01
Sep
09

SAA Research Forum: collaboration for the greater good

My presentation at the 2009 SAA Research Forum was “Sharing for the Greater Good: Outreach and Collaboration from the Perspective of Community-Based Archives,” which was an attempt to bring attention to collaboration between large and small memory institutions. You can read the abstract here.  

Following the initial shock of actually being selected to participate in the forum, I realized that there was much I wanted to say and very little time (10 minutes to be exact) to say it. I attempted to explore the process of creating a successful collaborative partnership, using the Collaboration Continuum created by Gunter Waibel in the now-famous report “Beyond the Silos of the LAMs.” While the OCLC report was meant as a high-level analysis of primarily intra-insititutional collaboration, I felt that the continuum could be applied to many local-level projects and relationships between libraries, archives, and museums.

For example, Digital Forsyth is a county-wide collaborative digitization project bringing together LAMs for a common goal. The technical and grantwriting expertise of Wake Forest University was key to the creation of the project, while Forsyth County Public Library, Old Salem Museum and Gardens, and Winston-Salem State University provided the content depth. All of this was done without the smaller institutions feeling obligated to donate their materials to Wake Forest. As a result, the DF website has become the new archive of visual history of Forsyth County, undefined by physical or institutional boundaries.

I believe that these boundaries can be blurred, indeed erased, by the formation of digital archives/libraries/museums. Through the creation of topical/geographic digital LAMs, we can permit greater access and findability to the researcher/patron/end-user. This carries great significance for community-based archives, who can keep their records in cultural and geographic context. Communities and individuals can re-define their context artificially and create new archives without diminishing or erasing historical/evidential/documentary/cultural value.

By including records and collections in subject-based archives (like the Walt Whitman Archive) or union catalogs/federated searches (like ArchiveGrid or OAIster), multiple points of access — and description — can be conceived. Some archivists ponder the interest of non-archivists in such a project. I think “non-archivists,” particularly those coming from community-based archives, would welcome the opportunity for autonomy and laying claim to their records online.

Problems arise when we consider the lack of physical preservation and digitization resources available to these community-based archives. That’s where larger institutions come into the picture: to collaborate “for the greater good.” I think the state of North Carolina is headed in a very positive direction with the Traveling Archivist program and the NC Digital Heritage Center (see previous post), both of which focus on smaller, community-based memory institutions. Smaller institutions can then take the initiative to make contact with larger institutions and be responsible for their community’s history being represented (if they so choose).

I guess my ramblings demonstrate the largeness of my topic, and the overall squishiness of my argument. I believe collaboration can be much more than a buzzword. Between the large and small repositories I can see convergence, which the Collaboration Continuum notes as the high-investment, high-risk, high-benefit result of a successful partnership. Through it, both actors are responsible for their roles and become intertwined in a mutually-beneficial relationship and at least one “common function.”

I plan to post a paper exploring my topic in a bit more detail for the forum proceedings later this month. I hope to make better sense of all this by then!

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