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LibParlor Contributor Series

Getting Started, Part I: Reflections on our long distance, cross-institutional collaboration

LibParlor Contributors Martha Stuit and Joanna Thielen begin their two part series reflecting on what works for them as research collaborators.

Martha Stuit works with the institutional repository at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI. Her research interests include publishing, open access, and data, digital, and critical information literacy. She is a librarian, writer, and former reporter. She earned her bachelor’s and Master of Science in Information from the University of Michigan. You can reach her at, and you can also find her on Twitter: @newerwilderness

Joanna Thielen is an Assistant Professor at Oakland University in Rochester, MI. She is Research Data Librarian and the Librarian for the Biological Sciences, Chemistry, and Physics departments. (Whew! All of her job titles are a mouthful.) Her research interests are many, including integrating research data management in the curriculum, and novel ways of serving STEM patrons. She earned her MSI degree from the University of Michigan in 2016. You can reach her at

We work in very different libraries, have very different responsibilities, and very different work schedules. We are also collaborators on research, publications, and presentations. Acknowledging, and even capitalizing on, these differences have made our collaborations quite fruitful. Here, we share what worked for us while collaborating.

This article is the first of a two-part series: Part 1 is a reflection on our collaboration. Part 2 will give a practical take on how to start researching and publishing.

Us as Individuals and Collaborators

First, some background! We met in library school and worked on course and extracurricular projects together, including planning a student-led conference. Our poster presentations about that conference led to invited conference presentations and then articles during and after getting library degrees, which is where our stories diverge.

Martha’s path following library school started with two part-time jobs, continued as a community college librarian, and now involves working with an institutional repository at an R1 university. None of her positions has required research or publication, which led her to collaborate outside of her institutions, be creative about adding these practices to her work, and look broadly for resources and tools.

After library school, Joanna became Research Data Librarian and Science Librarian at an R3 university. As a tenure-track faculty member, she has developed her own research agenda and engages in research, presents at conferences, and publishes articles on an ongoing basis, which is required for promotion and tenure.

Our collaboration has organically continued over the last four years, and we trust each other. However, collaboration can be challenging and fraught. Once, Joanna recruited two librarians that she didn’t know to write an article. After months of little progress from them, she had to ditch the project. While extremely frustrating at the time, this situation has informed her later collaborations.

Components that Have Helped Our Collaboration Succeed

Next, we distill our experiences into concrete takeaways to hopefully spark ideas about collaboration for you. Our reflections start broadly with job requirements, communication, and time. Then we talk specifically about meeting logistics, collaboration tools, and personal strengths.

Job Requirements

Every librarian has requirements and responsibilities affecting how frequently and to what degree they can collaborate. On a fundamental level, the obligation to research or publish can majorly influence collaborations. Our positions fall on opposite ends of the spectrum in requirements. Martha’s other duties come first, and her research and publication mainly happen outside of work or when multitasking. Joanna’s position requires both activities, and she includes them in her daily work. These differences have helped our collaboration. For Martha, having a collaborator who is expected to publish offers additional motivation. For Joanna, her library actively supports research and publication owing to the rigorous tenure process, and she has utilized more of her institution’s resources when collaborating externally.

Takeaway: While differences in job requirements can seem like a barrier to collaboration, try to frame them as advantages.


Communication can feel like a buzzword, so what does that look like in a successful collaboration? We describe our communication as open and frequent. Before and throughout any work, discussing how to communicate sets expectations. We like to update each other via email almost weekly and meet virtually every two or three weeks for longer conversations. These interactions may sound like a lot, but they work well for us. There are many other methods that could work (text, instant messaging, etc.) so long as everyone can access it and keep up.

Takeaway: Agree on the means and frequency of communication before starting any collaboration so that everyone is on the same page.


Collaborating on projects certainly takes time, a finite commodity for everyone. Since Martha has a twelve-month appointment, she has consistent but limited availability all year. Joanna has an eight-month appointment during which her liaison and instruction responsibilities take precedence in the academic year, but she has four months to focus solely on research and publications. We allocate our time accordingly, and transparency is key. During our years of collaboration, Martha has moved several times, which means she had to take some short breaks from our endeavors. By shifting responsibilities so that Joanna takes on a task while Martha is unavailable and vice versa, we have worked around our schedules. Knowing and discussing our availability and bandwidth has kept our collaboration running smoothly.

Takeaway: Be realistic and straightforward about your availability, both to your collaborators and yourself. Let collaborators know when major personal or professional things are coming up and how they will affect your participation.

Meeting Logistics

Scheduling recurring meetings, or finding a time for the next one at the end of meetings, is one common and productive means to advance a project. When working on a project last spring, aside from meeting virtually, we met in-person three times for full-day work sessions because we only lived 90 minutes from each other. Still, these longer sessions could have been done virtually. Also, creating meeting agendas helps us cover everything, make progress, and communicate well. We maintain a shared notes document where we add agenda items prior to talking and refer back to it for to do’s.

Takeaway: Having regular meetings reserves time for and maintains momentum in a project, especially amidst other responsibilities.

Collaboration Tools

Finding tools that work for all collaborators can be difficult, especially when collaborators are geographically dispersed, but you can leverage your resources by pooling available tools and expertise. For a survey, we used the Qualtrics online survey tool via Joanna’s institutional subscription, and she could share access with Martha. Also, having a single, shared folder for the many files that such projects generate saves versioning and access headaches. Last year, our libraries were using different systems (Google Suite and Microsoft Outlook), so Martha created a new Google account in order to store all of our files in Google Drive. Shared docs can feel tedious with comments and suggestions, and also are a very public place to work. Martha sometimes finds it helpful to draft offline to form her thoughts and then paste it into the shared document.

Takeaway: Before embarking on a collaboration, identify and decide which tools you will use to work efficiently.

Personal Strengths

Having collaborators with individual strengths positively contributes to the quality of research and publication outputs. Martha has a degree in English, so she is excellent at copyediting and wordsmithing. Joanna has expertise with data from her degrees and current position, and she is great at tracking details. While working with collaborators who have unique personalities or skills can cause conflict, each perspective strengthens the final product.

Takeaway: Take stock in each of your collaborator’s strengths and capitalize on those strengths.

Going Forward

We wanted to share how we have been able to make our collaboration successful. Long-distance, cross-institutional collaboration might not work for everyone, but it can be rewarding personally and professionally. If not required to research or publish, but interested or considering jobs requiring it, you can still try it out, as Martha has. If you are required to engage in these activities, finding someone at another institution with whom you work well propels the process, as Joanna found.

Remember, you will never stop learning how to be a good collaborator.

Hopefully, these practices help you establish collaborations and maybe even give you ideas for other methods. If so, we’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Have we inspired you to collaborate? Look for Part 2 on getting started with research and publication.

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1 comment on “Getting Started, Part I: Reflections on our long distance, cross-institutional collaboration

  1. Pingback: Getting Started, Part II: How to Start Research and Writing Projects – The Librarian Parlor

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