By Caroline Muglia
When this rag tag group of librarians and archivists embarked on a project that would evolve into an IMLS grant-funded endeavor, we knew at least one thing: we’d be learning a lot throughout this year-long process. Early on, we embraced an iterative approach to our conversations, brainstorming sessions as well as deliverables and outputs we set for the grant.
This post will share a few of the areas where we acted, assessed, pivoted, iterated, and tried something new! We’re constantly finding ways to improve our work and learn from past practice. We hope this behind the scenes insight can be helpful to those readers pursuing similar goals in a collaborative environment, or highlight areas worth interrogating further in your ongoing work.
Get grounded in Grounded Theory
When we first began this grant, we knew we’d generate a lot of data. What we didn’t anticipate was the breadth of the backend process necessary to do something valuable with the data. We embarked on qualitative coding projects to organize what our experts are telling us and take actionable steps that will drive our re-use toolkit criteria. Since none of the six of us came aboard this project with secret coding experience, we had to learn together.
After an environmental scan and a few demos, we decided to utilize Dedoose qualitative coding software for the notes we generated during the in-person and virtual focus group sessions (our grant specifies that any recording or transcription be permanently deleted within 48-hours). As a group, we discussed advantages and scrutinized challenges to different qualitative models together until we agreed to use a Grounded Theory. In the coming month, we’ll complete the initial and final coding. We referenced our sources on Grounded Theory and regularly iterated and improved our output in service of our grant deliverables. In this instance, we started with an idea that our data would be valuable and ended with knowledge of new software and conversational literacy of grounded theory and a darn good qualitative analysis.
Sending surveys far and wide
In addition to the tailored focus groups, we also developed a survey instrument to capture experiences with and perspectives on re-use in a digital library environment. Distributed via email lists, we gathered 302 responses. Our first thought was, How great, this small group of people churned out so much interest in this topic! Our second thought was, Yikes, how do we make sense of it all? Again, we iterated: we gathered the data using Qualtrics and assigned a few folks to dig through the results and propose a plan. We poked holes in the plan, that strengthened the goals and methodology, which we ultimately applied to the analysis of the insightful responses.
Befriend people smarter than you
We surrounded ourselves with a lot of smart people! This included the development of an engaged advisory board , and a focus on professionally active participants for those tapped to participate in both the in-person and virtual focus groups. The focus group participants discussed concepts of “use” and “re-use” of digital objects in their cultural heritage institutions, and the advisory board has helped us to shape, and think through, these community conversations. To date, we have hosted one series of in-person focus groups, and one series of virtual focus groups (with another round of each to come). We used a facilitation guide in the first round of in-person meetings, which allowed the different groups to stick to an agreed-upon script and promote discussion around the same topics.
After the first meeting, we assessed the discussions and made some changes to the facilitation guide for the virtual focus group meeting. We cut down the conversation on “use” and ramped up the one on “re-use” since that’s the focus of our grant. We also shortened the virtual focus group with the expectation of wavering attention spans for a phone conversation. In our next round of focus group meetings, we’re also making some adjustments that we hope will benefit the development of the toolkit criteria.
Indeed, in some areas of our organization and collaboration, we have strengthened what we’ve been doing well all along!
Meet regularly and do stuff
Since the group is scattered across the USA, it is imperative for us to stick to a regular meeting schedule and to maximize our time in those meetings. Our ever-organized PI, Santi Thompson, distributes an agenda before the meeting including any links or materials needed to have an informed conversation. By the end of the meeting, we aim to have clear action items, deadlines, and benchmarks, and try to distribute the work evenly among the six of us.
Sub-groups are great
Within our group, we use sub-groups (of 1-3 people) to tackle mid-term length issues or examine larger concepts related to the project. This allows us to keep moving forward at an aggressive pace, while also learning as much as possible from our collaborators.
Phone a friend
When we need advice, guidance, or support, we ask for help from DLF or our Advisory Board. We didn’t get involved in this grant because we know everything! We got involved because we wanted to learn from each other and from experts already working in the field.
Know your capacity
This sounds a bit self-help, but what allows us to succeed is knowing our own capacity. With a large group, so many deliverables, and a lot of unknowns, we’ve succeeded in taking on more work when we have the capacity, and voicing our need to take on a supporting role when our capacity or attention shifts. Since we all have day jobs, personal lives, and other responsibilities, it’s up to us to say, Nope, I can’t present at that conference because I have a work deadline, or I enjoy writing blog posts, I can take on this assignment! This also gives us more confidence that we aren’t burdening each other with projects and deadlines.
Like, belly laugh. Guffaw, even. It helps. It always helps.
 Charmez, K. (1983). The grounded theory method: An explication and interpretation. RM Emerson, Contemporary Field Research: A Collection of Readings, 109-126; Holton, J. A. (2007). The coding process and its challenges. The Sage handbook of grounded theory, (Part III), 265-89.