Thursday, April 5, 2012

Building Bridges: Collaboration

Several recent readings, discussions, and events have had me thinking about collaboration a bit more than usual - which is saying something, since I am a librarian at PALS and spend a good deal of time working with collaborative ventures. The most recent catalyst for my mental tangent was Charles Henry and Brad Wheeler's article "The Game Has Changed" in the March/April 2012 edition of EDUCAUSE Review Magazine. In this article, Henry and Wheeler encourage academic institutions to move away from "institution as an island" mentalities and work towards interdependence. They point out that while corporations have consolidated to take advantage of the power size can bring, academic institutions have dismissed economies of scale in favor of independence.

It seems as though the topic of collaboration is getting increasing library press coverage...and for good reason. The current landscape promotes and necessitates collaboration: we cannot accommodate shrinking budgets, increasing user expectations, and advancing technological needs without taking advantage of the communication infrastructure that enables us to work together at a distance at relatively low costs, when compared to travel costs and time spent away from daily work. As my work with the Minnesota Library Futures Initiative has made evident, libraries - like academic institutions - share many of the same struggles. While it is true we must balance collaborative efforts with individual needs, we all can benefit from reducing redundancies and increasing our interdependence.

In a recent conversation, I mentioned that while negotiating journal licensing with vendors, we could talk to fellow librarians to gather feedback on practices that have worked for them. One of the people I was talking to noted that a good part of licensing is confidential information. I don't think my response to this reminder was as adequate as it could have been at the time, but let me take this opportunity to say that sharing or collaborating doesn't necessarily have to be a "I'll show you mine, if you show me yours" relationship. Simply talking about experiences in general can provide valuable information to colleagues, such as which vendors are more rigid with their policies, who is hard to reach, and what kind of bribes are effective..oh, wait... In addition, sharing our experiences may help us get on the same page as a profession: what are our expectations from vendors? What can we tolerate; what is intolerable? In addition, having these conversations could eventually lead to more shared purchases, allowing us to leverage the power of an economy of scale. While Minnesota already has a great start at this shared purchasing model through Minitex and consortia like MnPALS and CLIC, further collaboration will only make these groups stronger.

At a large university this sharing of knowledge and purchasing power may not be as obviously beneficial, but for librarians at smaller institutions, those newer to the profession, or those taking on new roles within the profession, collaboration is key. And even though large universities may not see as many obvious benefits, they will gain prestige, karma, and the opportunity to refine their practices. I often notice where a practice could be improved when I explain it to others and allow them opportunities to question how or why the process is the way it is.

As noted by Henry and Wheeler, we need to move off our islands - or at least build bridges between them.

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