Steps for Starting a Community-Institutional Partnership

A community-centered archive partnership can be a deeply powerful mode of collective storytelling, reconciliation, and catharsis. The success of such partnerships between communities and institutions often depends on the level of compatibility between the partners on issues of power and equity.

Ideally, a healthy collaboration is one where the two parties are on equal footing and working towards mutual interests. But sometimes, in practice, community-institutional partnerships are forged in contexts imbued with pre-existing power imbalances. This may be due to a variety of factors, such as institutions having greater access to resources or advantages based on perceived prestige or professional expertise. So how might potential partners mitigate this? 

Three members of the Student Health Coalition smile with members of the CDAT. On the table in the foreground are large sheets of paper with colorful sticky notes
Biff Hollingsworth, back right, along with other CDA team members and Appalachian Student Health Coalition leaders during their visit to the Wilson Special Collections Library, Chapel Hill, 2020. Courtesy CDAT

Based on my experience working on several long-term community-driven archives partnerships, I would argue that it requires individual institutional partners to be fierce and reliable advocates for their community peers. To fully advocate for community curators, full-time archivists and preservationists may have to disengage from institutional power, struggle against established norms, or assert their individual values – in other words, be willing to de-center institutional interests. One way I have found to do this effectively is to raise issues and questions from the outset that the community might not even know that they should ask or consider. Transparency builds trust. 

This post is a compilation of those questions and concerns, written from the perspective of an “institutional insider,” intended as a resource for community members who are considering a potential archives partnership with academic libraries. I hope it will serve as a good jumping off point that will spark dialogue and critical analysis of these questions of power and equity. 

Community-Institutional Partnership Compatibility Quiz 

I. Readying the Ground 

At their core, collaborations are relationships. Before approaching a new relationship, community leaders may want to go through a period of self-reflection and planning to learn as much as possible about what they bring to the table, as well as to figure out what they are looking for in a potential institutional partner. 

  • What is our most important goal? What do we want to accomplish? 
  • Do I actually need to partner? Or would I be able to complete the work/project without them? 
  • How is the partnership mutually beneficial? Do we have shared goals? 
  • Does the institution have a culture that supports this kind of relationship? What is the landscape of institutional support within their unit or department?  
  • What is the institution’s record on community partnerships? If there are historical issues that have yet to be resolved, what has the institution done to address them and what changes has it made? 
  • What would a successful project look like? 

II. Participatory Praxis 

After a community has a sense of what it wants to achieve, it’s time to puzzle through questions about how the work might unfold, who will do it, and on what terms. These are questions about the nature of the institution’s participatory praxis, with a focus on roles and responsibilities, joint problem solving, and developing work teams and project leaders. 

  • How does the institution center community partners in project visioning and decision-making? 
  • How does the institution value community expertise? 
  • What is the institution’s record on citing and giving credit to community voices? 
  • How are community curators compensated for their labor on the project? 
  • Will there be workflows or mechanisms for community curation? For example, will the community be involved in processing or describing archival materials? 
  • If storytelling is a focus of the project, does the institution have capacity for supporting oral history interviews, transcription, or preservation of born-digital or A/V materials? 
  • Who will have primary responsibility for identifying and soliciting materials for the archive? 
  • What process and criteria will be used to determine which materials will be accepted for inclusion in the archive? How will it be a joint decision? 

III. Ownership 

This is where the rubber meets the road in terms of power dynamics. Make sure you are well informed about who will take ownership of the archive and how that ownership serves the best interests of the community. Some community partners may want to go with a traditional “deposit model” for their archives project, where archival collections are legally turned over to the care of the institution. Other communities may want more autonomy and choose to continue to be the legal custodians or to otherwise retain some control over collection management and preservation.  When it comes to rights and ownership over your collection, do not be afraid to talk about money! 

  • What ownership arrangements are available? Are only gifts allowed? Or are loans permitted? Are the terms always permanent or can they be temporary? 
  • Will the institution allow for scan-and-return scenarios? In other words, if an individual community member wishes to contribute content but retain the originals, will this request be honored? 
  • Are gift agreements and donation contracts standard and fixed? Or can they be drafted on an individual basis to allow for customization? 
  • What intellectual property arrangements will the institution accept? Will I retain copyright if I donate materials to the institution? 
  • Do I have a say in how the collections will be accessed? Can I restrict materials from public view? How does the institution handle use, access, and security? 
  • Will there be costs associated with my project? If so, will they be a shared burden with the potential partner institution? 
  • How will funds be solicited (through donors, grants, crowdsourcing, etc.)? 
  • Who should manage project funds? If the institution manages them, will it take a “haircut” (a percentage that goes to overhead expenses, and not directly to the project)? If the community manages funds, will it need to set up a non-profit? Are there other fiscal or legal implications? 

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when approaching a new archives partnership. But answering these questions should get you closer to a shared understanding with your potential institutional partner of the mission and purpose of the project, as well as your project methods, risk management strategy, and, most importantly, your parameters for an equitable relationship. 

One result of these deliberations may be that you find out that the institution and your group or community are, in fact, incompatible. That can be disappointing, but it’s much better to find that out at the beginning than after a collaboration has begun! 

Another result of this compatibility evaluation may be that you and your potential partner decide to draft something formal to guide you through the project lifecycle, such as a Memorandum of Understanding or a Project Charter. There are many resources available for this type of organizational planning and visioning work. Even if a formal written agreement is not struck, both partners should be willing to have open and honest discussions about the questions listed above. In the process, individual institutional partners should be willing to advocate for community peers in order to center their voices throughout the course of the project (not just in the product/s of the collaboration), setting up the partnership for maximum potential success.