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Missed Connections

One of the best things about CLIR’s immersion in the educational, information, and cultural professions is an ongoing chance to be inspired by people who spend their time preparing for a better world. Often working within tight financial constraints, students, teachers, librarians, archivists, curators, and technologists make remarkable moments happen—bringing people together with histories, cultures, and ideas—nourishing our minds so that we might grow.

Lately I find myself doubly grateful for the privilege of these connections. This week, thousands of librarians across the country prepare to travel to the American Library Association’s annual conference in Orlando. The ALA and its members are looking for ways to show support for and solidarity with Orlando’s people while there (just as some have already started to do), in addition to doubling their efforts to ensure that all meeting participants feel safe.

Prior to the conference, the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) has their annual pre-conference in Coral Gables, where collaboration, outreach, and diversity will be the primary themes. We’ll be considering all the ways our collecting institutions engage with one another, and with the communities that surround us. I’ve been looking forward to attending this gathering for some time. During the past several weeks, it’s been a great pleasure to spend time talking with two talented women, Verónica Reyes-Escudero and Maria Estorino, as we plan the event’s concluding panel. The three of us have agreed that we want to leave attendees with a sense of empowerment; we want to reinforce a sense of shared responsibility for the vital work of building diverse collections and establishing respectful, reciprocal partnerships with the communities represented in those collections.

Much of my preparation has been to reflect on CLIR’s eight years of work on behalf of Hidden Collections, thinking of the impact of the variety of initiatives our recipients have undertaken, as well as our responsibility for making such efforts possible. Projects like Out West, a collaboration between the ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries and the GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco, are particularly on my mind. The opportunity to involve communities in the assembly and documentation of their personal stories can be a transformative experience for citizens and organizations alike, connecting us to ourselves and one another in profound ways. But bringing different people together around collections can be complicated. More and more, librarians and archivists have been talking openly about these complexities. There is a lot we could learn at CLIR from these conversations.

I’ve been considering the design of our program calls, our administrative processes, and review criteria for Hidden Collections. These have changed in a number of ways over the program’s eight-year history, and we expect they will continue to evolve. Thinking about this evolution, CLIR staff have been discussing the challenges embedded in some of our digitization program’s “Core Values” statements, a topic I’ve addressed in this space before.

When we introduced this program we chose to make explicit statements about the central ideas motivating our program; we expected these issues to become top of mind for members of our review panel, and to factor heavily in their decisions. We labeled each issue with one word, to make them easy for applicants to remember. Currently these one-word labels are: scholarship, comprehensiveness, connectedness, collaboration, sustainability, and openness.

We don’t think of our “Values” as requirements, or barriers to participation: these are simply signals to applicants of the kinds of things that resonate with reviewers. They aren’t really in place to include, or to exclude, anyone. We try to define the concepts in ways that are clear enough to be helpful, yet broad enough for our constituents working in diverse contexts to adapt to their own priorities. But our definitions work better for some than for others.

“Scholarship,” for example, we present as our primary criterion—this was true of the original Cataloging Hidden Collections competition and remains its strongest emphasis today. But how can we determine fairly what collections are significant enough to merit national or international scholarly attention, suitable for CLIR’s national-level program? Each applicant has the opportunity to make a case for how their collection will help create new knowledge, but those with locally focused collections have to make a serious effort to tie their work to broader contexts. This is very achievable—a local community’s experience can tell a nationally significant story—it’s just that in order to connect these sorts of dots, previous grant writing experience counts a lot. Take “Collaboration”: what if you can’t find partners who share your interests, timeframe, and priorities? The more different that partner organizations are from one another, the more difficult negotiating these issues becomes. What about “Sustainability”? If you can’t already demonstrate that you have the capacity to preserve and make your collections accessible for the long-term, reviewers may question the wisdom of making an investment in your work. What about “Openness”? Many applicants who want to maximize accessibility to their collections appreciate this explicit emphasis. Some, however, do their work in partnership with communities with rights and interests in the collections; community representatives may need to participate in decisions about what to make accessible, and what to restrict. In what ways might CLIR’s emphasis on “Openness” become a deterrent for those attempting to work in partnership with cultural groups? Our choices of words have consequences, and not always the ones we intend.

I’ll continue to reflect on these questions on my journey south, trying to listen for and perhaps come to understand some of the connections between our professional responsibilities and our society’s much larger struggle to live up to our own standards of equality and respect.

Christa Williford is director of research and assessment at CLIR.

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