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Networking for Greater Results

By Rachel Frick

This week I attended Digital Preservation 2012, the annual meeting of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) hosted by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Although the meeting was stellar (you can learn more about the presentations via the #digpres12 hashtag on twitter and on the conference website), I wanted to take a moment to talk about the NDSA itself.

The NDSA has been ten years in the making. Launched in July 2010 as a follow-up to NDIIPP, NDSA’s mission is “to establish, maintain, and advance the capacity to preserve our nation’s digital resources for the benefit of present and future generations.” This is quite the task. How do you organize, grow, and mobilize a community? How do you make progress toward the goal? How do you make it work?

The NDSA organization is based on the constellation model. Tonya Surman and Mark Surman write that this model is a new way of “organizing collaborative efforts in the social mission sector and shares various elements of the open source model. It emphasizes self-organizing and concrete action within a network of partner organizations working on a common issue.” This innovative way of organizing and coordinating community efforts is powerful in that it focuses on creating value for those in the broader community, external to the partnership, instead of the partnership itself.

By focusing work on personal digital archiving, documenting case studies of digital data loss, creating digital preservation toolkits, raising awareness about preservation outside of the library community, and brokering partnership with industry, the NDSA is creating value that has reach and impact beyond its partners.

The work of the NDSA is achieved by five working groups and lead by an elected coordinating committee. The Library of Congress serves as the secretariat of NDSA and provides program support. This is similar to the organizing structure of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which has a steering committee, chaired by John Palfrey; a secretariat, led by Maura Marx; and six workstreams responsible for planning various aspects of a national digital library.

Both the DPLA and the NDSA are becoming emergent networks. As noted by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze in their article, “Using Emergence to Take Social Innovation to Scale,” these networks are the first stage in enacting transformational social change. From networks come communities of practices that yield systems of influence that are capable of global change.

As problems become more complex, we need creative solutions that bring together our collective effort. When knowledge and expertise are networked, we begin to see new possibilities, and the scale of change and opportunity is greatly increased. A number of recent publications—Interop, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser; Too Big to Know, by David Weinberger; and Networked, by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman—explore how “the network” is changing the way we work and our view of the world.

To address large-scale challenges such as providing open access to the nation’s digital, cultural, and scientific heritage or curating massive amounts of heterogeneous digital research data, we need to think differently about how we engage and organize around the challenge itself. Shifting from our standard linear, hierarchical way of thinking is the first step. I believe the NDSA and the DPLA are on to something, and we should watch and learn, model, and adopt similar strategies.

Amazing things happen when we shift away from thinking individually, locally, top down, in our more traditional approach to solving problems. We need to give ourselves time and space to get used to this new way of problem solving and working together. The NDSA, with its ten years of NDIIPP experience and two years under its belt is well on its way of becoming a great example of how we can “network” for greater results.

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