Innovation Sharing and Knowledge Exchange in Mid-Michigan: An NDSA Interview with MMDP

Nicole Garrett Smeltekop

Matt Schultz

Every year, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance recognizes and encourages innovation in the field of digital preservation stewardship through its Innovation Awards. We’re thrilled to continue our interview series with two planning committee members of the Mid-Michigan Digital Practitioners group (MMDP), Nicole Garrett Smeltekop and Matt Schultz. The MMDP received NDSA’s Innovation Award for organizations due to its taking an innovative approach to providing support and guidance to the digital preservation community. You can find all of our interviews with the NDSA Innovation Award winners here.

Recognized for its highly original and successful organizational model in fostering innovation sharing and knowledge exchange, the MMDP will convene for its next meeting in March 23-24 2017.

Please tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you both became involved with the MMDP!

Nicole: I first became involved with MMDP at the the very beginning in 2013, but I didn’t join the planning group until the following year. In 2013, I was a lone arranger archivist, and very excited to be part of a low-key group that talked about the realities of digital preservation. My budget was near $0, but standards were important to me. I remember some great talks and consensus that best practice is really beyond the resources of anyone right now, so finding a good enough solution for your institution is totally fine. It was such a relief to hear that at a professional meeting! In 2014, I switched jobs to become a special materials cataloger and metadata librarian at a much larger library. My job deals with the metadata aspects of things, so going to meetings and hearing about other facets of digital curation/scholarship/etc. is really helpful as I think about decisions beyond my metadata based perspective for our digital repository.

Matt: My first intersections with MMDP started with a visit to the community’s Fall 2015 meeting at Albion College. I had just come on board as Grand Valley State University’s new Metadata & Digital Curation Librarian. I was blown away by the format and quality of the meeting, and even more so by the camaraderie of the group. There was an immediate sense of welcome and invitation to dive in and connect. Not surprisingly I was eager and happy to help host the next Spring 2016 meeting at GVSU. Working with the planning committee to prepare for that meeting was also incredibly enlightening. Very open, but also very on-task and focused.

The MMDP was awarded the NDSA Innovation Award for Organizations for its highly original and successful organizational model in fostering innovation sharing and knowledge exchange. Could you talk a bit about MMDP’s organizational model and the planning group?

Nicole: The planning group is a self selected group of people who help plan the meetings. Most of us are from Michigan State University, but we have a few others from other Michigan institutions. For the format of the meetings, I think we looked around at what wasn’t being done and filled a hole. Lightning talks, discussions, and time for general networking time rather than standard panels makes us unique. We also keep our meetings free and pretty low-key, so I think it encourages new people and fosters more real discussion. From what I can tell, no one is in “expert” mode – we’re all dedicated to learning more from each other and respect the knowledge each of us brings.

Matt: I just would echo all of what Nicole said. As we concluded the Spring 2016 meeting at GVSU, I was pretty humbled to be immediately approached by the planning team to come on board with an open-ended invitation to contribute some of my own guidance and leadership to planning for future meetings. There were no hoops to jump through with the existing planners. As we fired up discussions for the Fall 2016 meeting at MSU, I was also really struck by the willingness of the planning team to open up our calls to the entire MMDP community. Anybody could drop in and be a fly on the wall or throw in their two cents. I think that is so important to keeping in step as a community and carving out space for new ideas. The DLF Assessment Interest Group takes a similar open, low barrier to entry approach and I think it really just expands the landscape of mutual interests, concerns, and approaches.

MMDP meetings bring together a wide range of professionals, including librarians, archivists, museum curators, historians, and more. The meetings also attract student groups, practicing professionals, vendors, and the general public. How has membership grown and are there particular groups you’d like to increase in participation or continue to tap into?

Nicole: I’d like to see more lone arranger and small shop participation. When I was a lone arranger, I found just talking to people at larger institutions so incredibly helpful in figuring out what was feasible for me and what wasn’t. Also, those jobs require a lot of creativity with resources, time, and skills, so the people filling them are usually excited, driven and creative!

Matt: I haven’t been with the group since the very beginning, but my sense is that it has grown steadily year upon year. One interesting bit of culture within this group seems to be less of a focus on tracking numbers, but more on creating new spaces and opportunities with each meeting to add to the diversity of both institution types and professional backgrounds. With each meeting we’re looking to hit a region and demographic we haven’t yet or that we haven’t hit very recently. We put a Code of Conduct in place that enshrines our inclusivity and enlists the community in upholding that standard. Within that Code of Conduct we also carved out a respectful space for vendors, and I think they feel welcome, and the attending institutions don’t feel pitched at, if you know what I mean.

The MMDP held its first meeting at MSU in August 2013 and the group will convene for its next workshop and meeting on March 23-24 2017. Could you share a few insights that you’ve learned over previous meetings?

Nicole: Perhaps unsurprisingly, people didn’t like the hour long talks and preferred time for networking. We also readjusted our lightning talks and birds of feather discussions to mimic each other, as some feedback was that the lightning talks were exciting, but participants felt like they wanted time talk further about the topics and avoid the whiplash feeling that can sometimes come after a round of lightning talks.

Matt: Like I said, I haven’t attended all of the meetings over the years, but even looking back across the few meetings I’ve had the privilege of participating in, I have seen some interesting progressions. At the Fall 2016 meeting at Michigan State University we made a point of offering both a technical and a not-so-technical set of half-day workshops. One was on XML/XSLT and the other was on digital preservation policy development. So, there was a little something for everyone. The workshops spanned a whole day back-to-back, and we were curious to see how that might affect attendance, and were just so impressed with the turnout for each workshop. I think the community appreciates the willingness to try new things with the program for each meeting. It keeps it fresh.

The agendas of past meetings signal the compelling and varied work of the professionals engaged in creating and curating digital collections in Mid-Michigan and the surrounding area. Could you discuss a particularly interesting topic or issue trend you’ve seen develop?

Nicole: Matt can speak more on this, but I’m excited to see his idea of a hackfest develop! I also like seeing that although we have a core of devoted attendees, the makeup of each meeting is quite a bit different. I like seeing new faces and am happy to see our outreach efforts are reaching people perhaps not on the typical professional listservs (local historians, corporate archivists, etc.)

Matt: As Nicole is alluding, the idea of incorporating some hackfests into the meetings seems to be taking off. We are using “hackfest” in a very loose sense to span everything from focus grouping a technical workflow, to spitballing wireframes, to breaking up into small action groups and building some new tools and resources for the community. I recently suggested that we “hackfest” a set of lightweight online tools to facilitate knowledge and resource exchange within the MMDP community. Megan Kudzia and Robin Dean from Michigan State University are going to take that ball and run with it for a half-day hackfest workshop at the next Meeting in March at Wayne State University.

MMDP meetings are designed democratically via pre- and post- conference surveys. Based on feedback from previous events, are there new developments you’re excited to try out for the next meeting?

Nicole: We always ask for presentations based on the survey results of what the community wants to hear about. At the last meeting, we expanded the workshops to be half day rather than 2 hours, and based on the feedback on this meeting’s survey, we will continue doing half day workshops. Attendees really liked that more time allowed them to delve deeper into the topics.

Matt: In the run-up to this next meeting there has also been a concerted push to reach out to student groups and get them attending and involved with this community. That and some targeted outreach to professionals, faculty, and students who are interested in digital humanities.

Could you offer advice for folks interested in beginning and sustaining their own regional practitioners group?

Nicole: Having some supportive big institutions and networking with other professional organizations for support is really helpful! We’re able to offer these meetings at no cost (including lunch!) based on the generosity of the larger universities in our area as well as a partnership with the Michigan Archival Association, who sponsors a portion of the meeting cost.

Matt: My advice would be…don’t be afraid to start small and build from there. Avoid thinking too broadly when it comes to your geography. Draw some reasonable lines around the area of community such that it is not too onerous for folks to physically travel to meetings. Make a point to move your events around to different hosts every year or throughout the year. Don’t get too wedded to one format for your meetings or events, but also don’t change things up radically between each meeting. I see the MMDP community at the moment thinking and working through some processes for putting a bit of stable planning infrastructure in place, which is really cool because it feels like an indicator of maturity. But at the same time, watch out that you don’t over-formalize things. Keep the infrastructure lightweight and nimble. Rotate the administrative roles and duties. Pass the batons frequently. Keep a spirit of openness to fresh ideas front and center and on the table always. And just plain have fun! Heavy on the humor and camaraderie!

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