Week 42: We’re Open

Memory Lab_Logo_2colors


It’s been a while, so I’ll give a brief overview about how the Memory Lab (our public facing lab for personal archiving) works.

It has a home page on the DCPL website and a wiki built with Libguides that will serve as an aggregate of transfer workflows, personal archiving resources, and directions for building a transfer station. Patrons can book a one-hour drop-in session or a 3-hour lab session to use the space. They must fill out an intake form and report what storage environment they will provide. When they arrive for their appointment, they check in at our information desk in the Digital Commons (our large computer lab on the main floor of our central branch) and are led to the space, shown what machines they will be using, and left with the section of the “In the Lab” wiki tab with the directions for their DIY transfer. If the patron encounters a problem, they go back to the info desk to get help from a Labs staff member. We’ll talk about how well that actually works in a bit.

The Launch


The Memory Lab had its grand opening on Saturday, February 20th, 2016. We had running tours throughout the morning and in the afternoon filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris screened his award-winning documentary “Through a Lens Darkly” and held a Digital Diaspora Family Reunion event where he asked audience members to share and discuss their personal photographs. This partnership was a perfect way to celebrate the Memory Lab’s debut at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and highlight the potential for personal archives to inspire creative works and social change.

Here’s a write up of the event with great pictures by the DDFR crew.

Here’s coverage we got about the lab from the Washingtonian and DCist and Daily Kos. There was also a spot on our local Channel 4 news network.

Here’s some tweets about the Memory Lab launch.





Growing Pains

So what happened after we opened? Things got real, real busy.


We use Acuity Scheduling to manage bookings for our labs.  As of today, the Memory Lab represents 37% of all lab hours since it opened. To put it another way, 46 orientations have been booked and 91 3-hour sessions.


I realized right away that I didn’t block enough time out to make changes in the Lab or do further trainings with staff because the space was always occupied by patrons. Beginning in April (because March is already booked) the Memory Lab will be open to the public Monday- Thursday & Saturday, and Friday & Sunday will be “play days” for Labs staff and other system librarians to work and train on the machines and software. This time will also be used for maintenance and experimenting with new decks.

Another problem I didn’t foresee was how hard it would be to let go. I wanted to be with the machines to make sure they didn’t break, and with every customer  to make sure they got done what they wanted to do (and didn’t break the machines). The first week it seemed warranted because there were lots of problems (the computer falling asleep, stereo vs. mono issues with tape deck, figuring out the burning disc workflow, etc.) and I was gathering useful feedback to incorporate into the wiki, but by the second week it was obvious I was having some separation anxiety. And I still do. What if the machines don’t get shut down? What if someone can’t save their stuff? What if they don’t know where the play button is on the VCR? I am aware, no matter where I am, if a patron is in the space.  I’ve realized that TRUE user testing is sometimes letting people fail in order to see if it’s truly DIY friendly. So- it’s a conscious effort but I’m trying to do it bit by bit, day by day. Other things one can do to let go: stop emailing patrons with your personal work email, create a working group of staff members to serve as team experts on the space, allow yourself time to document and don’t feel guilty about it (hence this blog post).

Spending so much time with customers has been really useful. Here are some trends I’ve noticed already, and you’ll recognize a lot of overlap from my interview with Vancouver Public Library –

  • Retirees tend to come to morning appointments and working professionals in the evening, which usually  corresponds to increasing tech capability throughout the day (but not always)
  • VHS and 35mm slide transfers are the most popular
  • People over-estimate how much they can get done in a 3-hour session.
  • User queries can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 50 minutes based on technical capability and curiosity
  • Some customers prefer consulting printed directions to having to navigate between software and browser windows
  • Saving is the hardest step in the process
  • When scanning film, it is difficult for patrons to identify the front from the back, and patrons are often shocked by the dust and scratches that a high res scan reveals
  • Many patrons want the ability to do simple edits to their audio and video, and to rip movies off of DVDs
  • We have had several requests for 8mm transfer capability

Other general revelations

We have had an incredibly wide range of users come in- artists, cultural heritage professionals, public historians, life-time DCers, students who want a/v experience, those with recently deceased relatives, professors, journalists… every day is another surprise. On top of this, some local organizations have been interested in touring or training in the space as a means of seeing if a transfer station could work for them.

Staff need more hands-on training to feel like competent authorities when helping patrons.

In its current location, the Memory Lab competes with the busiest area in our library (the Digital Commons). Even with the DIY model, patrons in the Lab have to compete with demand on staff from Digital Commons patrons.

How I’m Measuring Things

Acuity Intake Forms – Here I can see if patrons have realistic expectations about what they can do during their appointment. I can also measure the most popular formats transferred, and if a patron is open to donating a digital copy of their work to the library (although we have not formalized this process).

Acuity Reports – I can generate reports on bookings, cancellations, no-shows, total appointments and/or hours book by month or year, and how these compare to the other labs.

In-person Observation & Interviews – I watch people in the space with their permission when I can and ask questions. This has been the most effective way of understanding how to improve DIY usability.

Emailing for feedback – I’ve been emailing a couple of patrons a week for feedback and recording their answers in Slack as well as any changes I made in response to comments.

Slack – This was how the Labs staff was already communicating before the Memory Lab opened. We added a #memorylab channel, and staff are using it to report problems and transfer knowledge between shifts. I’m also using it to report updates or ask questions.

Wiki views – The wiki has had 2,998 views since it was published in February. Although some of this is probably (hopefully) DCPL staff, it shows me that people are finding what I consider to be the heart of the Memory Lab’s online presence.

Feedback from Staff – I conduct iterative oral interviews with Labs staff and ask for feedback from system-wide Librarians and LAs. Questions have been raised about how to serve patrons without computers, if machines are portable and can be loaned to other branches, how we can serve patrons without basic computer skills, and if staff not affiliated with the Labs can come on closed days to train on the machines.

The Last Leg of the Journey: March – June

June marks the end of my fellowship, and it’s really not that far away. Here’s the official workplan created at the beginning of the project for this final period and how I’m addressing each-


Oh man. Memories.

  • host NDSR symposium – Ha! Great timing. Registration begins today.
  • Speak at conferences
    • “Personal Archiving and DCPL’s Memory Lab.” Jaime Mears, Don T. Hawkins. Computers in Libraries 2016, Washington, D.C.
    • Accepted presentation “Making Theory Practical: The NDSR Cohort Shares Their Digital Preservation Experience.” John Caldwell, Jaime Mears, Nicole Contaxis, Valerie Collins, Jessica Tieman. MARAC Spring 2016, Pittsburgh, PA.
    • Accepted presentation “Doing Digital Archives in Public.” Wendy Hagenmaier, Jaime Mears, Eric Milenkiewicz, Jessica Meyerson. SAA Archives * Records 2016, Atlanta, GA.
  • Host public events – By the end of the project, I’ll have done about 15 events at 6 library branches and 4 DC organizations. More on that in a future post.
  • Evaluate – I discussed earlier how I’m evaluating the physical lab, but I still need to consider how to evaluate the impact of programs, the online resource, and staff trainings.
  • Educational programming– I’m currently training 54 Librarians and LAs from around the DCPL system in a SMART goal series on digital preservation. It consists of 3 classes and each staff member has a required deliverable. More on this in a future post as well!
  • Final Report – Yikes. Haven’t started this yet.

Other things I need to do:

  • Continue to improve Lab directions
  • Transfer full Lab operation to Labs staff
  • Finish and publish wiki online resources
  • Bring Betamax deck online
  • Bring 5.25′ floppy online

Stay tuned as I cross the finish line.



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