Innovation from the cradle

I recently visited our Collection Care department over at John Rylands Library and got interested in the Innovation Process behind Project Cradle- using technology we were already using elsewhere to refine a long standing process. I asked Elaine Sheldon, the Conservator behind the project about how the Project came to be.

Project Cradle

What kicked off the Innovation process that led to Project Cradle?

I studied at the Royal College of Art, and worked as a designer prior to working in Conservation. Designing a flat, adhesive free cradle struck me as a great opportunity to use my skills. I put the idea forward at an away day organised by the Collection Care manager (at the time) Caroline Checkley- Scott. Caroline supported the idea which allowed us to progress it. 

The idea was developed in collaboration with my colleague Mark Furness. Mark had received  training  on writing parametrics for the library’s ‘Kasemake’ box making machine. Mark has developed the parametric that we are currently using.


The box making machine used to make the new cradles

What sort of innovation processes did you use in Project Cradle- brainstorming, horizon scanning etc? Did you get any input from outside the Library?

 I applied the design process I always use – I wrote a brief, I did some research which included looking at other cradles and I made some models.  I also created a mini  presentation to explain the idea to colleagues and a set of instructions so that other people can draw book profiles which can be sent to us. This has allowed us to work on a pilot project with the Wellcome Trust creating cradles for one of their current exhibitions.


How much time do you save using the new cradles? Any other major benefits?

A cradle can take a few hours to make by hand, cradles made using the new system take much less time (approximately thirty minutes). The cradles can be laid out together on a sheet of museum board, this keeps material waste to a minimum. 

The cradles pack flat allowing them to be transported Internationally when books go out on loan. No glue is used in the cradles assembly so there is no drying time, cradles can be put together and put straight into the display case with the book.

Are there any difficulties with the new cradles?

Designing a flat cradle was my initial brief. I don’t like angled cradles for a variety of reasons – mainly because books are generally better supported flat. We do have some older display cases at the library (in the Rylands gallery) that require angled cradles/mounts. The mounts that are used in these cases are currently still made by hand.

Did you have to “go back to the drawing board” at any point and if so why?

The design process produced lots of ideas, one of the reasons we decided to use the box making machine was because Marks parametric knowledge.

Other ideas  included using air drying materials and 3d printing. I also wanted to explore the potential of  making a cradle from an uploaded photograph of an open book profile. The direction the  project eventually took was based on the resources and equipment we had in the department.


Sense of re-purpose

This morning  Facebook was trying to tell me how to make an Ottoman out of plastic bottles. The craft pages I like are constantly trying to tell me what I can do with old bottles, glass or plastic, and how to turn things that I don’t need any more into bright and shiny new things. I can barely turn round without being told how to make an old lotion bottle into a phone charger cradle or  waterproof umbrella holders out of old water bottles.

This makes sense- we use far more things than ever and have a greater awareness of the need to dispose of items responsibly- whether we reuse, re-purpose or recycle them. In addition, re-purposing items can also be a great way to innovate.


About 30 miles south of Edinburgh is the village of Oxton, where they have re-purposed their old red telephone box into a defibrillator station. This is a brilliant way to make sure a highly visible public space is still benefiting the community even after everyone has landlines and mobile phones.

So next time you think you need to get rid of something that perhaps isn’t needed any more have a think first about whether you can use it to support something new. I think I’ve found a good target for re-purposing – I wonder what we could do with this?





Innovation in the field(s)

I recently visited the Field Test Exhibition in the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin.  The exhibition concentrated on innovations and issues in  agriculture and was spread over two floors. The exhibits were varied, with some involving interaction and others that were displays of information. Examples include the reuse of coffee grinds to grow oyster mushrooms, recordings of insect noises and Lullaby Milk– where the cows are milked before dawn to enhance the amount of melatonin in the milk- which was being marketed as an aid to natural sleep.  There were plenty members of staff on hand to answer questions about the exhibits.

Bees were featured more than once, which makes sense since the survival of bees is currently a major issue.  Bees are in danger from human caused threats such as pesticide and if they die humans will be likely to follow shortly after from the disruption to our food supplies.  One third of our food is pollination dependant so it’s unsurprising that several of the Field Test items focused on bees. Robobees are tiny lightweight robotic insects developed at Harvard that have a number of potential applications, including the pollination of fields. One of the other innovations was referred to as Tinder for Bees, which allows members of the public to help identify possible threats to the hive by classifying images from monitoring devices installed in hives.  These will then be used to form algorithms which will in turn help identify threats to automatically.


One of the exhibits displayed information about seed banks and how certain hybrids can only be bought from suppliers as their own seeds don’t breed true.There was also a seed bank vending machine, which issued a mystery seed pack for a Euro. Each of the seeds in the vending machine came with a slip of paper explaining more about the seeds enclosed.

Outside the gallery was the Loci food lab- I was asked to choose three words to define what key features I preferred my food to have, and a specially designed bite was provided according to my choices. (Sadly, since I’m not in the habit of posting pictures of my lunch on social media, I ate it before it occurred to me to take a photo.)  The taste was interesting and came with a print out of my personalised menu, along with a breakdown of how many other people had visited the lab (over 6000) and how many others had chosen the same attributes as me. By far the most popular keyword was “delicious” although, as the person assembling the bite admitted, delicious can mean very different things to different people.

Field Test is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in Dublin. If not you can read more about the exhibits here.

Can you break down the barriers to learning, teaching and research?

Do you have an idea for how technology can support access and inclusion for the UK’s learners, staff and researchers?

Students using a PC
JISC are running a competition ‘Accessible by Design‘, inviting you to pitch ideas which could overcome accessibility issues and improve the experience for learners and researchers.

The winning idea receives £5000 in funding and support from JISC to turn concept into a reality. Video pitches must be submitted via the JISC Elevator page before 26th October.

Recent ideas include a more accessible version of YouTube and an ebook to capture the digital stories of students with Specific Learning Difficulties. For further inspiration have a look at some of the ideas which have been submitted to recent JISC Elevator projects.

Information about the competition can be found on the pages below:

If you would like any help submitting an idea contact the Innovation Group and we’d be happy to help.

Lecture: “Engineered in your Imagination”

Yesterday I attended the Welcome Week Distinguished Lecture on “Engineered in your Imagination” by Danielle George, Professor in Radio Frequency Engineering and Dean of Teaching and Learning.

Kicking off with a floppy disc drive chorus playing the Batman theme tune, Professor George talked us through some of her previous projects and how our technology is considered both disposable and a closed box. She challenged us, a lecture hall mainly filled by engineering students, to start considering what we can do with our old technology rather than throwing it away.

She talked about how she ended up doing her first degree in Astrophysics but had since realised that the two subjects she loved, Maths + Physics = Engineering and moreover that How + Why = Engineering. She talked to us about light and wireless technology and about pushing the limits with basic technology. For example, pushing the boundaries with potatoes and apples or her own experience calling the International Space Station using her smartphone as part of the 2014 Royal Institution‘s Christmas Lectures.

Most of this talk focused on challenges: the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering, the challenges she has worked on, the challenges she has given to her students- which included the floppy drive re-purposing- and the challenges she gave to us as an audience. She suggested that we try to use an old phone or LEDs to experiment with, demonstrating how a 36 x 36 grid of LEDs could be rigged up to perform quite complex displays, even displaying the feed from a web camera.

Engineer 3

Although (unlike the majority of the audience) I am not an engineer, I did start thinking through all the old pieces of broken electronic equipment I have hoarded because I didn’t want to just throw it away because it was ineligible for, or difficult to, recycle. What could I build out of the various old phones, laptop, Game Boy or cassette player I haven’t got organised to take for disposal? Or could I manage to build a member of the robotic orchestra that she invited us to help build as part of Manchester being the city of Euroscience 2016. As she said the only limit on the question “what can I do?” is the questioner’s imagination.

I do think that there is a reluctance amongst people to try to fix or alter products that have been presented to them as finished. Whether it is because we are afraid after years of being told that taking the lid off is invalidating the guarantee, or just that we have become accustomed to alteration being something that someone else does, we don’t do it. While I am happy altering most physical items I tend not to try with electronics- partly because I don’t know where to start and partly because with two bad electric shocks under my belt this is an area I feel it might not be wise for me to dabble in. But maybe it’s time I started finding out more about how to safely re-purpose my obsolete technology. With the number of maker spaces and blogs about how other people have re-purposed things out there there is plenty of support for anyone looking to learn more.

This was an absolutely brilliant lecture that really fired the imagination. I’m really glad that they opened it to staff as well as students and that a colleague drew my attention to it. Professor George’s lecture was a great way to start the new term with a fresh enthusiasm for trying and you can follow her her on Twitter @engineerDG.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find a potato and some LEDs.

Lancaster University Visit – Jolt!


Based on our very own Eureka! Library Innovation Challenge event “Jolt the Library” was a collaboration between Lancaster University’s Library and Innovation Hub. The central idea was to find an innovative idea to improve the student experience at their Library. Lorraine Beard and I were delighted to share our knowledge as project leader and project sponsor of Eureka! and consulted with staff at Lancaster on how to make the afternoon a success. We of course attended the final and were given a warm welcome by the event organisers. If you’d like to know more about the day and see which student idea scooped the top prize of £1000 take a look at Lancaster University Library’s competition page.

Taster: The BBC’s home of new ideas

BBC Taster

I really like the new BBC Taster service which was launched earlier this year as a place to test innovative new BBC content.

There are over a dozen projects to play with on the site and anyone can try them out. Each has a shelf life, warning how long they’re going to remain on the site.

The projects range from Weather Bot (ask us about the weather, we’re British after all), Responsive Radio (curate your own radio show) to Cat Watch (seeing the world through cats eyes).

BBC Taster

The service encourages users to rate content, and to share it with a wider circle – showing that the BBC takes the audience opinions seriously.

Could we do something like this in the Library? How would it help us? 

  • Encourage our audience to have conversations about our projects on our own website rather than one social media
  • Involve our audience at the start of projects rather than at the pilot or launch stage
  • Gather views and feedback quickly
  • Create a sense of openness about our innovative ideas

Try BBC Taster for yourself