Facilitating the future of archival discovery and delivery: the Lighting the Way Working Meeting

by Mark A. Matienzo

Lighting the Way is a two-year grant project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services that focuses on improving archival discovery and delivery, or how people find, access, and use archival materials. The development of archival discovery and delivery systems is highly relational and requires collaboration across many kinds of expertise. At the same time, despite the archival profession adopting iterative processing models, we found that archives and library workers often only presented their efforts to improve archival discovery and deliver only when the work was deemed “complete.” We envisioned our project as a facilitated environment for archives, library, and technology workers to share information and collaborate together to shape the future for archival discovery and delivery. Many archives workers know that collaboration on technology and planning projects can be challenging, given institutional politics, differences in resourcing and expertise, and finding the time to sit and think. This has been doubly true during the COVID-19 pandemic as well, given the transitions necessary to enable remote work and remote research and the incredible isolation that many of us felt.

In February 2020, the project hosted Lighting the Way: A National Forum on Archival Discovery and Delivery at Stanford University, a 2.5-day event with 71 participants that included a mix of plenary presentations and facilitated activities, held in alignment with the project’s Community Agreements and Code of Conduct. We wanted to ensure that the event was participatory and people felt comfortable and safe to share and explore new ideas. The activities were drawn from and inspired by Liberating Structures, a set of alternative structures for facilitating meetings and conversations intended to provide everyone with an opportunity to contribute without needing to see themselves as experts. The Forum highlighted the interdependent nature of building systems for archival discovery and delivery, and identified opportunities for collaboration, taking ethical and equitable approaches to our work. Full details, including information on the facilitated activities, can be found in the report on the Forum. Major areas of interest included developing a cross-disciplinary community for archival discovery and delivery, identifying opportunities for collaborative design and development of systems like virtual reading rooms and other mediated access environments, and finding ways to contribute to shared infrastructure.

The pandemic gave us time to analyze and plan next steps. The Lighting the Way Working Meeting, the second meeting funded by the grant, was originally intended to be held in person at Stanford University as a collaborative writing workshop to further the work completed in the Forum.  It was an opportunity to regroup and consider how to provide a means for broader participation and deeper collaboration than what an in-person meeting would have allowed. Rather than drawing exclusively from Forum participants and the project’s advisors, we devised an application process intended for groups (and individuals who were willing to be matched to groups) to submit a brief description of a proposed topic intended for expansion into a written contribution for inclusion in a project publication. Ultimately, we accepted 9 groups with a total of 51 participants, with 9 facilitators, with a wide range of topics including single institution case studies, Wikidata, user studies to assess the impact of inclusive description, changing models of collaboration, and more.

Our experience with the Forum led us to make several changes to the design of the Working Meeting. Some of these are related to the need to hold it online. We held four sessions over six weeks in April and May 2021; the first and last session were plenary, while the second and third could be scheduled on a per-group basis to give groups more flexibility. We also leveraged collaboration tools like Google Docs and Google Jamboard, a virtual whiteboard tool, for online activities. We also recognized that two-hour sessions may be challenging, so we included breaks and individual reflection activities like Spiral Journaling to help people settle their minds. Like the Forum, the Working Meeting used Liberating Structures as its base for both the overall facilitation method and individual activities. However, while the Forum used an intentional progression of creative thinking modes, the Working Meeting relied on a different progression to guide the activities. Strategy Knotworking introduces a dynamic and iterative process for strategic planning, and centers the shared responsibility of leadership as part of its participatory methodology. We also shared information about the activities in advance of each session by providing details through our Working Meeting “playbook,” which included facilitator instructions and links to additional resources.

Now that the Working Meeting sessions have concluded, the participant groups have completed drafts of their written contributions for revision and publication over the next few months. The project team will be writing a final report to synthesize our work. Based upon participant feedback, we are also considering how to structure or provide a community space to discuss archival and discovery or strategic planning for archival technology more broadly, and how to share our insights about the facilitation methods we used. We are eager to connect with others interested in helping to lead these activities going forward, so please feel free to contact us with your ideas.

Mark A. Matienzo is an archivist, technologist, and ambient musician. Their work for Stanford University Libraries includes serving as the project lead for Lighting the Way, an IMLS National Forum Grant focused on improving archival discovery and delivery, and managing a portfolio of digital library discovery and access systems.

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