The Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory at Harvard Law School

When John Palfrey was appointed vice-dean of library and information services at Harvard Law School a couple of years ago, one of the first things he did was create the Harvard Library Innovation Laboratory. Under the direction of Kim Dulin and David Weinberger (also of Berkman Center fame), HLIL explores the ways in which software can “hack libraries…in the good sense of discovering and delivering more capability and value.” Specifically, as they say on the FAQ page,

1. We think in public.
2. We build software that demonstrates how libraries can bring yet more value to scholars and researchers.
3. We amplify our effect by eagerly partnering with other groups with similar passions.

Though they’re more interested in proof of concept than in the development of generally usable code, there are two interrelated projects that I think Slaw readers would be interested in having a look at, ShelfLife and LibraryCloud. These might be best understood by starting from the point of view of the Digital Public Library of America, an online place, as it were, to demonstrate the power of these tools used in collaboration with a number of institutions. LibraryCloud is a meta-data server that aggregates circulation data, among other things, from participating libraries, making it available through APIs. In the service of the DPLA it makes available millions and millions of bibliographic records. ShelfLife then provides a cunning, visual front end for this mountain of data.

The best way to understand, of course, is to “do.” There’s a ShelfLife DPLA Demo that offers a video (also reproduced below), a guided tour, and also the chance to thrash about unguided.

Among the many smaller projects that are still in the works, the most useful perhaps is Library News, a simple stream of material (à la Hacker News) on technology and libraries, available on the web and via RSS and contributed by anyone who wishes to create an account.

ShelfLife Welcome from David Weinberger on Vimeo.


  1. This is fantastic. I had the privilege of doing an internship at the Harvard Law Library this past February and, while the experience as a whole was absolutely phenomenal, one of the things that I took away from it that really stuck with me was the amazing work that the Digital Innovation Lab was up to – especially ShelfLife. I’m thrilled to see it getting more exposure! Kudos to Kim, David and the rest of the team!