supporting practice in community

[Here’s a cleaned-up version of brief remarks I made in a panel discussion on “Cultivating Digital Library Professionals,” at Tuesday’s IMLS Focus meeting in Washington, DC. The day-long conversation was meant to help shape a priority project at the Institute of Museum and Library Services: funding support in the United States for what is being called the “national digital platform.” (As in: we need one.) See the full agenda and archived webcasts, and learn about future #IMLSfocus events here. My message to the assembled group was pretty simple, and we’ve cross-posted it on the DLF site.]

We should put as much energy into connecting and building up people—into developing and supporting motivated, skilled, diverse, and intersecting communities of expert practitioners—as we do into connecting the services, systems, and corpora that are the other pillars of a national digital platform. The first thing needed in many institutions is not another technology component to support, but a functioning social conduit to a broader, supportive culture that values digital library workers and the various communities they inhabit and are inspired by.

I see the continuous renewal and expansion of expert practitioner communities as our most fundamental sustainability issue: the one on which all the others depend.

And I am consciously using the word “community” here, rather than calling this our digital library “workforce” or similar, although there’s some danger that such a happy-sounding word could make us elide difficult, (often gendered) labor issues in this discussion.

I do this for two reasons: first, because it helps us scale up a conversation that is too often about local and individual professional development. But I introduce it also because of how it plays on individuals as a concept. Understanding that you are part of a community changes your ethical orientation toward your colleagues, your users, the material and immaterial objects of your attention, and your shared work. Most of all, it sharpens your sense of futurity—your inclination to look beyond immediate horizons and to consider the much longer term. Communities have prospect and retrospect: futures and histories. They are predicated on mutual support and common fate, and have the capacity to draw together people at different career stages or with diverse professional identities and personal orientations toward the other communities they intersect with, including (in our case) the intersection of segments of the digital library practitioner community with vital user groups. And communities themselves set intellectual direction, in ways that are sometimes under-acknowledged and bear watching. This is why funding programs that support projects at national scale need at the very least to stay plugged into the conversations of practitioner communities as they evolve in their self-conception and (we hope) as they continue evolve demographically, to better reflect American society.

The first law for a funder in relation to this evolution may be, however: Do No Harm. (This is to return to some of the concerns we heard in Q&A earlier in this meeting, about funding programs that privilege scalable systems inadvertently reinforcing a kind of totalizing homogeneity, leaving minority voices and perspectives behind.) At best, though, being aware of how our various practitioner communities are evolving internally and in relation to user groups—or where they’re stagnating—could help agencies like the IMLS make enabling investments at crucial moments.

Of course, the other trick for funders in relation to GLAM sector professional development is how to support practitioner communities through programs that are necessarily and fruitfully user- and project-oriented. (A lot of what I’ve been saying sounds like IMLS’s Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian grants, a wonderful framework for supporting people as individuals and learning cohorts—but how you tie programs like this to the infrastructure building of the National Digital Platform IMLS priority may not be immediately obvious.) We know it’s necessary, though, because the best professional development and frankly the only meaningful community development comes through project-based learning, involving real world situations and practical collaboration.

One possibility is to infuse the spirit of the LB21 grants throughout IMLS: that is, to require more strongly that professional development outcomes for grant participants and for their larger communities of practice be formally addressed in all of IMLS’s programs. If we agree that this is a crucial part of increasing national capacity, it should be taken seriously in all grant applications and reports. We all know (but also often don’t say publicly enough) that much of the value of a funded project comes in around the edges of its core “deliverable.” And a requirement like this—that the impact of the project for individual participants and their communities of practice be directly addressed in the bid, that time for learning and community-building be directly budgeted in every project—becomes a tool for individual staff and middle managers to use to create healthier local, institutional cultures. Budgeted time (a clear percentage of effort allocation during the 9-5 workday) also becomes a tool for contributors to use to create sustainable, distributed communities around their work.

Want a grant? Show not only that you can get a worthwhile project done, but that the experience of working on it in community will positively impact the careers and the potential of your staff for years to come. Want a grant? Demonstrate awareness of how your people fit into, interface with, and have the time to help advance expert communities of national and global scope.

[Blog addendum! Yesterday, the Digital Library Federation announced our set of fellowship and travel award opportunities for the 2015 DLF Forum, to be held in Vancouver this October. Through the help of our members and generous sponsors, we’ll be bringing in awesome participants in five categories of award: new professionals, members of under-represented groups, and “cross-pollinators” from the museums, ER&L, and VRA worlds. If you’ve read this far, you probably care about this stuff, too. Please help us get the word out! Fellowship deadline: May 22nd. CFP deadline: June 22nd. DLF Forum registration: open now! And, as a non-profit program hosted by CLIR to expand and enrich our important community of practice, the DLF continues to seek Forum sponsorships. Can you or your organization help?]