There’s a proverb of unknown origin, that paraphrased, offers this advice: to go fast go alone; to go far go together. One may find examples of groups that have honed their ability to go far fast through meticulous and systematic application of their individual expertise. Each member is likely well matched in experience to their teammates but provides a different and complementary skill. When each employs that skill, the team as a whole can problem solve and advance quickly toward a goal. Collaboration in real life is often a bit messier than this idealized version. Teams comprised of members with varying amounts of experience may come together and there’s no guarantee that all of the desired skills will be represented among them. There may still be learning that the team needs to do together to reach their goals. Additionally, the team may be collaborating for the first time and using methods that they have employed for smaller-scale collaborations. My experience in the Library as Research Lab suggests that groups new to collaborating with each other and/or with mixed levels of expertise can be successful by valuing approaches that distribute opportunities for contribution among team members, ensure learning and growth, and yes, are probably slower. The sum of the distances each member has traveled in their learning and professional growth during their collaboration might be what’s important to measure in determining just how far “far” really is.

In real life, as distinct from graduate school or from any planned but not yet executed alliance, collaboration requires moving from a “I” mindset to a “Me and my collaborators” way of thinking. The stage of the project we were in — writing a paper together for a conference — had firm deadlines rather than loose ones that we set for ourselves. As I looked for my place in this work, I asked several questions: What skills and personal traits do we each bring to this work — which ones should I focus on? What am I interested in learning/challenging myself to do and how can I tap into my team to help me learn to do it? Where can I step forward/where should I step back in this collaboration? How does this work fit into my other responsibilities? How can I manage my time and work with my teammates’ schedules? How can I be a reliable team member? How can I ask for help and from whom on my team? How can we enhance communication in our collaboration?

With an unlimited timeline one can imagine all sorts of answers to these questions that would fit the aforementioned values of distributed opportunities for contribution, learning, and growth. However, collaboration in real life does have deadlines that can both limit as well as spur growth. As a spur to growth, conference papers and their accompanying deadlines can provide an audience interested in the same types of questions that we find interesting.  Thinking about this audience and timing our work to be able to disseminate it when they are gathered influences both the content of the work as well as how the team comes together to get the work done. In our case, balancing learning with finishing and even with carrying out our research exactly as we would hope to in every step required flexibility and compromise.

Collaborating in real life requires thinking about how you want to handle leadership. Is there one leader directing, resolving differences in viewpoints, distributing work, managing timelines, and pulling the parts together into a cohesive whole? Or are there leaders of divisions of the work or some other design? It can be easy to overlook these questions when a group comes together to collaborate. Afterall, you have the same goal and likely have similar desires to succeed. With those two components, nothing should stand in your way, right? Thoughtful planning for leadership allows each member of the team to be able to contribute what they can and lessens the conflicts.

Collaborating in real life requires having a collective understanding about authorship. Thinking about all of the ways that team members have contributed to the work can ensure that all members feel like authors even when actual word counts contributed differ. In the end, having discussions about the many roles team members take on throughout a project may make the “authorship conversations” smoother when it comes time to decide which names (and in what order) appear on the finished work.  

Jackie Freeman obtained a B.A. in English and French from Kalamazoo College, a M.A. in English from Michigan State University, and a MLIS from Wayne State University and is now an Informationist at Taubman Health Sciences Library at the University of Michigan.