Search Museum Next

Film: Fostering a Culture of Innovation in the Library

This presentation was made by Paula Bray, DX Lab Leader, State Library New South Wales at MuseumNext Melbourne in February 2016. DX Lab, the first innovation hub in a cultural heritage organisation in Australia, has been set up by the State Library of NSW to foster a culture of innovation in the library. The Lab’s role is to challenge perceptions about libraries and collections. The Lab’s role is to challenge perceptions about libraries and collections and to encourage audiences to think differently about what a Library can be in the 21st Century.

The DX Lab is employing collaborative and creative partnerships to push boundaries in user led design thinking to deliver experiences onsite and online.

This presentation reveals how the DX Lab has set up a culture of risk taking and working creatively with data and partners (internally and externally) to find new ways to experience and explore vast amounts of data, collections and services.

Paula Bray:  Thanks John, and thanks Museum Next and Jim, for inviting me to come and present to you today. Slightly nervous about coming on after Elaine, but you know, I’ll do my best. I’m Paula, I run this thing called the DX Lab, at the State Library, and although this has become a little bit of a by-line for us, with an emphasis on the play, but there’s also a lot of hard work that goes behind the play. I’m going to kind of unpack some of that with you today.

So, this is where I work, it’s a library. I did come from the Powerhouse Museum into the library, and now I’m here. So, this is my lab, this is how we [roll] on Twitter, should you be tweeting … DX Lab, so the DX stands for Digital Experience, and we sit within the Digital Experience Division, alongside the web team, but we are purely a non-sort of business-as-usual-style team. So we’re Australia’ first dedicated innovation lab within a cultural heritage organisation, and we try to support new ways of design thinking, with an emphasis on experimentation and research in digital. We’re about this old. So 622 days doesn’t seem that long, but it kind of does. So we made it through our first year, and we’re almost going into our second year, but what I’m going to do is unpack our first year … OK. So, why does a library need a lab? You know, libraries are fantastic places for the soul, they’re really great places, they’re like the living lounge-room of the city. But we’re also in this … we have a little bit of a sort of a problem with this … are we a place of the 21st century? Should a library be doing things differently, should we be getting less stuck in the business as usual, big cumbersome systems that are really important with our collections, but we are a place of research, and we’re a place that we can demonstrate what things can be done differently to give our clients and our audiences new ways to experience our collections, our services and what we do.

So that comes with challenges when you’re working with such a big organisation, and when you’re building a lab from scratch, with no inherent sort of way of doing it, there are definitely risks that need to be taken, and there’s also a lot of pressure to do this and embed it within the core of the library, whilst also being able to work in a different way. So we’re really focusing on experimentation. I don’t call what we do products, I really make sure that we emphasise research, experimentation and collaboration, particularly the collaboration. I think that’s really important and slightly unusual for cultural heritage sector, is to be able to kind of push stuff out really quickly, without actually finishing it. So we’re really fortunate at the state library that we’ve got this massive digitisation programme going on, and I’m in this … my team’s really in this amazing position to work with over seven million digitised items. At the end of the programme, we’re going to have 20 million. So we’re on track, but it’s this wealth of stuff, and data, and what do you do with that, and where do you start? How do you expose that much stuff in really new and challenging ways? So I guess what we’re trying to do is look at the values of the lab, and push some of the boundaries in the way in which our audiences get access to these collections and services, and I think we really do that around … our challenge is around design thinking. And it’s also not possible for the DX Lab to do everything in that space, and nor should we. So we really want to encourage other people to get access to this data and to make stuff with it, so that there’s this really wonderful and hopeful reuse of all our data and collections in really fabulous new ways, and we’re starting to see people doing that.

So how is the lab doing this kind of stuff? Well, when I first joined, I was really wanting to make sure that we … this wasn’t a lab that sat at the edge of Level 3, playing nicely … or not nicely … quite loudly in the corner, it really had to be embedded into the library as a whole, and to bring the staff along with us. This is the staff’s lab, it’s not just the D. Ex Lab. So we ran a lot of brainstorming sessions, and we came up with some values, and these are really the values of the staff into the D. Ex Lab, is that, you know, there’s this … and I think they’re fairly obvious things, and we’re all trying to do them, but I’d touch on the most important things, is the experimentation, collaboration and this lovely element of surprise, and I love that … there was this sense of whimsy in play that the staff really wanted to see, to come forward. So we did the usual thing of getting our design principles together, and we really are trying to stick to this, and I really love the idea that we’re in this constant prototyping space, we prototype the prototype. [We make] … the thing about the thing. You know, we’ve all been in projects that last for a very, very long time, and take a really, like a huge amount of money and a huge amount of energy to release, maybe one, two years later.

So in our lab, we have the ability to build something in a week and publish it, without it being finished. So with that comes skills, and I think in our first year, we’re really trying to work out what … shaping up a model of how to work, and whether full-time equivalent positions are able to have all the skills that we require, I think is kind of tricky. So what we’ve decided to do is work within a sort of creative agency-style model, where we are working with contractors, which also has its risks, but I’m trying to get … trying to build up that … [not a] … skill-set within the team with people who want to kind of stick around. So, yes, full-time equivalents are really important, and it’s a great way of building up your skills, but at the moment, we’re just kind of feeling our way with this other model of acting like a creative agency within a [glam] organisation.

So we’ve been working very closely with a creative agency called Grumpy Sailor, and James Boyce showed me this slide … you’ve probably all seen it … about the process that we go through, and this is very much a DX Lab process; when I take people down into the stacks with our curators, it’s like the internet down there, it’s like where do you start? There’s so much stuff and so much possibility, and that’s this bit up here, and then, you know, keep refining back, keep pulling back, what is possible, we’re doing a two-week sprint here. So I’m just going to show you some behind the scenes of our working, with Grumpy Sailor on a project that we’ve got coming up, called Young Sydney, that will be released soon, but this working methodology that they’ve really kind of introduced into us is this locking people in a room for a whole day, this is not 21-hour meetings. This is … and you’ll see curators … and I know this is really hard for an organisation to give up staff for a whole day, it’s a big ask, but it’s really valuable; everything is uncovered, the business context, the purpose, the goals, the platform approach, behaviours, open issues … what are trying to do? That intensiveness of working in that way, in that crazy kind of circle mess, and then drilling down and getting to … yes, we’ve had some awesome ideas come out of everyone in this session, but we’re going to get to the thing that we need to make.

So I talked a bit about calling our things we do ‘experiments’, and I think this is really important within the organisation, but also for our audiences … if we explain to them that it’s an experiment, and not a three-year finished website, they seem to understand, and understand that language. And so, writing about everything that we make, which goes on our website, is really important, not just for us to sort of have a place to go back to where we’ve documented everything, but we share everything that we find and learn in this process. So have a look there, all our findings are there. This is our biggest project we did with Grumpy Sailor, and you’ll notice down the bottom it says ‘an experiment’. This initially was a six-week sprint that turned into a year-long partnership, and is ongoing, so we didn’t expect that, but that’s been a great thing. So with Loom, it’s a big data-visualisation project using web GL … you saw a little bit of the first phase there, which is a very visual phase … and what we wanted to challenge our audiences was to actually get to our collection without search.

So removing that little white box from those massive and slightly cumbersome collection systems is quite a challenge. You get this one-to-one relationship, and sometimes, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, and you’re not getting that feedback, then you may not stay and search within our collection, so they are problematic, we all know they’re problematic, and we all know that there are web technologies out there that can change the way that we get access to our collections. So I guess that is what we’ve tried to do with Loom. This is the first phase, it’s a timeline, it’s … you wouldn’t probably necessarily use it that quickly, but there are 3,000 items that we’ve decided to stick with at the beginning, because we had to keep pulling back to refine what that sort of data-set would look like, and we ended up deciding that Sydney was the amount of data that we could cope with. So this is all our content around Sydney from 1877 to 2000, and it’s encouraging serendipity, it’s encouraging exploration, it’s encouraging relationships between the data through tags and topics.

That’s the kind of data that we’re dealing with there. It is quite challenging working with that sort of capacity, but we drilled it down to locally contextualised information showing [me] how to use it, whilst also inspiring possibility. But we thought, you know, we’ve got to know this data quite well; it’s quite messy, but we’ve made it do things that we wanted it to do … wouldn’t it be cool if we could give our users three different ways to experience exactly the same data? So we did that. So this is the second phase, which is Atlas: as you can see, it’s a heat-mapping phase of exactly the same data, it’s a timeline, but it’s all around place. So you’re looking at the collection from this bird’s eye view, suddenly, rather than the one-to-one relationship. The peaks are the digitised content and the troughs are yet to be digitised. There’s this beautiful way of exploring the content and seeing those relationships; there’s absolutely no search involved whatsoever. You can favourite up your journey and go back to that later.

Then the third phase, having … wanting to produce something that was not visual, that was not place, but was pure metadata. How do you showcase pure metadata in a similar way in web GL? It’s quite hard. So this prototype tool was actually a prototype of the third phase of the prototype, and it’s all the topics, by date, with a live call from [Trove API] for every single topic. And then when one of the curators saw this, she was beside herself. She’s like, you have to publish that. We’re like, oh, OK, we’ll do that too. So that is the prototype of this next phase, which is bouncing topics. A bit nerdy, but we love it. So all those … all that metadata is actually now seen as bubbles in space. But it gives you this really different way of looking at our metadata, based on place and time, and size, so you can start to unpack and research the collection in a completely new way. We’re also pulling … making live calls to Trove, coming through in here.

So, what did we learn through this? Sketching code, new processes design and inform development, and development informs design. You know, metadata is messy, but it is the data that we have at the moment, through many, many years of cataloguing, and we have to kind of make that better, and make it do what we want it to do. So now, what do we do with this, what do we do with Loom? Do we acquire this back into the collection? It’s all about the collection. Do we put some of it into business as usual? So that’s the kind of next steps for us. And I’m really fascinated when I go and watch people in the reading rooms, and I’m like, what are they doing, what’s … all this amazing stuff, and creativity that comes out of our library. So we just scraped GA, and these are actually … this is the research that’s going on within our library, across the different catalogues. We’re not going to make it live, but we’re really interested in sort of … is this fascinating for other visitors, should we project this in our library, as people walk in, it’s … you know, the DNA of what’s actually happening within our library.

So this idea of collaboration an scholarship and working with digital peers is really important to us. We run a digital drop-in programme, where we do things very, very quickly with a digital peer, so this is an interface that we built with Erica Taylor, from the [Tweed] Regional Museum; our collection is at the bottom, her collection is at the top, links to Trove newspapers are in the middle, through the tags, and it’s just a really simple view, and a timeline, of main streets. So a kind of bespoke viewer, but a really lovely way to get to both of those collections around a theme. What we didn’t know was that that would then, from a two-week sprint, be … we worked with our exhibitions team to actually take the idea of Main Street into a business-as-usual experience in the gallery space using different content. A slight change to code and the user-experience, but from experimentation, we were able to build something that was part of business … and we got a commission from that, as well. So I think the demonstration of being able to take risks and then experiment in that way led to us being able to work within the organisation in a different way. Fellowships, really important for us to give back to the sector, so we’ve been able to be the first Australian cultural heritage organisation to offer a dedicated digital fellowship. We have two fabulous people, who … [Alyssa Leigh] and Adam [Hinshaw], who were the recipients of this fellowship, and they … I’ve sped this up a little bit for the screencast, but they are building an interface which shows what our visitors are actually researching, but then clicking on; so the item. So we’ve got unpublished works, published works, we’ve got book-covers coming in through … book cover, I think it’s Google Books API … and this is the crowds interface, this is what they are doing, and you get to experience the collection in a completely new way. That will be released soon, and that’s a lovely three-day … that’s just three days of that interface, which has turned into this beautiful tapestry artwork, so I really want to try and get this in our library as people walk in.

We did another one after this digital learning fellowship, working with a very existing and very strong educational data-set, and this is Geoff Hinchcliffe, who is going to flip that notion of educational library collections that are accessible through traditional ways, and turn it into a retail experience, so stayed tuned for this one will be coming out later this year. One that’s close to my heart is [Weemala], which is a digital drop-in, working with indigenous place-names. So this was a spreadsheet that was sent to me by the Indigenous Services team, and they were saying we’d love to work with the DX Lab, is there something we can do? And we were like, yes. So this is like … this product was built in a week; that’s the first part of the brainstorming session, the lock you in a room for a day, we had an artist, Jonathan Jones, some of you may know, and we just all brainstormed together, and within a week, we built [Weemala], which is not perfect, it is not finished, there’s a whole lot of [view ex] that needs to be applied to this, but suddenly, you are able to … there’s no search, you are able to see where indigenous place-names are located on the map. So for example, buried within these surveys and letters … you know, [kayema] means ‘plenty’, and now we’ve produced this really simple way of being able to explore and visualise that data.

So stay tuned, version 2, hopefully. Again, [panoscope], this is just very simple technology that … open-source … we’ve just applied it to our collection, so we were obsessing around 360 video and stuff in work, and I was like, well, why can’t we just sort of drop one of those beautiful 180 degree panoramas in something like that? And my developer just did that very, very quickly, and suddenly we’re seeing things in these panoramas that we’ve never been able to see through our traditional viewers, and so we’ve put a panoscope out there, it’s got 52 panoramas in it. I’m rushing through now … Stack Slips … this is a project that is on pause due to major system implication migration, but we are looking at tracking stack slips. So simple NFC, with an Android device that goes round with our technicians, and they tap where the stack slip is at any point. It’s anonymous, but we’re trying to let our visitors know why it takes half an hour to go get a book. It’s not just behind the shelf. There’s five layers underneath us. So hopefully, we’ll be able to build some kind of data visualisation at the point of the desk where people can request, and so it’s on pause, but it’s … that’s what we have to do sometimes, that’s the risk we take; sometimes projects need to pause.

But … we decided to run a face-to-face event with a whole bunch of people, and we used those kind of ideas for them to rapidly prototype in a [UX] workshop, so it’s like, well, we can’t finish it, so why don’t you come up with some amazing ideas and kind of share that where we’re up to before we publish? And I love what they came up with. Library cards of the future, wearable tech, but this one’s my favourite, and it would be like a device that the user would have, like your pizza, you know? My stack is … my book is … my request is now on level 3, and it’s just passed Captain Cook’s journal. How cool would that be? I’ve got time to go get a coffee. But super-awesome. Again, this one is a challenge, I set my developer to treat a home-page like an artwork, with a collection. Not something that you would necessarily do, building a website, but we have that freedom within the lab to just do this. One collection, 1,001 postcards, all around place, using web GL, you can just put in the place and you get all those postcards for that particular place. Every one of our experiments links you back to the collection online, so you can keep doing your deep research. But you know, this idea of the bespoke collection viewer has come in, and it’s like … it’s a really interesting … like should we be doing this? I’m not sure, but if someone’s searching the Broadhurst Collection, wouldn’t they want to use this to find their stuff via location? It’s just the Broadhurst Collection.

Pivot. We’re working with colour at the moment, and we had started building a slider, based on colour, that looks like that, and then one of our friends published a slider that looks like that … I’ll go back … it looks very similar … so, we’re not doing that. We’ve changed our work methodology because this is so awesome, so we’re working with colour in a new way. But that idea of pivoting is so … it’s something James, from Grumpy Sailor, has really expressed to me, is that the importance of being able to pivot through your experiments, because, you know, prototyping informs design, and the design informs the prototype, so it’s about being able to shift your mind and take those risks and be able to pivot, and pivot really quickly. This particular project, our curator said, could you please replace all of the images in Flickr with high-res images, because some of them are 600 pixels wide, and that’s just not cool. So we said, sure, we’ll do that in a week. No … we won’t do that in a week, because we have a … we had a problem with the items of images not having … they’re at the album level, not the item level, so we couldn’t actually find the image from Flickr in our database very easily, because all the systems are changing. So, OK, that’s all right. Luke built the album resolver, which is using image-recognition technology to find the image within the album, which is pretty cool.

So that happened very, very quickly, and then we were able to go on to produce another internal tool for staff, called Dairy, because from this research of using the Flickr API, and talking to staff, they said to us, we can’t get images very, very quickly in high-res, and with all the work we were doing, we were able to just quickly build up this very, very simple internal interface, where you just punch in the ID, or a string of IDs, and you get access to anything you want, you download it, zips it up, there on your hard-drive. So this is now a business-as-usual tool within the library, and maybe we’ll make it public somehow. And this is the use that we’re tracking. It is used, every single day, and huge amounts of data are being downloaded very, very quickly, so in theory, we’ve actually saved the organisation an incredible amount of time and money. So I kind of see the value in what we’re able to do in research back into the organisation … so I’m going to finish up now, I think, just with some takeaways.

You know, I think being able to have the room to experiment and prototype is not just a luxury, it’s actually really important to progress and to challenge and to change the way in which you can work. Yes, we know data is messy, but that’s what we have, and we try and make that better; we work with that. Partnerships and collaboration are key, not just within your organisation, but externally. True innovation comes through collaboration. So we have to think differently about those models of how we operate around partnerships. Pivot. Tell your audience it’s an experiment, and that it doesn’t work in IE and Firefox. That’s OK; it’s OK to produce something that just works in Chrome, or is only a desktop viewer, as long as you explicitly explain to people why you didn’t do that. Sketch lots, sketch physically, with pencil and pad, but also in code; build upon that code, let people use your code, use other people’s code … I think we all know that … two-week sprints don’t necessarily end up being two-week sprints, but the theory of it is great. Share your findings, your code and your data … and I think I’ll end there. Thank you.

Male voice:     OK, we’ve got time for one question, maybe. Can you raise your hand if you do have a question? Anyone? I’ll ask you a question, then. Can I ask around the degree to which these collaborators and their work has actually influenced the wider practice of your organisation?

Female voice:  Yeah, that’s a good one. I think that the way in which we’ve been able to bring a lot of stuff, in the process of this, has actually had benefits in them participating in the way they run, so everything we do involves people across the organisation, so if we do need to lock them in a room for a day, they will be locked in a room for a day. So I think that they see the benefits of that, after we’ve done it, and so we’re starting to shift that into … we’re working very closely with our exhibitions team at the moment, and so that’s been a really collaborative approach, and we’re seeing how they work, but they’re also seeing how the DX Lab works, so that we can marry those new work methodologies together, so it is changing.

How is are you working to foster a culture of innovation in your library?

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week