Convergence Conversations – Collective Wisdom Project Summary

By Melissa Levine, Lead Copyright Officer, Librarian, University of Michigan Library

The Collective Wisdom LAM Conference Exchange is an exciting opportunity to channel recognition of convergence among LAMs in a validated way. It is a visionary and catalytic chance to energize substantive conversation and insight across the three professional areas. I am excited about engaging in meaningful conversation about these issues and building ties among the disciplines. The Collective Wisdom project brings definition and helpful status conferred by the support and implied endorsement of the IMLS and the organizers that increase the likelihood of sustainable ties.

I have had the opportunity to participate in the Collective Wisdom project with a bird’s eye view to my cohort’s experiences at the respective in-person meetings of the 2016 AAM, ALA, and SAA meetings. I have long been interested in the commonalities of libraries, archives, and museums as the result of the way my career has fluidly evolved without boundaries between and among the three disciplines. I am passionate about these institutions, their people, collections, the way they look to the past as stewards and preservers – and the way they look to the future by sharing those collections for research, scholarship, and education. The core functions are very similar even if the cultures and nuance of roles vary.  As a participant who did not attend the conferences, I thought about the reactions of my colleagues and my own general interest in this area.

My long held view is that there is much to be gained by understanding the varied approaches of LAMs respectively, the similarities as well as the differences. Indeed, in understanding the differences there is, I think, special opportunity to learn from each other and improve the way we do things from collection management and curatorial work, from policy, legal and ethical concerns to exhibits and interpretation; from registrarial descriptions to descriptive metadata for cataloguers.

My early career experiences involved collaborative work. One example: while working at the Library of Congress on the American Memory project, I had the opportunity to participate in the Getty’s Museum Education Site Licensing Program or ‘MESL’. This was an effort in the mid 1990s that brought together several museums, libraries, and universities to work through a variety of common concerns in the then-new arena of digitizing collections. See Images Online: Perspectives on the Museum Educational Site Licensing Project and Delivering Digital Images: Cultural Heritage Resources for Education. As a collaborative inquiry, MESL resulted in a host of insights discussed in these publications – as well as friends and colleagues who have in many cases remained in touch or worked on other projects over the years. MESL led to the creation of the Art Museum Image Consortium or ‘AMICO’ and, in turn, ARTstor, which works with a host of cultural institutions to make images available for education, research, and scholarship.

It became apparent that digitization has a way of flattening the nature of collections from each kind of organization, making collections more relevant and accessible in every sense of the word – including thinking about universal design and access for users with disabilities. (Toward this end, the University of Michigan Library will host a workshop on developing guidelines for describing arts and humanities visual resources later this year with support from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to address challenges that arise from “the lack of shared best practices for describing arts and humanities visual resources,” –a serious obstacle to publications that are accessible for people with disabilities that affect reading. Through this workshop, U-M will advance the broader accessible publishing movement by fostering alignment and commitment among a multidisciplinary cohort of experts.”

In another example, the Collective Wisdom initiative coincided with an invitational meeting on January 2016 that considered LAM convergences. It was hosted at the University of Miami with support from the Kress Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Academic Art Museum and Library Summit in January 2016 resulted in a paper, Prospects and Strategies for Deep Collaboration in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums Sector. The paper coincides with many of the themes that arose in the Collective Wisdom project: “This paper presents a summary of the work, discussions, and outcomes of the summit including recommendations for further effort in the following areas: (1) collaborative practices; (2) shared budget strategies; (3) joint advocacy and advancement; and (4) future GLAM sector summits.” Note the commonalities of collaborative work, financial matters, advocacy and advancement. As mentioned, this was an invitational meeting of prestigious museum and library directors of influence. The paper ends with a series of calls to action. Coming from this influential group, one can assume there is less of a need to convince decision-makers that this is valuable and more of a need to engage in collective work and inquiry.

I was recently asked to join the steering committee for the University of Michigan’s museum studies certificate program. The program is unique in many ways. It is part of our graduate school and competitively accepts a small cadre of students annually who are enrolled in U-M graduate programs – history, art history, information science and more. My participation as one employed as a librarian (granted, one with particular expertise) and the diversity of disciplines represented in the program reflect a natural convergence of interest, experience, and opportunity for exploration.

Several themes emerged from the participants of the Collective Wisdom conversation. In observing cohort members’ experiences of the meetings, colleagues compared and contrasted meeting styles, noted unique vernacular and vocabulary in different disciplines, and universally enjoyed the opportunity to stretch their experiences. There was much discussion about the logistics and style of navigating meetings, reflecting both differences in culture and varied levels of experience for any given cohort member in attending meetings. There were observations about the conversational approach of ALA sessions in contrast to more formal panel approach of SAA and AAM presentations – with insights on the richness of informal communication at each.

In fact, much of the best part of any professional meeting happens during breaks, in hallways, and over meals.

Many cohort members recognized common values even in light of different meeting styles and approaches. There was an important emphasis on diversity; there were varied approaches to similar aspirations to improve meaningful inclusiveness for people employed in LAM, collections in and of LAM, and audiences. Language varied around ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusiveness’. Cohort members also discussed common questions about the effectiveness of public relations and communications, demonstrating relevance, competing for funding.

Very real concerns arose on how to participate in one or more of the membership organizations given limited personal or employer budgets. There were some interesting suggestions about reduced membership if you belong to more than one organization; perhaps one could select a primary organization and have a discounted rate at the other two as an option. This could be accomplished without eroding membership fees for any single organization. It is unrealistic to travel to all three major sector conferences each year for most people; a shared membership status that would allow committee work and access to professional materials – perhaps with voting rights only in the primary organization – would increase participation and revenue for the organizations and help make participation broadly affordable. It would allow for broader access to professional publications. On that note, it would be great to see more open access and low cost publishing to make professional materials more available across LAM.

It will be easier and more expedient to look for ways to encourage cross sector understanding and opportunity by leveraging the existing membership organizations rather than starting from scratch. We can consider new digital platforms like MOOCs for continuing education and think about curriculum in museum and library/ischool programs. Consider, for example, the Johns Hopkins MA in Museum Studies, which recently initiated a certificate in Digital Curation that is relevant beyond museums to any LAM professional today. (Full disclosure: I teach Museums, Law, & Policy for the Hopkins program. I also teach Intellectual Property & Information Law for the University of Michigan School of Information. In both programs, there are common areas of law, policy, ethics, and mission. I encourage students to see the possibilities of a variety of career paths given the opportunity presented by thinking about these fields from a convergence perspective.)

Actually do real work together. In working on real projects, we get to know one another in a productive way that also provides new insights.  There is common work to be done in planning for physical and digital storage and security, digitization and preservation, curatorial and collection development, interpretation, physical space design, intellectual property, civil rights and freedom of inquiry, and traditional knowledge. Differences between research libraries and public libraries, differences in deaccession practices.

As a practical matter, it is invaluable to meet in person for successful collaborative work. But it is not a necessity today provided one has access and competence with basic online tools. Skype and Google Hangout for example are free and allow deep relations to form through video meetings, chat and so forth. Social media can be used to inform, share, and advance ideas and programs. These tools have become available in recent years and have catapulted our ability to efficiently work together. I’ve participated with the Collective Wisdom cohort thus far only online. That said, I plan to invest in traveling to meet the cohort in person in November for a final meeting because I think it will help solidify these relationships and help me to contribute more to the unique inquiry presented by Collective Wisdom.

There is tremendous opportunity in leveraging common skills, interests, mission elements – and value in recognizing where there are meaningful differences. As apparent as the opportunities appear, it has been remarkably difficult to engage practically in convergence conversations – whether on my own campus or at the level of our member organizations.  Perhaps cultural differences and assumptions make it difficult to see beyond artificial silos (to reference OCLC’s excellent Beyond the Silos of the LAMs: Collaborations Among Libraries, Archives, and Museums). Today, I am excited about the participating in the CW exchange as a way to move beyond myopia and engage in convergence conversations that, I believe, are critical for the future of all three fields.