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Archivist and Area Studies Librarian Collaboration

This essay reviewed the literature on how archivists and area studies librarians could develop meaningful partnerships to advance our collective impact and reach.

Published onMar 14, 2022
Archivist and Area Studies Librarian Collaboration

A wide range of disciplines are incorporating primary sources into the curriculum to enrich student learning, including architecture (Seals, 2012), art history (Garland 2014), computer science (Bunde and Engel, 2010), English (Mazella and Grob 2011), history (Weiner, Morris, and Mykytiuk, 2015), geography (Widener and Reese, 2016), music (Sauceda, 2018), social and behavioral science (Victor, Otto, and Mutschler, 2013), and STEM (Anderberg, 2015), just to name a few. Much research reports the collaboration between archivists and faculty; however, very few studies discuss the collaboration between archivists and subject librarians, especially regarding library instruction and reference. One major responsibility that archivists and subject librarians share in common is that both make efforts to support learning and academic success through reference and teaching. Among all subject librarians, area studies librarians share another major responsibility with archivists: both curate and promote distinctive collections in various subject areas that are centered on certain geographic regions and cultivate cultural resonance in English and foreign languages. These two major similarities provide a foundation for the two parties to develop meaningful partnerships.  

Subject librarians are often the first go-to person for questions related to primary source materials. They routinely teach general and course-integrated information literacy sessions and provide in-person and virtual reference. Therefore, collaborating with subject librarians offers archivists a broader platform to reach students who may not visit archives otherwise. Among all subject librarians, area studies librarians share many similar challenges in the ever-growing academic library settings as archivists do, including the urgent need to demonstrate the value and facilitate the discovery of highly specialized collections, support teaching, learning, and research efforts of a diverse user population with different abilities and needs both on and off campus. These shared challenges thus allow archivists and area studies librarians to form natural alliances to promote their collections and services.         

 Archivists and area studies librarians can potentially develop collaborative relationships by considering these three factors. First, building shared capacity to serve interdisciplinary scholars and students. Archivists and area studies librarians tend to have more users that come from certain academic departments, but they also serve a broader audience whose research spans multiple academic departments. Both groups need to identify connections and match areas of expertise to engage users among both parties and even throughout the library. Second, curating distinctive collections with local relevance as well as keeping a global audience in mind. How to balance the local and global relevance need constant dialogs between the two parties and scholarly communities to make informed decisions. Area studies librarians can serve as great ambassadors to promote local collections to potential local groups and international users due to their deep ties with local communities, scholars, and librarians from foreign countries. Third, utilizing the language expertise of area studies librarians to increase discoverability of non-English primary source materials. Non-English, especially non-Roman scripts, primary source materials need extra mediation to increase their discovery and use. The two parties could pilot and imitate translation projects to enhance access to users with limited or no foreign language ability. 
After identifying potential areas of collaboration, it’s useful to learn how archivists and area studies librarians could better team up to grow shared strengths to overcome shared challenges. In their Team-based collaboration in higher education learning and teaching: a review of the literature, Newell and Bain (2018) summarized five factors that contribute to successful team collaboration in higher education, which could serve as a guideline to foster collaborative relationships between archivists and area studies librarians. These factors include: 1) Developing individual attitudes, dispositions, and interpersonal skills; 2) Team-based structures, protocols, and problem-solving skills; 3) Team cognition, knowledge building, and shared mental models; 4) Leadership, team norms, and supports for collaboration; 5) Learning and practice effects of collaboration ( Newell and Bain 2018, 19-24). The first factor requires each member of a team to reach an agreed understanding and cultivate relationships by embracing shared values and beliefs. (Newell and Bain 2018, 33) The second factor calls for structures to practice problem-solving capabilities to build trust and realize shared goals. (Newell and Bain 2018, 40) The third factor emphasizes the importance of creating shared knowledge and language to ensure collaborative practice (Newell and Bain 2018, 48-49). The fourth factor highlights the importance of external support and leadership for sustainable collaboration. (Newell and Bain 2018, 55) The fifth and final factor underlines collaboration impacts learning and practice among collaborators. Tasks-based collaboration might be easy to achieve and can be a wonderful starting point. Long-term multi-dimensional collaboration as a process of relationship-building could yield more fruitful outcomes. These factors help turn one-time teamwork into longitudinal cooperation and grow a culture of successful collaboration within the two professions. 


Anderberg, L. (2015). STEM undergraduates and archival instruction: a case study at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. The American Archivist, 78(2), 548-566.

 Bunde, J., & Engel, D. (2010). Computing in the humanities: An interdisciplinary partnership in undergraduate education. Journal of Archival Organization, 8(2), 149-159.

 Garland, J. (2014). Locating Traces of Hidden Visual Culture in Rare Books and Special Collections: A Case Study in Visual Literacy. Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 33(2), 313-326.

 Mazella, D., & Grob, J. (2011). Collaborations between faculty and special collections librarians in inquiry-driven classes. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 11(1), 467-487.

 Newell, & Bain, A. (2018). Team-based collaboration in higher education learning and teaching : a review of the literature. Springer.

 Sauceda, J. (2018). Arranging" The Library of Babel": Special Collections, Undergraduate Research, and Librarian Engagement. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 18(2), 391-408.

 Seals, N. M. (2012). Building a New Model: Faculty-Archivist Collaboration in Architectural Studies. Past Or Portal?: Enhancing Undergraduate Learning Through Special Collections and Archives, 92.

 Victor Jr, P., Otto, J., & Mutschler, C. (2013). Assessment of library instruction on undergraduate student success in a documents-based research course: The benefits of librarian, archivist, and faculty collaboration. Collaborative librarianship, 5(3), 2.

 Weiner, S. A., Morris, S., & Mykytiuk, L. J. (2015). Archival literacy competencies for undergraduate history majors. The American Archivist, 78(1), 154-180.

 Widener, J. M., & Slater Reese, J. (2016). Mapping an American college town: integrating archival resources and research in an introductory GIS course. Journal of Map & Geography Libraries, 12(3), 238-257.

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