A Dream of a Thousand Library Cats

“Little one, I would like to see anyone – prophet, king, or God – persuade a thousand cats to do anything at the same time.”

Neil Gaiman, from The Sandman: A Dream of a Thousand Cats

“Collaboration is hard . . . effective collaboration is harder.”

Lorcan Dempsey, from What Collaboration Means to Me

OCLC Research has just published a new report Sustaining Art Research Collections: Using Data To Explore Collaboration. It’s all about using library data – specifically collections and resource sharing data – to identify opportunities for collaboration and amplify their value. Although the setting is the art library community, the relevance extends much further – to any specialized library seeking collaborative partners, larger libraries with general collections considering partnerships with specialized libraries, or indeed any library engaged in collaborative efforts. Collaboration has been and continues to be a well-used instrument in the library toolbox. As such, it features in multiple strands of OCLC Research work, each offering a unique yet complementary perspective on how libraries – and librarians – collaborate. In considering this work as a whole, some general themes about library collaboration emerge that are worth spotlighting. Read on to hear about these themes, which may be a good starting place before diving into the new report!

Acting collectively to achieve a shared goal is in theory sensible, and in practice, difficult. The benefits can be considerable – optimized scale, distributed costs and responsibilities, and in some cases, access to capacities that would be out of the reach of a single institution acting alone. But there are also costs. Shaping individual interests to align with common purpose, calling forth sufficient group effort to achieve objectives, creating governance structures that help the collaboration sustain itself and evolve – all of these represent both costly investments of effort and resources, and potential obstacles to successful outcomes.

Libraries have a long tradition of collaboration. My own organization, OCLC, is a great example, working collaboratively with libraries around the world to build and maintain a global resource of library data, including more than 550 million bibliographic records and more than 3 billion library holdings. As we look to the future, collaboration will only grow in importance for libraries. The recent OCLC Research report New Model Library: Pandemic Effects and Library Directions found that as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, libraries coped with difficult circumstances by turning to consortia, professional associations, other institutional units, community partners, and personal networks. According to library leaders interviewed for the project, “[t]he ongoing value of these relationships cannot be overstated. Moving forward, leaders plan to be more intentional about new and existing partnerships to ensure that they add mutual benefit.”

Collaboration is more than a tactic for cushioning the impact of crises like the pandemic. It can also be a practical way forward through emerging and uncertain areas of strategic priority. For example, as academic libraries become ever more embedded in the research lifecycle as a partner to scholars, investment in new capacities such as research data management (RDM), publishing, and bibliometrics and research impact services have been elevated in importance. Collaboration can be an attractive and at times necessary option for deploying new kinds of services and infrastructure, especially for institutions with limited resources or in-house capacity for innovation.

Because, as Lorcan Dempsey says, collaboration is hard and effective collaboration even harder, it is important to deepen understanding of key factors impacting the decision to collaborate, as well as those contributing to the success and sustainability of collaborative efforts. OCLC Research has done and continues to do wide-ranging work examining how libraries and librarians act collectively to carry out their mission. In the remainder of this post, I offer some observations about library collaboration that have emerged from this work.

Libraries collaborate at scales above and below the institution

Collaborating across institutions

When we think of library collaboration, our first thought may be of established multi-institutional groupings, like consortia (e.g., BTAA, Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation, PALCI). Or we may think of new institutional partnerships that spring up around a specific need, like the Data Curation Network or the newly launched Digital Preservation Services Collaborative Planning Project. These are all examples of above the institution collaboration, in which multiple institutions band together to develop a capacity that sits above local scale. OCLC Research has done a great deal of work looking at collaborations of this kind, including our most recent report, Library Collaboration as a Strategic Choice: Evaluating Options for Acquiring Capacity, which explores collaboration as a key strategy for academic libraries to acquire needed capacity. The report provides insight and tools to support academic libraries in making strategic decisions about multi-institutional collaboration opportunities.

Collaborating within an institution

But it is important to recognize that other forms of library collaboration occur at scales below the institution – in other words, across administrative units within a single institution. For example, in providing research support services like RDM, the library may collaborate with other campus units such as the Research Office or campus IT; in establishing and administering a new institutional data policy, the library may have a representative serving on a cross-campus task force. Our report Social Interoperability in Research Support: Cross-Campus Partnerships and the University Research Enterprise focuses on this kind of intra-institutional collaboration, exploring how academic libraries partner with other units around campus in the provision of research support services.

Libraries and librarians collaborate with different types of partners

Collaborating across different institution types

Library collaboration can occur between peers – the academic libraries participating in the BTAA consortium, or the large public library systems comprising the membership of the Urban Libraries Council. But collaboration can also emerge from partnerships involving networks of different types of libraries, and even different types of organizations. For example, the aforementioned Data Curation Network involves a partnership between academic libraries, a data repository, and a non-profit research foundation. Related to this, OCLC’s Operationalizing the Art Research Collective Collection (OpArt) project (which yielded the Sustaining Art Research Collections report mentioned earlier) examines opportunities for specialized libraries like those attached to art museums or art and design-focused academic institutions to partner with other types of institutions, such as academic libraries in research universities, to build collective effort around collection management and resource sharing.

Collaborating across different professional roles

While collaborations are usually described as partnerships across groups of organizations – whether multiple institutions, or multiple administrative units within one institution – in practice they are driven by people, working across organizational boundaries, who collectively initiate, build, and sustain collaborative efforts. As with organizations, collaboration at the “people level” can be between peers – for example, the group of resource sharing librarians that represent their institutions in SHARES, a resource sharing network managed by the OCLC Research Library Partnership. But the networks of people that drive collaboration can also be quite varied in expertise, responsibilities, and even goals. Returning to the Social Interoperability report, a key motivator for this work was the recognition of the “deeply collaborative nature of providing research support services”: while the library is an important stakeholder in the provision of these services, it often shares this responsibility with, and therefore coordinates and partners with, other campus units.

Libraries collaborate to leverage both efficiencies and complementarities

Collaborating for efficiencies

An important goal of collaboration can be to achieve efficiencies through collective action that reduce duplicative activity at the local level, avoid sub-optimal scales of operation, and ultimately, lower overall costs across the partners. Opportunities for collaboration of this kind often arise from similarities between partners: e.g., collecting the same low-use print materials, or a mutual need for costly data management capacities. OCLC Research, in partnership with the Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA), examined collaboration aimed largely at improving efficiency in print collection management in a library consortial setting, in the 2019 report Operationalizing the BIG Collective Collection: A Case Study of Consolidation vs Autonomy. A strong motivation for the work was a shared need among BTAA members to respond to the evolution of services and collections, along with competing demands for scarce physical space. Underpinning this was the recognition that “autonomous development of large standalone collections does not meet needs and is not efficient.”

Collaborating for complementarities

Libraries can partner to distribute shared needs over larger scales to exploit efficiencies, but they can also partner to amplify complementarities across collections, services, and expertise. Every institution usually has something unique to offer in the context of any given network of partners. A good example is OCLC Research’s work on collective collections, where we found that rareness is common: within an aggregation of multiple institutions’ collections, each individual collection will have a significant element of distinctiveness in comparison to the others in the group. Expanding scope and scale “beyond the local” can produce resources that in many ways are greater than the sum of the parts, as libraries leverage local strengths into shared capacities.

Cats can’t collaborate – but libraries can and do

As the quotations that lead this post suggest, collaboration can be difficult – whether among cats or libraries. But its value can be immense, and that is why collaboration is not only a deep-rooted tradition among libraries, but also an important strategy for the future, as libraries prepare to cope with disruptions, economic pressures, and uncertainties. The themes discussed above that have emerged from OCLC’s work speak to the how, who, and why of library collaboration:

  • How: collaboration can create value at a variety of scales, both above and below the institution
  • Who: valuable partnerships can be created between peer libraries and librarians, but also between different types of libraries and librarians, as well as non-library organizations and colleagues
  • Why: collaborations can create value from both similarities and differences across partners, by enhancing efficiencies and complementarities

Through its work on library collaboration, OCLC Research hopes to equip libraries with tools and insight that help them decide when collaboration is the right choice, and if it is, maximize the likelihood that it will be successful. While collaboration may be the dream of a thousand cats, it is the reality for librarians everywhere.

Don’t forget to check out OCLC Research’s latest work on library collaboration: Sustaining Art Research Collections!

Thanks to my colleagues Rebecca Bryant and Merrilee Proffitt for their great advice on this post!

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