To prepare the students for the Library Test Kitchen, Schnapp arranged for librarians to present their on-the-ground dilemmas during “Problem Solving Hours”: How can librarians connect visitors to largely invisible digital texts? How can we digitize texts without sacrificing their crucial texture and scale?
Goldenson organized a field trip to Harvard’s book depository, where students confronted the enormous scale of the structures they are hoping to bring into the 21st century. “It’s really impressive to see hundreds of years of collected knowledge,” Brady said, “but the immense physicality is also overwhelming. Any kind of intervention in the digital world would have to grapple with this. I just realized how big of a problem it was.”
For one of his Library Test Kitchen student projects, Brady developed Biblio. Biblio is a little clam-shaped device with inquisitive eyes that can sit in the palm of a hand. Press it against a page, and it can scan text, suggest related books, and share titles with its other Biblio friends. Rest him in a study carrel and the LED lights in his eyes blink expectantly as he waits to be “fed” more text. Biblio is a research buddy, a sort of bookish, Wi-Fi-enabled Tamagotchi pet.
“Books are fighting for their physical position,” Brady writes in his project statement, and with Biblio he aimed to make “old media act like new media.”
As with Biblio, the students designed prototypes that expanded, rather than negated, the most enduring joys of the library: reading, studying, and browsing for books in a shared civic space. In former student Stacy Morton’s project, a smartphone app sends an alert whenever a library book matching the user’s keyword search (for example, “Spanish art”) is nearby. Whether the book is on a colleague’s desk or in the lap of a stranger riding the same train, the city is transformed into a living library full of hidden books — and, perhaps, more research buddies — that we didn’t know we were looking for. Morton’s technology amplifies the library’s unique talent to “accommodate the near miss,” Goldenson said.
The Library Test Kitchen students also developed projects to ensure that our most essential research partners, librarians, will not be supplanted by the Internet and will become, instead, our ambassadors to the Information Age.
Goldenson suggested creating library “residencies” for younger staffers to promote mentorship and cross-pollination across libraries, or an “artist in reference” position for a distinguished guest librarian to illuminate a library’s research collection in the area of her specialty. In another Library Test Kitchen proposal, roving librarians who work “in the field” (i.e., the stacks) are texted whenever a nearby library patron has a question.
“I think we are moving in the right direction at Harvard,” said Ann Baird Whiteside, librarian of the Loeb Library and assistant dean for information resources. “The Library Test Kitchen offers librarians some ways to make the [Harvard Library] Transition as successful as we can by helping our users help us to think about the library of the 21st century.”
Despite the projects within the Library Test Kitchen that activate our ever-noisier gadgets, there is a countervailing effort to silence them as well. Brady, Biblio’s creator, also built a “Wi-Fi Cold Spot,” a room coated with special paint that jams incoming radiation and signals, disrupting wireless connections. The Wi-Fi Cold Spot — much like the Library Test Kitchen’s proposed library of the future — “thrives on the contrast between connectivity and isolation,” Brady writes.
Schnapp says his ideal library would be an inclusive “beehive,” with room for all kinds of activity, and the Wi-Fi Cold Spot would have a natural home among noisy meeting areas and open, participatory research projects.
The ethos of the Library Test Kitchen is to build libraries that mirror the communities they inhabit, where the page and the screen jostle in sometimes random, sometimes coordinated ways; where creation and rest, clamor and quiet move through public spaces in balletic chaos — and where library patrons find wonder, serendipity, and that endangered virtue, what Brady calls “a moment of pause.”
Anne Gray Fischer is a doctoral student in US history at Brown University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.