Considering collaborations

by Margy MacMillan
Mount Royal University Library

Most of my work in Library and Information Practice involves other people so it’s not surprising that working on building and using an evidence base for this work has brought me into close collaboration with people across the library, the campus, and global libraryland*. Reflecting on these experiences has illuminated some patterns and common factors in positive collaborations as well as some aspects that require attention at the beginning to ensure everyone stays friendly at the end.

One of the most important things is to align conceptions of realistic timelines, milestones and deadlines. In one group I worked with, this was evident even in small things – if we said we’d meet in the lobby at 7:30 to catch a shuttle to a conference, we were all there by 7:00. This congruence happened naturally among us, but is something that most groups I’ve been part of have had to work out. While the set dates of publications and presentations can be helpful motivators, developing a schedule that all collaborators are comfortable with should be part of the early planning stages.

Related to the question of time, is motivation. Understanding why your collaborators are interested in the project and how it fits into their lives can help determine feasible timelines. If one partner needs to analyse data as part of planning for a new service and another sees the potential of this analysis to inform wider work through publication, the partners will have to accept different commitment and energy levels for different parts of the project. In situations like these, colleagues and I have often taken the lead at different stages: gathering, initial analysis, submission and write-up. While we all contributed to these stages, leading different parts was an effective way to align aspects of the projects with our skills and motivations, and ensured that no one felt overburdened.

A crucial aspect in both of these collaboration was that we trusted each other to do the work. That trust was built on frank discussions of available time and competing priorities, acknowledgements of each others’ expertise, and shared understanding of tasks and expectations. Looking back those have been key factors in all of the successful collaborations I’ve been a part of.

Nancy Chick, Caitlin McClurg, and the author, collaborating on a cross-disciplinary project.

Nancy Chick, Caitlin McClurg, and the author, collaborating on a cross-disciplinary project.

Openness to others’ expertise is, of course, critical when you are working across disciplinary boundaries. Your partner may be more comfortable in a different research methodology, or simply a different citation style, and developing a shared language around the project is critical. Disciplines bring distinct terminologies and conventions around knowledge creation and dissemination (to see this in action, bring a table of mixed faculty together, open the discussion of author name order, and stand back). These differences affect the questions you ask, the evidence you value, the analysis you undertake and the audience(s) for the final product.Just as you would when coding data, nothing works quite so well as writing down decisions once you find  consensus.  It’s easy (and occasionally disastrous for a project) to make assumptions about shared understandings working with people in your own discipline, but I’ve found these groups can have just as divergent thinking as cross-disciplinary ones. The early communicaiton stage is often skipped on the assumption that as members of the ‘hive mind’ of librarianship we have common conceptions of  information literacy, or what term we should use for patron/user/client/ or how open does a publication need to be to count as OA?.

Much of this: negotiating meaning across disciplines, negotiating time zones and spelling conventions across borders and oceans, or negotiating variations in motivation regardless of other differences or similarities, is a matter of making the tacit explicit, of learning how to say what we mean, what we need, and what we can do clearly and without apology.

It turns out that this really is one of the great unsung benefits of collaboration. Working with others has taught me more about my professional self than any other activity. It has made me think about my values as a librarian, as a researcher, and as a teacher, and in articulating those values to others I have found a strengthened sense of purpose. Negotiating the meaning of information literacy, whether with library colleagues or with other faculty has given me a more nuanced personal definition, and helped me enact and communicate that definition in my teaching and scholarship. I have found that these meaning-making tasks have been far more productive and authentic when I have worked on them as a means to collaboration than when I have considered them as ends in themselves.

Try starting your next collaboration with the kind of conversation that engages participants in self-explanation, where tacit assumptions and definitions are brought into the light of others’ questions, probed for nuance, and made explicit. There is no guarantee this will lead to a trouble-free project of course, but according to the OED ‘explicit’ does derive from the classical Latin explicitus: free from difficulties… so it just might.

*A semi-mythical place where all information is well-organized, all colleagues are congenial and collegial, and timezones prove no barrier to productive conversations.

For a longer discussion of collaboration in research, I highly recommend the “Coda on Collaboration” chapter of Critical Reading in Higher Education: Academic Goals and Social Engagement by Karen Manarin, Miriam Carey, Melanie Rathburn, and Glen Ryland, 2015, Indiana University Press.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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