Still Listening

This is the fifth and final post in the “Five Years of Listening” series, which focuses on the evolution of the Digitizing Hidden Collections program.

—By Nicole Kang Ferraiolo

The title of this series, “Five Years of Listening,” is a bit of a misnomer. While our grants team spent the last five years listening for ways to improve the Digitizing Hidden Collections program, we’ve taken a similar approach for most of CLIR’s other programming. CLIR is also not unique here; we’re proud to be part of an industry that holds community engagement as a core value. That said, we are in a somewhat rare position in that our community is made up of information and cultural memory practitioners. I feel immensely grateful to have spent the last five years listening to the listeners.

Precedent and Predecessors

Before concluding this series on the evolution of the Digitizing Hidden Collections program, I’d like to acknowledge its predecessor. What made the Cataloging Hidden Collections program great, in my opinion, was the original team’s belief that grantmaking relationships were mutually beneficial partnerships between the funder and the project team. I loved the culture of gratitude toward grantees for their work on these projects and tried to retain it through my own tenure as a program officer. The last remaining project funded under this program concluded recently and my colleague Joy Banks (herself a former cataloging grant recipient) plans to publish a final assessment of the program later this year. Eleven years after the first applications were submitted, we’re still learning from the wisdom of the cataloging teams. Meanwhile, we’ve noticed our research fellows, who were not involved with the program, are now working with collections processed and cataloged through it. If we’re lucky, our current digitization program will have a similarly long tail.

Grantmaking as REgranters

CLIR is not a federal agency, nor is it a foundation. The $4 million the Digitizing Hidden Collections program distributes annually is thanks to the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Like our grantees, CLIR staff must apply for funding and report on the program’s progress. In some ways, this is limiting: we are bound by the scope we outlined in our original proposal. But there are also advantages to working on a regranting program. We don’t have a large endowment to defend, so there’s less risk in experimenting with new approaches to grantmaking and giving awards to organizations that don’t have a track record of national funding. Because the scope of CLIR’s grantmaking is limited and because our program officers don’t nominate projects for funding, it’s possible that some applicants also feel empowered to be a more direct with us when sharing feedback.

As staff, we benefit from having program officers that we ourselves can reach out to for advice. Call me crazy, but formal communications with our funder (i.e., reporting and proposal writing) have been among my favorite parts of my job. In past years, feedback from Mellon’s iterative review process has empowered me to push for things I’d wanted to change about the program but didn’t have the confidence to fight for when I was a junior program officer. This is something I take to heart when I serve as a reviewer for other grant programs: the simple act of asking people to do better can sometimes be what a staff member needs to convince their colleagues to try something new. The practice of reporting has been similarly important. It’s a way of sharing the ideas and lessons passed on to us by our applicants, review panelists, and grantees with a funder who has far greater capacity to enact change through its grantmaking practices. We are fortunate to have foundation program officers and associates who are open to this dialogue and push us to think more carefully about the decisions we make, particularly around the issue of inclusion.

Alternative Models

In recent years, we’ve spent more time in conversation with practitioners at institutions that have traditionally had less access to funding, such as community-based archives. What became clear through these conversations is that the problems grant programs seek to solve don’t always match the problems institutions are facing. While the relatively low funding rate for our digitization program speaks to how many institutions still need support in this area, for many others, digitization is far from the highest priority. I’ve become a fan of programs that make smaller awards, such as IMLS’s Native American Library Services: Basic Grants and METRO’s microgrant program, both of which seek to have the lowest barriers to entry possible. For instance, both programs have applications or reporting forms that allow participants to submit a short handwritten paragraph. While funding a request for office supplies or a small piece of equipment may not be “innovative,” it meets applicants where they are. This inclusive and intuitive approach shouldn’t feel as radical as it does.

For other institutions, grant programs are simply not the right source of financial support. The temptation to adjust one’s organizational programming to align with funders’ interests is strong, even when these interests aren’t compatible the organization’s mission. It’s been heartening to follow conversations around alternative models of support, such as mutual aid societies. Maybe someday these initiatives will complement or even surpass the existing charity model. I hope they do: a multiplicity of opportunities benefits us all. In the meantime, those of us who work within the traditional charity model should continue seeking to make our programs as inclusive as possible and match the needs of our communities.

Conclusion

As funders, we have a responsibility to reflect honestly on the work we do and explore ways to do it better. This means thinking about who’s being left out, how we might include them, and recognizing when someone else should be setting the agenda for how funding could be applied toward a better world. I don’t believe any of this can be done well without listening. The work we’ve done over the past five years to improve this program has been messy and imperfect, but if we’ve succeeded in any way at making it more open, ethical, equitable, and inclusive, it’s because of this community. Thank you again for everything you’ve taught us, and for sharing this program that has come to mean so much to me and all of us on staff. We hope to continue to listen and learn from you for years to come.

 

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 hiddencollections@clir.org or recordingsatrisk@clir.org.

 

Lewis Psalter

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image detail from Gallican Psalter with Canticles, Litany, and Two Prayers (Lewis Psalter). France, Paris, c. 1225-30. Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis Ms 185. Fols. 2v-3r and 38v-39r.

Read other 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