• Harvard University
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  • Library Notes
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  • September 2010
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  • No. 1355
Interview: John Palfrey Print

 

palfrey.jpgJohn Palfrey is the Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law and Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School, as well as the Faculty Co-Director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. In an August 24 conversation with Library Notes, Professor Palfrey revisited his reasons for creating a library lab at Harvard Law School and discussed some of the challenges inherent in Harvard's new University-wide lab.

 

LN

What led you to create a laboratory environment for the Harvard Law School Library?

JP

We needed a theory of innovation at the highest level. It's a conceptual construct to say that at this moment in history for libraries—and for Harvard in general—we need to have a way in which libraries are sure to be innovative.

In the traditional library structure, there's not been an obvious center for innovation—it happens to some extent, of course, and Harvard's libraries have been sources of innovation in many respects, but never in a transformative sense. We were trying to do more than create greater efficiencies in the operation. We set out to free staff to do things that were different and experimental.

Today, Google, Amazon, and others are doing many of the things that libraries have traditionally done in ways that are sometimes helpful—though not nearly as helpful as what we could do in libraries that were actually set up to innovate.

LN

How does the Law Library's lab relate to the library's reorganization?

JP

As we were reorganizing, we were trying to free up some staff to do some things that are different and experimental. This was in part a theory of change, but it was also a matter of asking, "How do we find a way to assign people to be full-time innovators in the library?"

In a structural sense, we set up a lab within the library as a hothouse environment, where a staff member could come and say, "I've got this problem and I think we could solve it this way, but I don't know how to write the code." Or "I have an idea that if we redesign this process in a certain way we would go faster: can you help me figure out how to improve this process?"

So we've got a modest group of people who have, in essence, their time bought out to work in an innovation center, to draw on the good ideas that they have themselves and that their peers have.

In a way, they're in-house consultants, but they're also in-house developers with ideas and good measures of innovations. The design for it at the 100-person level of the Harvard Law School Library is parallel to the design that's getting constructed at the University level.

The lab is also prompting us to collaborate with people who have skills in related fields like design, like architecture, like computer science, and some other aspects of information science that are not right now in the libraries.

LN

Is it correct that all of the collaborators in your lab are the HLSL staff?

JP

They are Harvard Law School Library staff, absolutely. In several cases they are long-standing staff and in a couple of cases they're people that we've hired in.

A feature of our new staffing plan is that we use Google's 80-20 model that allows the majority of our staff to do something one day a week other than what they do on the other four.

LN

How do you think the lab model will change at the University level, where we're putting out a call for proposals that includes faculty, students, and staff?

JP

The process will be a challenge for the Office for Scholarly Communication to manage, in that there's a lot going to be coming in, I hope, if they're successful. But it's great in the sense that we will get more new ideas that have not been brought into the library before.

Overall, the University-wide lab should "surface" ideas that have been in the libraries without having made it to the decision-making table. If you carve a path of innovation that involves people in multiple libraries around the University, they will find ways to work together where they haven't before. Or you'll find some really great idea—something happening at Countway—that would make sense University-wide. We'll now have a mechanism. Again, this is the theory of innovation: when something innovative happens at the edges of the network or the edges of the institution, then we can bring it into the center.

LN

Can you discuss the lab concept as a paradigm shift?

JP

One of the things that I perceived as an outsider coming into the library at the Law School was that people had extremely well-defined job descriptions with sharp corners around them. And for basic services—in other words, when somebody walked into the library, looking for a particular book and wanted to emerge with it—we were very, very good—even world-class. Pretty much anything that fell outside of those sharp corners either wasn't getting done or met some resistance.

One of the things I think that we have gotten better at—and I say this more with my social-science hat on than my library hat—is paying attention to our users and what they're doing. All the research that we've done in the last few years—essentially trying to track the information-literacy habits of our students—is giving us an increased sense of our users' multiple pathways to information.

There are such clear signals now that people are getting information differently than the pathways that libraries traditionally provide. We need to be in the business of not just responding to those signals, but in fact getting out in front in important ways.

To some extent, the library lab is necessity being the mother of invention.