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Toward a More Inclusive Grant Program

This is the fourth post in a five-part series called “Five Years of Listening” on the evolution of the Digitizing Hidden Collections program.

—By Nicole Kang Ferraiolo 

Most people know what they mean when they talk about inclusion, yet it remains one of the trickiest words to define. It can be understood in the broadest terms as well as specifically, perhaps most commonly when it is used in relation to diversity and equity. It’s also personal, shaped by the ways we or the people we care about have been left out. CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Collections program, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is deeply committed to cultivating a more representative array of information resources and a more inclusive work environment for the stewards of our shared history. Over the past five years, staff have listened to a plurality of perspectives on inclusion and have tried to address as many of them as make sense in the context of this program. What follows is a partial, yet protracted, overview of the ways we have thought about issues related to inclusion, and our concrete–if imperfect—attempts to apply them to the grant program.

In line with CLIR’s mission, the Digitizing Hidden Collections program was designed to be as broadly inclusive as possible. The very mission of the program was to reveal hidden collections and make them openly accessible to new and larger user bases, thereby making the research and discovery process more inclusive. From an administrative perspective, the program was organized around an open call for proposals with no cost-share requirements. The program was bounded by its purpose to digitize rare and unique materials, but within those bounds, applicants could be any nonprofit or equivalent institution, and could be based anywhere in the US (or in Canada, in the case of institutions partnering on the project). Applicants could propose any topic or material/digital format, and use any standard or methodology. While there was no guarantee that submitted proposals would be selected for funding, they would be eligible for consideration by our independent review panel as long as the applications were completed correctly.

While we still retain those broadly inclusive eligibility requirements, more recently we’ve experimented with adjusting our guidelines to make it easier for applicants themselves to express how their proposed projects have sought to be inclusive.

Labor, Compensation, and Contingency

In the latter years of Cataloging Hidden Collections (which ran from 2008 to 2014) and in the initial cycle of Digitizing Hidden Collections, CLIR strongly recommended that all staff positions supported by its grants exist exclusively for the purpose and duration of the project. The recommendation was intended to deter institutions from using grant funds to support permanent positions, which the review panel believed should be covered by more sustainable funding sources. It also enabled many of the project employees hired through these cataloging grants to use their contingent positions as a launch pad for careers in special collections and archives. Nevertheless, institutions faced difficult staffing transitions when winding down a grant-funded project. Recipients of our cataloging grants often reported scrambling for support to retain their employee(s) hired through the project. The projects also experienced high rates of staff turnover as the result of short-term hires seeking more stable employment. In recent years, the LIS community has grown more vocal about the negative effects of contingent labor on individuals. In response, we removed the short-term staffing recommendation in 2016, encouraging applicants to determine the appropriate labor needs for their projects and institutional contexts. We have also scaled back the emphasis on “efficiency” in the program guidelines, to reduce the potential for misinterpreting “efficiency” as “undercompensation.” To help applicants consider these issues, our colleagues at CLIR’s Digital Library Federation (DLF) program helped us create applicant toolkits, with one specifically dedicated to the issue of institutional capacity and community.

Community Engagement
During the initial cycle, in response to a number of proposals claiming that digitized materials would be made available to “the public,” one of our reviewers threw up her hands in frustration and asked, “which publics?!” We began to talk about how the program could encourage applicants to think more deliberately about their community of users and tailor their outreach to them. In subsequent versions of the guidelines, we changed our “Marketing and Outreach” question to “Outreach and Community Engagement.” Applicants were asked to identify the specific communities most likely to be interested in the proposed collections and to design outreach approaches appropriate for each user group. We added space for applicants to describe measures taken to improve accessibility for specific user communities, such as the visually or hearing impaired, users with limited internet access, or foreign language speakers. We added prompts related to the ethics of sharing digitized content and began strongly encouraging applicants working with Native American, First Nations, or other indigenous communities to convene a community advisory group and compensate them appropriately. In recent years, applicants have been able to submit optional letters of community support. These were designed for applicants proposing to digitize collections that document historically marginalized groups, and to help reviewers understand how community members will participate in conversations about how the proposed records will be described and made accessible. In cases where a formal collaborative partnership between institutions or groups would be present, CLIR has also built protections into the guidelines to promote more transparent and equitable partnerships.

Diversity and Equity

At the encouragement of our review committee and Mellon Foundation officers, CLIR added a prompt for a required Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) question, which itself has evolved over the years. What has remained consistent about our EDI statement is its focus on the grant project, rather than the institution. We wanted applicants to think about how EDI relates to digitization, how the proposed project could increase inclusion of underrepresented communities in the historical record, and how it would reach new audiences and broaden access. The question also asks how the proposed project will encourage the participation of people with underrepresented perspectives in project activities and how these efforts will be supported by the applicant institution. Specifically, we hoped PIs would be inspired to consider how grant funds could be used to help diversify the profession. We also sought to clarify some of the language used in our prompt, defining “underrepresented,” for the purposes of our program, as groups that are underrepresented in the historical record and among cultural heritage practitioners. Meanwhile, we tried to be more specific in our examples of underrepresented groups, which we say “include—but are not limited to— persons with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and people of Hispanic or Latino, Black or African-American, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, First Nations, American Indian, or Alaskan Native descent.”

Meanwhile, we made a concerted effort to add people of color to our review panels and currently have 45-55% people of color on the panels for both Digitizing Hidden Collections and its sibling program, Recordings at Risk. I’m not sure if this is the right balance, and we certainly could push further, but the current demographics on the panels is orders of magnitude more racially diverse than it was five years ago. When I think about why this change matters, the example that comes to mind is from a blog post written by the founders of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), who were told by other grantmakers that their work was “too niche.” SAADA has as its mission to preserve the stories of South Asian Americans, who make up about 1% of the entire US population and come from or are descended from a region of the world with a population of 1.89 billion. Had individuals of South Asian descent been  in the room while the SAADA proposal was being discussed, the reviewer(s) who identified the history of an entire large ethnic community as “too niche” might have realized how this comment sounded. Had more people of color been present, perhaps someone would have had the confidence to make the case for why the history of minority populations is significant and point out the fallacy of assuming that people only care about histories that align with their own identities. While people of color are still very much a minority in GLAM professions, there are many more potential reviewers of color than there are positions to fill. There is no excuse for funders to assemble panels that do not include meaningful representation and participation from groups that have, until very recently, been left out of the conversation about who and what merits funding.

Because Hidden Collections makes awards to institutions, rather than individuals, institutional diversity has also been a primary consideration of the program. There are inherent challenges for reviewers when vastly different types of institutions apply for the same pool of funds. For instance, a community-based archive will have very different expertise and resources available to it than will an R1 academic library. After noticing how university-heavy our recipient list was in the first two years of the program, we began sharing statistics with our review panel on the rates of advancement of different institution types, to remind them as they considered proposals. In recent years, the program has met our goal for all institution types to have comparable funding rates when competing against institutions of the same type. We took a similar approach for the geographic diversity of institutions. Hidden Collections’ framework to incentivize collaborations between multiple organizations has also helped increase the diversify of the institution types funded by the program.

Application Process

What does it mean to have an inclusive grant program if the funding rate is less than 15%, as in the case for Digitizing Hidden Collections? Part of what makes our low funding rate so uncomfortable for program staff is the length of our application when coupled with the amount of work required to submit a competitive one. We’ve tried to move much of the supplemental application materials (e.g., letters of support, service provider quotes) to the second round of the program, but even answering the core application questions can feel like producing an academic article. What’s more, every time the program adds a question or requirement, it takes more work to submit a proposal, and thereby makes our program, on the whole, a little less accessible. As a staff, we must continue to keep this in mind when revising the guidelines and explore new ways to reduce the burden on applicants. Given the program’s relatively low funding rate, we encourage resubmissions from applicants whose proposals weren’t able to be funded initially. The iterative review process has been designed to create a productive dialog between applicants and their proposals’ reviewers, and this collaboration often yields even stronger projects.

Otherwise, we try to offer as much support to applicants as we can within our staff capacity. We answer every email sent to the program account ( and try to attend a variety of conferences in different locations to maximize opportunities to meet applicants in person. Each cycle, we hold three applicant webinars, including two dedicated to Q&A with program staff. We’ve augmented the page on our website dedicated to applicant resources. Among these resources are sample applications from funded projects, a GoogleDocs template that applicants can use to work on their draft proposals, and a wiki with robust information on external digitization resources. We’ve posted toolkits on the topics that have proven most challenging for previous applicants; these include recorded interviews with CLIR staff and members of the review panel and links to a few relevant readings. Meanwhile, our guidelines include “Why We Ask” sections to help applicants better understand the intentions behind each question. Our goal was to make the program accessible to all prospective applicants, including those who may not have grantseeking infrastructure or support available within their institution. In cases where another funding program might be a better fit, we do our best to point applicants toward those opportunities. 


The idea of inclusive grantmaking is somewhat of a contradiction: an open grant application is by its nature a competition, and thus it is, by design, exclusive. Perhaps that’s why this issue of inclusion has mattered so much to our grants team and to most funders. So many individuals and groups have been excluded from sources of funding, for reasons that are both intentional or inadvertent. Sometimes this is due to chance, fashion, a mismatch of priorities, or the qualifications of the competition. Sometimes it’s due to systematic biases that often become clear only in hindsight. Sometimes it’s all of the above. Most program officers at grantmaking institutions got into the business to try to make the world a better place, and in the process of doing so, design a better grant program. The efforts Digitizing Hidden Collections has made to create a more inclusive program are incomplete, imperfect, and at times paradoxical, but I’m glad we’re trying. Inclusion as a goal runs the risk of being defined so broadly that it loses meaning, yet under the rubric of inclusion lie some of the most pressing and deeply rooted challenges we face as a society. CLIR’s grants team continues to be grateful to our community and review panel for helping us think through these issues and identify steps we can take to make the grant funding landscape a little more inclusive. It’s still a work in progress.


If you have feedback or ideas to share about Digitizing Hidden Collections and/or Recordings at Risk, or general thoughts for CLIR’s grantmaking team, you can submit them here or write to or

The Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives program is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


Read earlier posts in the series:

  1. Five Years of Listening, Jan. 31, 2019
  2. Digitization and the Dream of Openness, Feb. 7, 2019
  3. More Equitable Partnerships in Grant Funding, Feb. 21, 2019
  4. Toward a More Inclusive Grant Program, Mar. 12, 2019
  5. Still Listening, April 11, 2019

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