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Building Bridges: Creating Collaborative Partnerships Between Large and Small Institutions

By Latoya Devezin

Collaborative partnerships between large and small institutions create a platform for organizations with shared goals to work on a project beneficial to both institutions over a specified length of time. When deciding whether a collaborative partnership might work for your organization, it is important to identify common goals, potential benefits, organizational weaknesses, and best practices. Institutional partnerships can create new opportunities for funding, access to technological resources, and staffing; they can also lead to improved community relations and more prospects for collaborative partnerships through increased visibility. The most significant benefit of collaborative partnerships, however, lies in the ability of large and small institutions to attain goals that they could not accomplish by themselves.

For the partnership to work, the organizations involved need to be equal stakeholders. For example, small institutions, like community archives, diversify the historical record and create a more multifarious lens for how cultural heritage institutions collect, preserve, and provide access to the stories of underrepresented groups. Large institutions involved in the preservation of collective memory benefit from the potential to develop new standards for best practices and the chance to distribute a varied narrative that may be missing from their collections. Large institutions can support community archives by providing a space to house archival materials and a digital platform to provide access for the community’s materials, with the community collecting, describing, and deciding how to provide access to its collections.

When creating a mutually beneficial and equitable collaborative partnership for large and small institutions, organizations can consider the following best practices:

  • Ownership and custody of materials and project duration. Every collaboration must contemplate these approaches. Do both organizations share the same goal? For example, if a small community archive and large academic institution form a technological partnership to increase access to cultural heritage collections, who “owns” the materials on the shared technological platform? Is there a deed of gift? Does a transfer of ownership of the materials take place? How does this benefit the community archive? Does the project have a date of completion, or is it ongoing? Who will maintain the digital archive? Who will house the physical materials? Will the organizations adopt a post-custodial model for archival materials? The large institution must understand that potential physical and intellectual control of materials does not equate to cultural control of materials. Cultural ownership remains in the community archive.
  • Project costs and management. Is the project grant funded? Can both organizations apply for the grant? If applying for a grant, is there a project deadline? Who are the project managers? Will both institutions absorb costs for the projects or is only the large institution bearing financial responsibility? What are the staffing costs associated with the project? How are both organizations funded? Can the large institution’s contribution to a project be affected by budget cuts?
  • Adherence to professional standards and institutional policies. Do the partnering institutions share similar professional standards and policies? For example, would an academic repository apply the same archival best practices as the community archive? If not, do we need to reevaluate these standards?
  • Creation of a partnership agreement. A partnership agreement outlines what each organization in the collaboration will contribute, the length of time for the project, staff involved, costs (if any and a breakdown of costs for the institutions), ownership of materials, and how the project will be sustained.

Though we need to reflect on several details in forging collaborative partnerships, the potential reward—completing a project that neither institution could accomplish alone—appears advantageous. As funding resources become scarcer, the ability to work cross-institutionally between small and large organizations remains imperative.

LaToya Devezin is African American Community Archivist at the Austin History Center, in Austin, Texas.

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