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Creating New Tools for Libraries

At the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, fellows research, code, and collaborate on new apps and projects. 

Innovation Lab presentation

A study of guerrilla libraries, an app that allows you to swap your digital trash with strangers, and a mobile-friendly site that helps Nigerians research their constitutional rights—these are just three of the projects completed this summer by interns and fellows working at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab (LIL). The lab brings together scholars, technologists, and librarians to develop projects at the intersection of libraries, technology, and law. Two of its high-profile projects include the Caselaw Access Project, which seeks to make all US case law freely accessible online, and, which ensures that links that are modified or deleted can still be reached by the sources that cite them.

On August 11, the 2017 cohort of nine LIL fellows and interns presented the results of a summer packed full with research, coding, and collaboration. In this first of two posts about the projects we highlight the work of Anna Bialas, Doyung Lee, Zach Tan, and Okechukwu Effoduh.

You could say that Anna Bialas spent her summer going through other people’s trash. Her Trash Exchange project is an attempt to create an archive of the digital objects that we don’t normally publish or share: the things that we put in our computers’ trash or recycle bins. Bialas developed an app that allows users to anonymously donate items from their pile of digital trash and receive mystery trash from someone else in return. Bialas sums up the project this way: “I’ll show you my trash if you show me yours.” Her goal, she explains, is to “find out if we can find ourselves in what we discard.”

Through his Community Portraits project, Doyung Lee examined ways in which libraries become sites for fostering communities and promoting empathy. “Libraries aren’t just a place to archive books,” Lee observed. “They’re places where the local community can become a strong and integrated part” of the institution. In a bid to make this link between library and community more visible, Lee designed an easy-to-use photo booth for library spaces. The booth is inexpensive, lightweight, and requires neither external power nor an internet connection. Working with the Cambridge Public Library, Lee installed his prototype in the library lobby, producing a series of photos of patrons along with their responses to the question: “what are you doing at the library today?”

In his Guerrilla Libraries project, Zach Tan pursued his interest in radical pasts and futures by investigating the roles that libraries play in protests. He examined protest libraries established at multi-day actions such as Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park, as well as the fate of those libraries and materials, which are often destroyed during police raids. These libraries represent what Tan terms “prefigurative politics”; that is, “attempts to create and embody the society we want to see.” Over the course of the summer, Tan authored a set of case studies, digital tools, and essays on guerilla libraries. He has made these works available on Medium and is working on an online directory of guerrilla libraries.

Nigerian human rights lawyer and activist Okechukwu Effoduh developed an application and web site, #Law2Go, that provides access to human rights laws and legal services in his native country. Effoduh cited studies that show that 72% of Nigerian citizens who suffer human rights abuses cannot obtain legal services. Lack of access is due to a variety of factors: low literacy levels, few public libraries (and even fewer that have law books), no standard emergency phone number (no 9-1-1), and laws prohibiting attorneys from advertising.

Compounding these problems is the fact that the nation’s constitution, the document that sets out the rights of its citizens, is written in English—which most Nigerians do not speak—and uses complex legal language. Effoduh’s app addresses these issues by providing a straightforward guide to the constitution, essentially a plain-language “translation” of its dense passages of legalese. The app makes this more user-friendly, rights-focused version of the constitution available to Nigeria’s 18 million smartphone users in a variety of languages in both text and audio formats. #Law2Go also has features that can connect users to police and legal services.

In the next installment, we’ll be showcasing projects by Zena Agha, Rachel Karasick, Matt Miller, Miglena Minkova, and Reid Whitaker.

By Thomas Dodson.

Published on September 20, 2017.