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Growing an international Cultural Heritage Labs community

Chambers, Sally; Mahey, Mahendra; Gasser, Katrine; Dobreva-McPherson, Milena; Kokegei, Kristy; Potter, Abigail; Ferriter, Meghan; Osman, Rania

‘Cultural Heritage Labs’ in galleries, libraries, archives and museums around the world help researchers, artists, entrepreneurs, educators and innovators to work on, experiment, incubate and develop their ideas of working with digital content through competitions, awards, projects, exhibitions and other engagement activities. They do this by providing services and infrastructure to enable, facilitate and give access to their data both openly online and onsite for research, inspiration and enjoyment.

In September 2018, the British Library Labs team organised a ‘Building Library Labs’’ international workshop. The event provided the opportunity for colleagues that are planning or already have digital experimental ‘Labs’ to share knowledge, experiences and lessons learned. The workshop, which attracted over 40 institutions from North America, Europe, Middle East, Asia and Africa, demonstrated a clear need and enthusiasm for establishing an international support network. Within 6 months, a second international workshop was organised at the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen in March 2019. In total we have brought together some 120 participants and an even wider community of around 250 people online. Some have been sharing their experiences in setting, using and running innovation labs, but there was a sizeable group of attendees who are planning to set up such labs and need advice and support in how to do this.

The aim of this short paper is to present the journey and development of the International Labs community and outline our future activities.

The principle of the network is that by fair sharing and ‘paying forward’ our expertise, knowledge and experiences, the group hopes to ensure that organisations don’t have to ‘re-invent the wheel’. Organisations can learn from each other and enable collaboration across borders through their digital collections, data, services, infrastructure and practice. This we hope this will result in building better digital ‘Labs’ for their organisations and their users and help to further open up data and services for everyone.

People are the essence of the international Labs network. From the results of an initial global Building Library Labs survey, including 40 responses from 23 countries, there was significant interest from the wider cultural heritage sector, beyond libraries. With currently 250 people, from over 60 institutions, based in over 30 countries affiliated with the network, a solid set of communication tools were needed. The network has a shared Google drive, a mailing list and a Wiki, as well as an active WhatsApp group, a Slack channel and meets regularly via Zoom.

With two successful events behind us, and plenty of enthusiasm and willingness to continue activities further, we now looking to the future. Planned activities include: a book sprint to capture significant knowledge and expertise within the Labs network serving as a reference guide for people wanting to build their own lab, populating our wiki and creating a global directory of Cultural Heritage labs. Further regional and international events have and are also being organised. In less than a year, the Labs network has come a long way, and this is only the beginning!

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