ETH Library Lab came to life as a collaboration between the ETH Library and the library of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). The lab encourages young talents to take creative approaches and experiment with fresh ideas for finding, accessing, using and sharing scientific information and knowledge. The first cohort of Innovator Fellows started their fellowship at the ETH Library Lab in March 2019. Since then sixteen fellows across twelve disciplines from eight different countries have been part of the program. In this blog post the members of its Advisory Board discuss the relevance of today’s libraries, the importance of letting think “outside of the box” and what the library of the future might look like.

ETH Library Lab is a “think and do” tank that aims to explore potential futures of scientific libraries, archives and collections. At the core of the initiative lies the Innovator Fellowship Program. The lab and its program are overseen by the Advisory Board which is made up of a highly interdisciplinary group. Its members are: Dr. Rafael Ball, Director of the ETH Library, Sunnie J. Groeneveld, Founder and Managing Partner of the consultancy Inspire 925 and Associate Dean of Studies for the EMBA Digital Leadership at HWZ University, Frank Scholze, Director General of the German National Library, and Prof. Dr. Mirko Meboldt, Professor at the Chair of Product Development and Engineering Design at ETH Zurich.

Why did you found the ETH Library Lab?

Rafael Ball: A key assumption that went into creating the ETH Library Lab is the notion that the truly creative activities do not take place easily in the traditional organisational setting of a library. Novel ideas and creative approaches are much more likely to happen in a dedicated organisational unit separated by a virtual firewall. So, in order to maximize our chances of enabling potentially disruptive innovation we decided to start a separate initiative: the ETH Library Lab.

Frank Scholze: When Rafael brought this idea to me, I decided to join immediately because I care deeply about the future of libraries and information infrastructure facilities. Today, libraries are already working together, but it is key that this collaboration becomes even stronger in the future. I am convinced that the ETH Library Lab can play an active role to stimulate this collaboration.

Prof. Dr. Mirko Meboldt: From a user’s – rather than a librarian’s – point of view, I find it very interesting to observe how libraries are sometimes greatly underestimated. Many people see libraries only as the custodian of books. But knowledge today goes so much farther than books. Therefore, I think it is very important to engage from a user’s perspective in the dialogue about the role of libraries in the future.

Sunnie J. Groeneveld: I love that the ETH Library Lab has the courage to completely rethink the concept of a library. Because the questions we explore are of fundamental importance, not just for libraries but more broadly for society, i.e. how should we deal with information? And how can we make scientific information and output of research more accessible?

“The ETH Library Lab has the courage to completely rethink the concept of a library.”
Sunnie J. Groeneveld, Member of the Advisory Board

The Advisory Board members together with Maximiliane Okonnek, Managing Director of the ETH Library Lab (from left to right): Rafael Ball, Sunnie J. Groeneveld, Frank Scholze, Maximiliane Okonnek and Prof. Dr. Mirko Meboldt

The ETH Library Lab has now been in operation for one and a half years. What are your main take-aways and key experiences?

Sunnie J. Groeneveld: One of the tasks of the Advisory Board is to assess the fellowship applications and – looking back – I have been really impressed with the diversity and quality of the project ideas that reached us. Beyond that, one of my highlights has also been that one of the fellows decided to start up their own business after completing the fellowship. To me this demonstrates that the ETH Library Lab is not only a place where projects start and end, but that it really can be a launchpad and acceleration track, so that project ideas can take off.

Rafael Ball: The key experience for me can be summed up as: «and yet it moves». In the very early founding days of the ETH Library Lab, I had some sleepless nights. We did not know if anybody was going to apply. And today, the application process has become quite competitive. It has been a fantastic success to work together with such inspiring and creative people who want to collaborate in our lab and accompany us on our journey to explore potential futures of scientific libraries.

“It has been a fantastic success to work together with such inspiring and creative people who want to collaborate in our lab.”
Rafael Ball, Member of the Advisory Board

Frank Scholze: For me, one of the most impressive aspects of this whole initiative has been that it brings together such different perspectives ­– something that is also reflected in the Advisory Board. This diversity combined with the structured program that we offer to our fellows is unique. In addition to this our fellows have access to a large network of experts that spans from the ETH Library and the ETH Zurich to other external academic institutions, start-ups as well as competence centres such as the Citizen Science Center Zurich. This combination makes the Lab truly powerful.

Fellows

Former fellows Magnus Wuttke and Bala Nivetha Kanakaraj at the ETH Library Lab Mentoring Day in August 2019

Prof. Dr. Mirko Meboldt: For me, one of the main take-aways from the past 18 months has been seeing how very broad the offering and portfolio of a library is and how important it is for a research institution to become even more aware of this invaluable infrastructure and  all its services. I also have been reflecting a lot more on how a library has to consciously decide what services they leave for large corporate competitors like Google and which of their services remain their core expertise that they want to nurture and develop for strategic reasons.

“A library has to consciously decide what services they leave for corporate competitors like Google and which of their services remain their core expertise that they want to nurture and develop for strategic reasons.”
Prof. Dr. Mirko Mebodlt, Member of the Advisory Board

What’s next? How do you see the future development of the ETH Library Lab?

Prof. Dr. Mirko Meboldt: The ETH Library lab is a seed pool where you can think, experiment and start building. The question that arises then is: how do you actually create sustainable processes supporting change within the library of an institution? This is the challenge we ought to tackle next.

Frank Scholze: Yes, and to find a way to transfer the insights our fellows generate from “out of the box” thinking back into the broad information infrastructures offered by libraries and used in scientific disciplines. One goal is certainly to confirm that the ETH Library Lab can continue to fulfil this important task of innovation and transfer.

Rafael Ball: From my point of view, the bigger goal must be that we as libraries cultivate the openness to think ahead more long-term and not just stay stuck in status quo oriented short-termism. I think it is an ongoing task of scientific institutions to let people think critically and creatively. And it is certainly one of the aims of the ETH Library Lab to bring awareness of this into the community.

Sunnie J. Groeneveld:  At a time when access to information, and also access to false information, is easier than ever before we need places and initiatives like the ETH Library Lab where young talents are encouraged to ask themselves: how do we deal with information effectively? And: what kind of infrastructure is needed to ensure that we do not degenerate into a false information society? I think it’s very important that ETH Library Lab offers opportunities for fellows to really deal with such questions full-time.

Advisory Board ETH Library Lab

Maximiliane Okonnek, Sunnie J. Groeneveld, Rafael Ball and Frank Scholze (from left to right) at an Advisory Board Meeting in February 2019

What should the scientific library of the future look like for you?

Frank Scholze: The library of the future should embrace and incorporate the spirit and attitude that is lived in initiatives like the ETH Library Lab. It should continuesly strive to develop further. There is no such thing as a finished product or service. Successful libraries are constantly developing, learning and experimenting.

“The library of the future is constantly developing, learning and experimenting.”
Frank Scholze, Member of the Advisory Board

Sunnie J. Groeneveld: The library of the future is not an administrator of existing knowledge, but a proactive organizer that is equally concerned with reshaping the information infrastructure – a neverending process.

Rafael Ball: For me, the scientific library of the future is an integral part within the process of knowledge acquisition and communication. The library of the future is nothing more than this, but also nothing less of what I just said – and let me assure you, this is tremendous ambition.

Prof. Dr. Mirko Meboldt: I agree, but archiving is also a crucial part of this process. My work starts and ends with archiving – from the cradle to the grave. I start all of my projects with researching in the archives and end it by publishing a paper, which is then returned to the archives of the library. And there is a lot involved in this process. In that sense, from a researcher’s point of view, the library of the future should be something like an “all-round carefree package” for researchers.

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Delia Brändli

Delia Brändli

Digital Communications Manager & Master Student, University of Zurich

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