Library Partnerships

By Jane Harvell

So I thought I would use this writing opportunity to reflect and try to get my thoughts together for a presentation that I’ll be delivering in Birmingham at the Talis Insights Conference in a few weeks’ time.

Some time ago I was asked by Talis to speak at the event and to let them know what it was I wanted to talk about – which was a new one on me. I found it really hard to think of something I could usefully present to a paying audience expert in providing reading lists and support. I certainly can’t talk about anything technical, as it’s been a long time since I have even logged into the reading list system; my familiarity with engagement techniques and working with academics in this area is, consequently, quite out of date. Nor can I claim as mine any of the successful innovations and ideas that my colleagues in the Library are using to engage students and academics in library resources. I also need to bear in mind that it’s a keynote presentation, so I am going to be on a big stage and need to make sure it’s a relevant topic in which I’m comfortable and confident (and in which I feel expert enough!) to talk about at some length.

So, here is what I settled on and the abstract that I’ve put together:

Learning from each other: the benefits of a partnership approach

Drawing on the experience of working in partnership with a research group (the Sussex Humanities Lab), our local authorities (East Sussex County Council and Brighton & Hove City Council) and an academic publisher (SAGE Publications), this presentation will highlight the exciting and challenging projects and developments that can be achieved through collaborative working and the impact that this can have on the skills of library staff.

I felt it was a relevant topic for this audience because from the very early days of working with Talis on the reading list system here at Sussex it appeared much more like an equal partnership than simply a service that they were providing and for which we were paying. This is probably because we were a development partner way back in the day, but this has subtly positively coloured our relationship with the company. There is a trust that builds up between organisations/groups/sections/departments when you create something together properly – and by properly I mean listening to each other and taking the time to understand each other’s positions and issues and, importantly, to learn from one another.

It can be incredibly rewarding in a work setting to develop and build (and sometimes fail maybe) and rethink and develop a service, a relationship or a product as a partnership. In my presentation I will use as examples all of the exciting joint ventures I’ve been involved in here in the Library at Sussex and what I believe these partnerships have taught me and others.

Our partnership with SAGE Publications and the technology company Semantico as was, developed my confidence in demonstrating the value of what we do, highlighting our skills and our knowledge. The collaboration has seen us stepping out into the commercial world and “selling” what it is we can bring to an already successful company and ensuring that we, in return, can develop with them creative and innovative support and services for our students and researchers. This was very much a collaboration – or, as we sometimes refer to it, a ‘special relationship’. We learn from them, they learn from us, and it was vital to make clear from the start that this was to be a collaboration and not a service or sponsorship. Once you establish that then it’s almost as if the barriers begin to break down and anything is possible; whether it’s successful or it fails, the excitement and the energy is in the experimentation and looking at things just a little bit differently from how we had before.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing together

Another example is The Keep partnership with East Sussex Country Council and Brighton and Hove City Council. In order for this collaboration to work, all parties involved in setting up The Keep have had to develop and hone their negotiation skills. It is also testament to its success that staff have listened to each other and continue to listen, understanding each other’s issues, compromising and agreeing on services, values and a whole heap of other jointly run projects. In a similar way to the SAGE relationship, once this partnership was in place it needed to be nurtured and encouraged, refreshed and monitored. These methods of working are productive and creative, although they do need significant input and you must be prepared for long-term commitment.

My final example is the work the Library has undertaken with the Sussex Humanities Lab – a collaborative research centre in itself here at Sussex. This is another relationship that we have to work hard on, but its great value is that it takes us in different directions. It adds a uniqueness to the Library at Sussex, which brings us closer to our research community and offers an opportunity to be creative in our approach, something that can be hard to find time to be in day-to day work.

To finish my presentation I want to acknowledge that none of the above is rooted in theory. I’ve been on numerous management/leadership training days, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything about any theory that related to partnership working, although no doubt such research exists. My musings will be based on my own experiences and an increasing confidence in enthusiastically supporting and promoting the partnership approach to working.

I will be ending the keynote with a thanks to an organisation with which I’ve been involved for over ten years and which has taught me how rewarding it is to work with colleagues in different sectors to solve problems and to find creative and innovative solutions: UKSG. UKSG is all about partnerships and learning from each other and working together with the aim of improve the world of scholarly communications. If you are interested in finding out more, their mission, vision, values and objectives can be found here:

https://www.uksg.org/about

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