Building Community and Coalitions: Takeaways from the TPS Collective

A report-back from a presentation at the 2023 RBMS Conference by John Henry Adams, Anne Bahde, Jen Hoyer, Heather Smedberg, and Matt Strandmark

Several members of the TPS Collective led a discussion at the 2023 RBMS Conference titled Building Community and Coalitions: Takeaways from the TPS Collective.  Our goal was to bring attendees together to think about the benefits of thinking of our work in terms of building coalitions rather than in terms of our professional affiliations. 

We began by outlining some of the advantages of a de-centralized approach to professional service and collaboration; we think some of these ideas may be of interest for larger organizations eager to become more inclusive, and they may also have implications for local and regional activities and opportunities.

We introduced the Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Collective as a network that brings together resources, professional development, and community support for anyone who has an interest in using primary sources in an educational setting. It is our hope that participating will be available with the lowest barrier to entry possible. There is no formal membership process or dues. 

The non-hierarchical, peer mentorship structure of the TPS Community means that there is a role for every level of participation. Over time we have noticed that people come to the website and events to learn; stay to share, contribute, or connect; and begin to take leadership roles as they feel comfortable doing so. Many people fit into multiple categories and evolve their roles and participation level over time, stepping forward and back from as needed. 

The thoughts we shared to start off our discussion are below; click the (+) plus sign beside each topic to read more.

A model that is responsive and agile (Anne Bahde)

Anne Bahde explained how, from its earliest form as a ‘resource bank’ created by teaching archivists and special collections librarians, the TPS Collective was a response to expressed needs in the community. Though instruction had a limited presence in the major professional organizations, it was clear from conference chatter and other routes that there was a huge, growing presence of teaching across many position types and institutions, but no centralized, agile way for those scattered people to talk to each other. When people did start to talk to each other outside of organizational constraints, new collaborative possibilities and roles arose. 

Perhaps the best example of responsiveness from the TPS Collective is the Community Calls. In the earliest days of the pandemic, when we were all struggling, the community came together organically to support each other, share expertise, and learn together through monthly calls. Directly following each call, organizers stayed to plan the next one and participants were encouraged to stay, give feedback, and volunteer for upcoming opportunities; this rapid turnaround meant we were able to take feedback and input from the community and nimbly fold that into the next call and subsequent products. Because we had no organizational hierarchy or set committees, new volunteers could respond to community needs by finding a role or task to fit their interest level and time budget. We encourage participation through multiple, shared, constantly open channels, including a slack workspace, monthly TPS Collective Facilitation Team meetings, the listserv, and the website.

That agility is also modeled in the building of the website; when it was time for a visual update after a few years, the webteam asked for focus group volunteers from the TPS Community to generate potential navigation structures and tagging vocabularies. The feedback garnered from this exercise directly guided the redesign and was clearly reflected in the final product, and several focus group members stayed on as regular webteam participants. This type of direct engagement allows the community to consistently, iteratively, and responsively build what the community says it needs.

Finding flexibility for labor, time, and place (Matt Strandmark)

Matt Strandmark first began work on what was then the TPS “Resource Bank” following a call at the Society of American Archivists 2015 meeting; this ultimately resulted in the basic bones of what would become the TPS Collective website. In 2019, Matt became more involved as the group gained energy and members, working alongside Matt Herbison and others to modernize and create a sustainable infrastructure for the (much more active) website.

From the beginning, the TPS Collective, and volunteer work on the website, was possible due to a dedicated and talented group of professionals who have always supported one another. One of the most valuable parts of this work is its ability to flexibly fit into other demands of my schedule and time. There have been times of feverish activity on the website: when gearing up for online events during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, major redesign initiatives, or one-on-one user testing. Matt described other times over the past four years when he has stepped back from this work for months at a time due to professional or personal demands. In a more conventional or traditional professional organization, involvement in a major committee or initiative with this kind of flexibility is not usually possible.

The diffuse and cooperative nature of our work as a collective makes this flexibility a reality. Because of lack of any kind of formal hierarchy or siloed work, taking a step back creates space for other members of the facilitation team or the TPS community to take more active roles. Availability to be more present results in stronger processes and products because of the individuals who have felt empowered to join. 

In such a demanding professional environment, we must seek to create this kind of flexibility in our organizations. In addition to the painful lessons that the pandemic taught us, the success of the TPS Collective shows that TPS practitioners are hungry for ways to contribute, learn, and evolve outside of strictly traditional modes. 

Focusing on relationships (Heather Smedberg)

Our key to staying responsive and nimble is our intentional focus on relationships. The TPS Collective seeks to nourish relationships at the network level and we strive to foster *supportive* relationships between individuals in the community as we go about our work. On both of these planes, we hold to the belief that we are stronger when connected together; the spirit of our work is typically one of mutually enriching collaboration and cooperation. We strive for a culture of care. Work sessions often blend in a bit of sociability and in some cases, built in time after the close of business to share current challenges or recent successes. This mix helps develop the trust, vulnerability, authenticity, respect, that are crucial to fostering spaces of productive and supportive feedback and exchange. It’s also a direct investment into community.
At the network-to-network level, we aim to serve as both a partner with and antidote to other, more formal professional organizations. We try to operate with just enough organizational support to keep things moving without being too formal and therefore falling into time sucks frequently associated with formal membership organizations. We’ve intentionally built in liaison relationships with RBMS IOC, SAA RAO-TPS committee  — each join the Facilitation Team, for example, but so too do plenty of people who are affiliated with groups, or who identify with none at all. And there is most definitely room and desire for new relationships to form with additional regional, national, international groups, and with additional cohorts of individuals like museum education professionals, and early career folks; happily a newly formed outreach team is getting underway. It’s a really extensible model, but it is dependent on people seeing themselves in the community, and in this approach.

Understanding the value each individual brings (Jen Hoyer)

The TPS Collective has been compelling for many as a space where participation is valued simply because of skills and ideas, and not necessarily because of credentials or expertise in the field.

A lot of us work in spaces where hierarchies are formed by experience and credentials, and these hierarchies can often feel really disempowering to me. While power structures sometimes do still arise in spaces where labor and ideas are prioritised, those structures and relationships often feel different, and feel like comfortable (and exciting!) communities and networks to be in.

Space to learn and grow (John Henry Adams)

John Henry Adams shared about joining the TPS Collective Facilitation Team shortly after finishing library school, and being delegated responsibility for the Teaching Tools Library: essentially, curating relevant resources in a Zotero library. This role also allowed space to watch and listen to the work not just of the Collective as a whole but on the facilitation team—space to lurk. That role became a stepping stone to take on other responsibilities, handing off initial roles to other new volunteers. 

A more conventional organization tends to have term limits for committee membership. That’s perfectly reasonable, but it makes it a little difficult for someone to transition from a lurker to a more active participant. Presence on the TPS facilitation team is “at-will,” which creates space to start out with a more passive role without having to have a specific high-intensity commitment. This also provides an opportunity to slowly learning what other projects others are working on without being nervous about figuring it all out by the time a term is up; volunteers can stick around for as long as they like, and gradually grow into whatever role they feel best suited for.

Group Discussion

Following our introduction with these core values that resonate in the coalition-building structure of the TPS Collective, we invited attendees to reflect on five questions. 

Attendees spent 10 minutes sharing reflections on any of these questions on a google jamboard (a cloud-based collaborative tool), and then we reflected as a whole group on ideas shared. You can find all of those responses in the saved PDF of our jamboard.

Some of the ideas and reflections we shared together include:

What are ways you’d like to learn and grow as a professional? Do you feel like you have space for that in professional networks right now, or is there something else you’re hoping for? What ways you can supplement or complement what your professional orgs are doing right now to facilitate this?

  • We discussed barriers to entry into professional organizations, as well as the term-limited nature of a lot of professional organization roles, which doesn’t always feel like the scaffolded opportunities for growth and learning that we’d like.
  • We wished there was some kind of buddy program to help us feel at home in professional organizations that we’re new to.
  • We discussed the need for both leadership training and management training, and the benefits of each.

Who do you wish you were connecting with, that you aren’t working with now? (What are their interests, skills, experiences, etc.?)

  • There are so many people we want to connect with! People at the same career stage as us; curators at our own institutions; faculty; art museum professionals and art librarians; classroom teachers; STEM specialists; instruction experts; IT folks.
    On the whole: we are here to make friends 🤩

How do you communicate with people you would like to work with? How do you maintain existing relationships with collaborators? What are your listening mechanisms? 

  • We talked a lot about cold calling (or emailing), and how we can feel comfortable just reaching out to folks we want to collaborate with.
  • We mourned Twitter as a platform that used to feel great for making connections.
  • We shared about different ways we connect with collaborators who we don’t see in real life very often

What skills and abilities do you have to offer in professional coalition-building spaces, that you feel you don’t have a way to put to use right now in the professional spaces you exist within?

  • We’ve always suspected that the TPS Community is incredibly talented, and our conversation proved this right! Folks have skills in film and television, in communication, in project management, in listening, in sustaining momentum…if you need a collaborator with a specific kind of skills, you might just find them in the TPS Community!

Is there a project or community you’re working in right now where you would love to try a different, non-hierarchical/more participatory approach? What would you imagine trying differently? (We realize that you might not have the power to change things, but let’s still dream together!)

  • The vibes here were that a lot of us love to be in spaces where power is distributed and where leadership models are nonhierarchical. And, a lot of us are in workplaces that aren’t like that; it can be stressful to try to change those structures, or to maintain good relationships while advocating for change.

As we wrapped up we asked ourselves what one new thing we might try and what’s holding us back from diving into more participatory, networked professional models. One participant noted that maybe perfectionism and fear of failure holds us back; someone else noted time and capacity (that’s real!), and we discussed how some types of service work are valorized over others. We saw folks committing to emailing people whose work they admire; to taking time to connect with colleagues; to scrutinizing the hierarchies we reinforce in our workspaces; to finding joy where we can.