Computers in Libraries, Part 1: Innovation

Posted on 13 April 2014 Conference, Technology


I had the opportunity to attend Computers in Libraries last week. This year's theme was "Hack the Library", where of course, "hack" really means "change" or "rethink". Overall, the speakers were very inspiring, with several big names in libraries speaking on trends and provocative new topics.


My biggest takeaway from the conference was definitely the overarching theme of startup culture, as applied to libraries. There were a lot of little aphorisms used from Brian Matthews' "Think Like a Startup" and Eric Ries' "The Lean Startup", and I felt they were all very meaningful in the context of incubating innovation in an organization:

  • Build, measure, learn. Don't spend too much time on the "learn" phase (e.g. surveying users) before anything has actually been built.
  • Fail fast, fail cheap. Pilot test new ideas before too much time has been invested. Beta testing will indicate if the product or service is something people are actually receptive to.
  • Minimum viable product. Launch a working product, rather than one that is fancy or overdesigned.
  • Innovation is messy. Expect failures and false-starts, but move on from them quickly.

Hacking Strategies for Library Innovation

The keynote on the day I attended was from Mary Lee Kennedy, Chief Library Officer of the New York Public Library. She began with four points central to a "hacking strategy":

  • Consider what we uniquely bring to our environment
  • Identify target areas of opportunity
  • Make changes and head in a direction (pilot and assess new ideas)
  • Have fun, move forward without fear of failure


NYPL have been launching a number of really interesting new projects:


  • MapWarper. A database of interactive historical maps from the NYPL collection, layered over Google Maps. Researchers have added data points about historical families and historical events in order to "tell a story" through geospatial data. Further, NYPL were able to crowdsource much of the work of adjusting the boundaries of the maps by opening up the editing of MapWarper to the community.
  • Wikipedia Edit-a-thons. While this seems like a fun event, Kennedy's suggestion that we, as libraries, have an obligation to Wikipedia resonated with me. We know that it is the most widely used source of knowledge, where our users visit first. Libraries should be taking part to ensure the information is accurate, thorough, and that gaps are filled using our collections and subject expertise.
  • Lending "MyFi" devices. With 27% of New Yorkers without home internet, lending of portable wireless hotspots is particularly targeted at student who may need to do homework from home.
  • Schomburg Junior Scholars Program. A pre-college black American history studies program where youth are given the opportunity to study primary and original historical documents held by NYPL.
  • MyLibraryNYC. A pilot program to deliver and pick up teacher sets of resources for use in the classroom.


Importantly, NYPL is making a deliberate move from being passive and "available", from only speaking to people "like us", to being more engaged in the larger community and changing demographics of non-users. Analysis of non-user behaviour allows libraries to seize opportunities in the gaps of services offered.

Extreme Makeovers and Mindshifts

Without question, the most exciting panel was the last of the evening with MJ D'Elia (University of Guelph), Nate Hill (Chattanooga Public Library), and Erik Boekesteijn (Doklab, Netherlands). These guys are all doing really cool things in their roles.


D'Elia spoke of creative problem solving and looking for "adjacencies" to the profession for inspiration, whether that be a bookstore or an airport. He advocated the startup approach to library innovation, and the importance of becoming comfortable prototyping and marketing. After participating in a Startup Weekend event, he was an organizer of the first Startup Weekend "Library Edition". The event begins with 1 minute pitches from participants, who then form teams to develop a working demo for judging at the end of the weekend.


This year's winners included:

  • The Hub. Integration of community organizations and resources into the public library catalogue.
  • Space Valet. An app which helps direct students to vacant study space in libraries using WiFi data.
  • Raisin Readers. Curated book lists and gamified platform to encourage early childhood literacy.


As much as I'm reluctant to use the term "hack" for providing new library services, if anyone is hacking the library, it's team behind the 4th Floor of Chattanooga PL. Chattanooga was apparently transformed by the city opting to provide the infrastructure for a 1GB/second fibre connection for residents and businesses. It's the fastest internet in North America, and it's attracted startups and technology businesses to the city. Simultaneously, the library decided to clear out its 4th floor (previously used to house old furniture), and invite the public in for a truly collaborative, citizen-created space. The library is now the centre of the information ecology in the city. Through partnerships with local groups, organizations, and researchers, @4thflootchatt has been host to:


  • A maker day with 1200 attendees, in partnership with CHA Makers and CO.LAB.
  • DevDev, a summer camp for young developers to learn Python, HTML, and robotics.
  • Open Chattanooga, a citizen data group who have partnered with government to publish in open, publicly accessible formats.
  • Engage 3D, an organization for technology-driven creation such as 3D printing and Kinect camera hacking.
  • Letterpress printing, facilitated by a local faculty member who specializes in zine culture.