strategy.

Case Study: Labs developing and engaging with new communities for research inspiration and enjoyment, BL Labs, British Library

The British Library tries to demonstrate its continued relevance to users by ensuring all its activities focus through its purposes of Custodianship, Research, Cultural, Artistic, Business, International and Learning. Though our Labs journey started with researchers, this expanded to include new users such as artists, the local community, businesses, international partners and educational providers such as schools and colleges. This evolution was based on a passionate desire that the Library belongs to everyone in the world, but the question was: How did we do this for schools and colleges?

Many of BL Labs' users would never think of coming through the doors of the British Library or even know what the British Library does to engage with schools and colleges. The BL Labs therefore did the following:

  1. A pop-up Lab / Library appeared in various locations around the United Kingdom where BL Labs staff promoted competitions, encouraging users to enter awards, develop project proposals and events taking the Library to the users. These sessions debunked myths and offered a set of inspirational stories of how previous users had used our collections and, most importantly, started a conversation which could lead to a meaningful use of our collections. For example, in 2017, Vittoria Primary School won the BL Labs Award for Learning and Teaching by creating a storybook, titled: World of Stories. It was developed in collaboration with children, parents and teachers using British Library digital image collections.

  2. Participate in future careers workshops organised at schools targeting 14-16 year olds in London. Here the BL Labs manager talked about his journey to becoming a Labber, what inspires him to do this work every day, raising awareness of what the British Library does, and particularly BL Labs.

  3. Organise two-week work placements for 16-year-old school students in the BL Labs. These programmes are designed to match the skills of the children to do real work that needed to be done in the Lab, as this is much more motivating than abstract tasks. Activities included writing blog posts, contributing to the BL Labs website, social media channels, editing video interviews and curating smaller datasets from larger ones. Examples include:

  • Ruby Dixon curated a collection of digitised books with images about Finland which were used by the Finnish Embassy website to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Foundation of Finland.

  • Nadya Miryanova worked with the Russian Curator and the same collection of books to find books written in the Russian language.

Collaboration and partnerships

Cultural heritage professionals, be they librarians, archivists or museum curators, are used to engaging with users. These engagements can lead to collaborations and sometimes more formal partnerships.

In her 2012 blogpost What are some challenges to doing DH in the
library?, Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities, Miriam Posner speaks about 'the complexity of collaborating with faculty' and stresses the importance of being 'attuned to the peculiar dynamics of this kind of relationship'. She emphasises the importance of equity in the relationship between librarians and academic researchers. This tension seems to be based around conflicting needs: libraries want to provide high-quality and comprehensive access to their digitised and increasingly born-digital collections. Humanities researchers need easy access, ideally from their laptop, to digital collections, often from multiple libraries, archives and museums, from which they can iteratively build their digital corpora in response to their specific research questions.

Collaboration can be a complex matter, but most often provides a rich environment where growth happens.

Fellowships, Residencies and Awards

One notable partnership and engagement programme many Labs use is the fellowship or residency. It allows different types of users, like artists, designers, journalists, and researchers, to engage with Lab collections and services. These programmes are a successful way for cultural heritage institutions to reach new audiences. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and the actual design of a fellowship or residency programme depends on funding, availability and organisational commitment. When working with fellows and residents, a contract is advisable, clarifying IP and licensing, and the terms and conditions of the partnership.

This also applies to different but similar forms of partnerships, such as competitions or awards. A prominent example of a Lab utilising programmes like this is BL Labs, promoting and encouraging digital scholarship by running awards, competitions and projects. Categories of awards include research, artistic, entrepreneurial, commercial, learning and teaching, as well as awards for BL staff. The DX Lab offers a slightly different type of grants programme, as discussed below.

Example: Digital Drop-In, DX Lab — State Library of NSW
The DX Lab at the State Library of NSW offers a range of different partnerships from smaller grants, known as the Digital Drop-In, through to a Fellowship. The Drop-In is a smaller, lower-cost and faster-paced collaborative partnership that gives people an opportunity to explore an idea, using the Library's collection. They also work with the expert knowledge of staff in other parts of the organisation such as the curators, reading room staff, Indigenous and Learning Services teams.

Commercial partnerships

Commercial partnerships are an endeavour to be approached more cautiously. However, they may serve to bridge a lack of funding and promote an entrepreneurial approach in Lab activities. GLAM institutions also provide opportunities to further develop careers, product ideas and start up ventures for entrepreneurs.

In particular, the collaborations with start-up communities or tech pioneers can be effective partnerships because their way of working aligns with that of the Labs. Both experiment, test, publish, iterate and learn to make their ideas or products better and more useful, as has happened in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Example: Self Composed, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
As SFMOMA Labs discovered with their partnership with Adobe, 'museums and technology companies don't always make the best collaborators' (Winesmith, 2016). Winesmith describes this as an actively tricky partnership but one that aligned to the values of what the Lab was doing and how it impacted on community and industry. The project Self Composed, developed with Adobe systems, was a highly successful blend of art and technology that engaged visitors to create 'selfies' through this very popular experience. Both partners, albeit with different focus and approaches, worked together to deliver this unique experience. Sometimes it is worth considering the unexpected partnership, perhaps at a smaller scale at first and then, if successful, it can be built upon.

Example: Foundry 658, State Library of Victoria
The State Library of Victoria in Australia has partnered with ACMI to launch Foundry658, a business accelerator space and business programme to assist entrepreneurs. Their process is described as a 'start-grow-scale-connect' model that had initially been realised at ACMI-X, the 60 seat co-working space dedicated to the creative industries.

Partnering with education

GLAM Labs are in a prime position to provide data as well as expertise to promote educational goals. Contributing to and running courses, hosting workshops or hackathons, supervising interns, giving presentations, writing articles, blogs and participating in Book Sprints present possibilities to spread knowledge and skills and connect with the wider community. This can be done in all levels of education.

Labs have both long-term partnerships and short-term project-based collaborations with universities. These include student placements, large and small-scale research projects, sharing datasets and building tools. Labs frequently provide partnerships and technical support to students and researchers, such as the machine learning project of the Library of Congress Labs undertaken in partnership with the University of Nebraska.

Example: Machine learning project, Library of Congress Labs and University of Nebraska
The Library of Congress Labs team partnered with the University of Nebraska, Lincoln to apply machine learning to pre-processing collections to increase discoverability and research use of digital collections. The partnership provided real-world applications to research questions. The selection of training data and tools utilised was completely transparent in contrast to black-box, trademarked solutions that are offered by vendors. This partnership has inspired future plans for the Lab to engage universities in matching their interests and agendas to the Library's needs around applied research and development.

Universities recognise that digital innovation or training in design thinking, which is crucial for some of their students, may not currently be covered by the courses offered by their institution. Labs can bridge this gap by bringing in students and exposing them to design processes in real projects. This mutually beneficial partnership is illustrated in the following example.

Example: Cleaning and curating Data for the Library: BL Labs, British Library
In 2018, BL Labs collaborated with University College London and the BA / BSc Science and Arts undergraduate degree elective module, 'Information through the Ages' where the students curated a smaller collection of public domain books from a much larger set. They did this using tools such as OpenRefine for cleaning up the metadata and Python scripts to interrogate a large amount of OCR'ed text using data-mining techniques. The derived dataset will be published on the British Library's data portal and the students will be become 'dataset creators' with their names visible on the British Library data repository.

A new kind of partnership

Labs can offer a space where formerly external partners become an integrated part of the Lab, moving beyond the them and us dualism. GLAM Labs can be seen as a third place, which, according to the Wiki- pedia definition, 'is the social surrounding separate from the two usual social environments of home ("first place") and the workplace ("second place")'. This third place could be a way to rethink how cultural heritage professionals interrelate with a wide range of different people and communities within the Lab space. This third place plays out within people rather than physical or virtual spaces; in Labs all partners are equal. The below example demonstrates such a space where innovation, experimentation and co-creation transpired in true dialogue.

Example: Imaginary Cities, BL Labs
The Imaginary Cities Exhibition at the British Library was an arts-research project and exhibition by British-American artist Michael Takeo Magruder. It transformed the British Library's online collection of historic urban maps into fictional cityscapes for the Information Age (Magruder, 2019) manifested as four art works. In the exhibition publication, BL Labs Manager, Mahendra Mahey explains with regards to numerous BL Labs projects: 'Nearly all of these ventures began as a conversation, and this was certainly the case with Michael Takeo Magruder's Imaginary Cities [...] and now that this exhibition has become a reality, I can't help but look back and remember how it all began because of a conversation' (Mahey, 2019a).

Key points

Successful engagement with users and partners:

  • Requires the understanding of user communities and their needs.

  • Helps to target and tailor Lab activities.

  • Supports knowledge dissemination, data refinement and the development of tools and services.

  • Is based on the idea of collaboration and co-creation in an open and equal dialogue.

  • Can lead to more formal partnerships.

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