Service Learning Site Logo

Academic libraries tell the story: Archiving community engagement projects

Posted on Monday, November 6th, 2017

Moderator’s note: This post was written by Anne Marie Gruber, Instruction & Liaison Librarian, University of Northern Iowa

There is increasing interest among academic librarians in supporting community engagement efforts on our campuses, as evidenced by a growing number of publications on this topic. Librarians are discussing how we can leverage our roles on campus to support service-learning and other forms of campus-community partnerships. As discussed previously on this blog, this can take shape through information literacy instruction, providing local collections, and providing spaces for community events and meetings. In addition, academic libraries can help our campuses tell their community engagement stories by archiving projects online, often through institutional repositories (IR) we already provide to campus constituents.

While many campuses have significant amounts of service-learning and other forms of community engagement already happening, getting the word out about these projects on campus and among alumni/donors can be difficult in an age of information overload. What if campus had an online repository of such projects, complete with student and faculty research, event photos, videos, and more? Academic libraries are creating just these sorts of collections, well-positioned to help gather, curate, and manage the resulting artifacts. An added benefit is the ability to make community-based research and projects available publicly–a hallmark of mutually beneficial relationships between campus and community.

My institution, University of Northern Iowa, has a fairly new but growing collection of community engagement projects, available at UNI Scholarworks. One notable sub-collection comes from the annual Service-Learning Institute (SLI). SLI is a collaboration with Iowa Campus Compact(1) to train a select group of faculty in service-learning best practices and pair each with a community partner so they can co-create course-embedded projects. Materials from several projects are already available. Examples include:

  • The Moving Words project, with short films created by UNI art students, based on writings and drawings from youth participants in a local writing project (discussed in further detail below).
  • An Environmental Literature course project collaboration with the Soil and Water Conservation District, which resulted in a published anthology, Beauty Outside Our Doors, recording area residents’ stories sharing their connections to the land.
  • Running Past the Trees, another art/local youth writing project collaboration, this time resulting in a published book, Running Past the Trees: Facing Childhood and Adolescence in Iowa’s Cedar Valley.

The community engagement digital collection also includes materials from the library’s own community projects as well as from our campus institutes/centers that provide services to the public in a number of topic areas, such as the Tallgrass Prairie Center. A new sub-collection is in planning stages to archive presentations and media related to an annual Community Engagement Day, planned to take place the first time on our campus in April 2018. The library is involved early on to ensure we can capture artifacts related to the event, such as students’ posters/papers and the event program. Discussions are even underway to use the IR as the submission platform for faculty and students wishing to present at the celebratory event. Library faculty suggested that faculty might consider requiring student posters for the event to be “born-digital”; while this may not be possible for some projects, moving in this direction will help ensure students’ work is available online for potential employers and graduate schools to see.

A secondary benefit of creating the Community Engagement collection has been to allow the digital scholarship unit staff to explore different media formats. The Moving Words project in a 3-D art course taught by Angela Waseskuk allowed Ellen Neuhaus, Digital Scholarship Librarian, to digitally archive films for the first time. Undergraduate students created short stop-motion films based on original creative writings and drawings of area youth who participate in the local Waterloo Writing Project. If not for library faculty/staff capturing the creative works in the IR, they would have been lost. Now even those who couldn’t attend the red-carpet film premier or the students’ panel discussion can view the films, original creative works, and photos from the culminating event. More detail about this project is available in a forthcoming book chapter.(2)

A recent webinar hosted by the vendor bepress, Building a Bridge: How Library Services can Support Local Communities, focused on ways IRs can serve as platforms for telling the community engagement story.(3) Library faculty and staff are experts at identifying, curating, and sharing resources, so we can support the institution’s obligation to share research and other scholarly work with stakeholders beyond campus borders. Libraries can partner with community engagement offices and others on campus to support the Carnegie classification process(4) as well as to share materials from externally-funded grant projects. Some examples provided include Furman University’s Shi Center Scholar Exchange collection(5) and University of Central Florida’s Diverse Families bibliography (funded in part by the American Library Association).(6) 
Additional examples are available from previous bepress webinars on this topic.(7,8)  (Full disclosure: My institution is a bepress customer, using their Digital Commons product for our IR. But this sort of campus support for archiving community projects can be done through any IR, including open source options.)

Co-curricular community engagement, often through active student organizations, is another area where libraries can help tell the institutional story. Since we may already physically archive some materials related to student organizations, partnering with archives departments is important to determine collection priorities for institutional repositories. This is an area where UNI can continue to grow. What happens to photos and stories from our campus Dance Marathon, which raises nearly $500,000 annually to support families experiencing life-threatening childhood illnesses and related medical research? What happens to documents and research from the AmeriCorps team headquartered on our campus that weatherizes homes and provides energy education/outreach? We could capture these artifacts and so many more to help tell our institution’s story. The possibilities are endless!

What is your campus doing to archive community engagement projects and local research? How can the library serve these unique needs? Do you have an online community engagement collection? Share in the comments!


  1. Iowa Campus Compact.
  2. Gruber, A.M., Pratesi, A., & Waseskuk, A. (forthcoming 2017) Moving words: Building community through service learning in the arts. In McDevitt, T. & Finegan, C. (Eds.). Library service learning success stories. Chicago: Association of College & Research Libraries.
  3. Building a Bridge: How Library Services can Support Local Communities:
  4. Carnegie Community Engagement Classification:
  5. Furman University: Shi Center Scholar Exchange:
  6. University of Central Florida: DIVerse Families bibliography:
  7. IRs Supporting Community Engagement, Part 1: Campus and Community Partnerships at Linfield College:
  8. IRs Supporting Community Engagement, Part 2: Regional Research at Brockport (SUNY) and UMass (Amherst):