Work, Play & Learn! Using libraries for Social Learning, Impact and Collaboration

The digital information and knowledge paradigm in the 21st century requires skills such as digital literacy, critical thinking, problem solving, skills in communication, and collaboration for overcoming present social and digital inequalities. Those skills go beyond pure technological affordances and they could easily be obtained through collaborative learning practices and social interaction between individuals from different backgrounds and areas of expertise.

Libraries, as environments for social learning and collaboration, present facilitators of education and knowledge. With accelerating dissemination of information in a digital age, libraries emphasise their activities on providing an information commons. In other words, an informal interactive learning place that encourages its visitors to communicate, contribute, participate, and engage with the library. This new dynamic leads towards a collaborative, social construction, and sharing of information and knowledge.

One of the researchers at the Urban Informatics Research Lab at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), interaction designer and interactive technology developer Mark Bilandzic, explores how informal learning environments can support the social side of learning, as well as how smart space technology can be designed to enhance social learning among users? As a part of Bilandzic’s research, he designed a system with the purpose of enhancing awareness of opportunities for social learning and collaboration – called “Gelatine”.

Gelatine, is a check-in system which Bilandzic developed in collaboration with the The Edge, the Digital Culture Centre and collaboration space at the State Library of Queensland. In order to promote the vision of the library as a public place for collaboration which overcomes social barriers – such as naturally limited interactions between strangers, or simply not knowing “who knows what”. Bilandzic’s team examined how ambient media can augment the library’s physical manifestation to facilitate shared encounters between library users. These users could potentially benefit from meeting each other due to shared interests or complementary knowledge.


Gelatine is developed as a real-time ambient media installation which facilitates serendipitous cross-disciplinary discoveries from people who work side-by-side, communicating digital information in the physical environment. It makes invisible social aspects of a library space visible, by displaying and communicating its users’ backgrounds, skills, interests, and availability – on the installed public screens in the library building.

The aim of Gelatine is to allow users to connect, if they so choose, based on their individual skills, needs and interests, whereas normally they would be limited to only friends and acquaintances who may not have the knowledge or expertise they require. The main goal, as Bilandzic indicates, is to nurture and grow a knowledge community – i.e. facilitate each individual library user to acquire new and complementary knowledge and skills as a result of face-to-face encounters and interaction with other library users, and vice versa. This would enable each user to display their skills, and hence become a potential learning facilitator for others in the space.

Those users who sign in to Gelatine can edit their skills, needs and interests through an online profile page, and confirm their presence when they arrive in the library by swiping their mobile phones or membership on a “Checkin-Point” – i.e. a network controlled RFID/NFC reader box.

RFID/NFC checkin box
RFID/NFC checkin box

Information on the screen is continuously updated in real-time according to the profiles of those users who check in at a time. Bilandzic explains, “the visualisation is time sensitive, i.e. skills, needs, and interests of users who have checked in most recently are displayed in bigger font-size in the top left corner and decrease in size and position towards the bottom-right corner for check-ins further in the past. If a user is interested in a particular skill, they can tap on the respective keyword and a pop-up window.”

Based on open-source hardware and software, using Do-It-Yourself electronic components (, Gelatine uses the Creative Commons 2.0 design principle, putting an emphasis on designing library spaces that accommodate collaborations, meetings, social hangouts, and comfortable work.

Libraries world wide have a huge potential to facilitate open and free sharing and human interaction in an innovated design. They may use shared physical spaces which can bridge social and spatial barriers, enabling users from very different backgrounds to engage and share in social learning activities.

Mark Bilandzic shares more information in an interview with Dan from Australian Science:

Further information on Bilandzic and references:

Twitter: @kavasmlikon, blog:


Presentation with full description of Gelatine:

Video interview transcript:

Interviewer: Mark, thank you so much for doing this interview. What I would like to do is just introduce you to our readers. Just tell us a little about yourself, a little bit about your work and the significance of today’s date.

Mark: Yes, it was a big day for me. Well, I am Mark Bilandzic. I just finished my PhD in a very exciting field called Urban Informatics. So it is about designing future technologies for urban public places. My particular place of focus is learning environments, in particular public library environments. So the PhD was about understanding how we can design smart space technologies, future technologies to improve social learning in public library environments.

Interviewer: So your invention, so to speak, is called Gelatine. Tell us a little bit more about what it actually implies.

Mark: Yes, Gelatine was one of my design interventions. It has evolved as part of my research. I realized through my field work, in my case study library environment, that people who go there don’t really talk to people they don’t know. I thought this was a lack of opportunity, because a lot of creative people from diverse backgrounds come to the library and work on interesting stuff. But no one talks to each other. So it is like hanging out at a bus stop, and I wanted to change that.
So I was thinking about a design intervention, which turned out to be Gelatine. It is a check-in system, where every library visitor has a check-in card, which he swipes when they enter the space. That check-in is registered by a simple switch in the library, so you very much leave digital footprints in the library when you enter the space. And this footprint, you can specify your skills, your knowledge, as well as expertise that you would like to share with others and also questions that you have to the broader community, you know, how can other people can help you.
Well, there are two public screens that are part of the Gelatine installation, which basically they aggregate all the information, all the digital footprints, and reflect how other people, who are in the space right now, help me. So what are their areas of expertise? The second screen tells me how can I possibly help others, how can I engage with others and be a learning resource to them?

Interviewer: To me it sounds like you are providing a scaffolding environment or a bridge between physical space and social interactions and learning. If I am understanding you correctly, your role is to build the foundation for people to interact on. Would that be a correct description of the purpose of the device?

Mark: Yes, I think so. You can scaffold, but I think it is a step before it. In order to engage in collaboration and scaffolding, you need to identify a person that you can scaffold with, and that identification is quite hard if you don’t know the people next to you. You have similar environments in co-working spaces or organizations with thousands of people working. But you don’t necessarily know what your colleague next door is doing.
So what Gelatine really does, it’s making the invisible visible. It is aggregating the social capital that is around you in a space and visualizing it on a public screen. There is a lot of serendipity involved. People can browse the information on the screen, and they can say, “Oh, there is someone who knows about photography. I want to learn photography.” So you can approach this person and then you engage in scaffolding and collaborative learning.

Interviewer: Right. So Gelatine is a selected device that aids serendipitous encounters, brings people together and help them collaborate.

Mark: That is a very good description.

Interviewer: Today after your presentation and seminar, people were asking where your research takes you further. And one of my questions that I was bursting to ask, but I was letting others ask instead was: Are you considering a digital or virtual equivalent of the printouts that you have. I understand that the printouts are kind of a never really aligned with the physical space. In a physical space, you enter a room, a library environment and you see a little printout with your [inaudible 05:10]. So tell me little bit about first of all the profile creation, and why didn’t you select simply use Facebook, Google+, or Twitter to aggregate the user data. And the second part is: Do you intend to bring these little sticky notes in to a virtual environment where people can browse through the skill sets and experiences on a iPad, for example, rather than standing in front of this huge screen.

Mark: Okay. Very interesting questions. In regards to the first question, there is this notion that people are screen blind. When you go through the city, there are a lot of public screens, lot of advertisements. There are a lot of electronic billboards. So we are bombarded through these digital media and public screens in our everyday life environment. So people became a bit screen blind. I realized that  Gelatine, and I said screens are well enough, but what I will do is I will create these little printouts. So using a thermal printer that you might see at Coles or at Woolworth’s, and using paper to represent display digital information. What I really found is that it attracts a bit more attention than a public screen. So just something that people haven’t quite experienced yet.
An interesting thing is that people browsed through them and treated them pretty much like a screen, but not interacting with a digital artifact, just interacting with paper. It is much more what humans have learned to do through their lifetimes.

Why did I not use Facebook or Twitter or any of the media that are already out there? I think these types of media have a purpose for existence. They do great things. They connect people over distances, and they do this very well. So they are very popular. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel there. These types of media are great. But what I was trying to do here was different. I did not try to use technology to connect people over distance or bridging physical distance. I was trying to use technology to connect people who are already collocated or who use the same space. And therefore, I didn’t intend to build yet another website or yet another mobile phone application. I wanted to merge the technology with the architecture of the place. So I ended up with public screens and little printouts.

Interviewer: Apart from The Edge, do you intend to trial this anywhere else? Where would you like to see it in the future?

Mark: Well, I started with The Edge as great case study environment, which is part of the State Library [of Queensland], and this was the focus for my PhD. I think in future there are a lot of other environments that could benefit outside of library environments. Most particularly coworking spaces; there is big trend of coworking spaces mushrooming all across the globe. I think exponential growth since 2006, according to some statistics. And this is pretty much people from all sorts of backgrounds working together because they want to experience this social learning and get some ideas to be inspired, talk to people and be part of a buzzing, exciting social environment. So I see Gelatin in these types of places, again to make invisible, interesting social aspects of a space visible, hence providing ice breakers for conversations and identifying interesting conversation partners.

Interviewer: So as far as the Gelatine goes, is this an invention of Mark Bilandzic, or is it the invention of QUT or the Urban Informatics research lab?

Mark: QUT and Urban Informatics are great environments. You get a lot of inspiration from just hanging out and talking to very exciting and smart colleagues. But I think it evolved as sort of both. So I had this great research environment, but being exposed and doing participatory design with users at The Edge, I came up with the design concept. I think I was inspired by a lot of people in my environment, both in the lab, as well as through my field research at The Edge.
Basically, the building and the design concept was shaped through a iterative process of participatory design with users. Yes, I had the first idea of it, but the actual end product, as it is standing right here, is more like a collaborative effort of myself as a designer as well as users shaping the design themselves.

Interviewer: Okay. It was great Mark. Make a wish. What would you wish for? It is a tough one.

Mark: Yes, it is a tough one. In terms of what?

Interviewer: Project.

Mark: In terms of Gelatine?

Interviewer: Gelatine or anything else that might spin out of it.

Mark: Right. I think Gelatine as a project just scratches the surface of what is actually possible. I used very, very low tech DIY technology. They are all electronics, microcontrollers and open source DIY stuff that you can buy for around 35 or 40 bucks, as well as cheap methods to construct the boxes, laser cutting and these types of things. What I want to achieve, because it is so cheap, what I would actually like to see is an open source movement. So you can download the code from the Internet. It’s all on GitHub. I would love to see the community pick up on this. So everyone downloading their own versions of Gelatine and modifying them for the particular places they want to use it in. So modify it for the organizational setting, modify it for an academic library, modify it for little small public village libraries, modify it for coworking spaces. For businesses in the community. I would love to see this as a community project, everyone develop their own things but then keep sharing it back onto GitHub and maintain this as a community and open source project, and see what happens. I think open source and community projects are the best way to go and nourish these types of initiatives.

Interviewer: I think if it takes off and others jump on it, there will be a really, really rewarding experience for you to see, other little projects from that. Mark, thank you very much for your time. Best of luck pursuing your further studies and congratulations on a fantastic seminar and PhD.

Mark: Thank you very much. Cheers.


1 thought on “Work, Play & Learn! Using libraries for Social Learning, Impact and Collaboration

Comments are closed.