In July 2013, the Digital Programs team first drafted a set of fifteen values to guide our work. Ten years later, these values have evolved substantially, and have also helped to drive the transformation of what is now the Digital Strategies team, as well as the entire organization. It seemed like a good moment to take stock of our individual and collective engagement with these values.

Where did the values come from?

Hillel: The original idea of team values came from Sibyl Schaefer, who was at that time the Assistant Director and Head of Digital Programs and was primarily motivated by the desire to say that how we worked was just as important as what we did. Initially these values were a way of explicitly articulating team norms that were in some cases oppositional to implicit organizational norms, so they were more of an attempt to carve out some organizational space, as well as a mechanism for driving change.

The original form of these values (a word or short phrase followed by a longer prose definition) was influenced by Asana’s company values. That basic form has more or less persisted over time.

Patrick: I started at the RAC in September of 2013, about a year after Hillel started, and a few months after he and Sibyl first documented the team’s values. They weren’t publicly available when I started my job search, but I remember thinking that they informed the Digital Programs’ stated Overall Goals from that period, which I had found during my interview preparation. I remember that Sibyl pointed me towards the values document during the onboarding processing, and it was clear from the start that I should use them as guiding principles for my work.

It really felt like the RAC was in a transitional moment back then, and the values were both a guide for navigating that change and a document that reflected an aspirational vision of our team’s future at the RAC. As Hillel mentioned, they were often in contrast to implicit organizational norms that didn’t always mesh with the work we were doing, and I remember thinking that they kept me on track when I encountered resistance to the change that my work brought to the organization. To me, they were reminders of why we were doing the work that we found important.

Hannah: When I applied for a job to join the team in 2017, Hillel, Patrick, and Bonnie Gordon (Sibyl had moved on by then) had recently revised the values and gave a talk at the 2017 Code4Lib conference detailing how those values shaped the team’s work. I remember reading the talk on the blog as I was preparing my job application and feeling inspired and excited to potentially work with people who cared about things that I cared about, particularly their unapologetic commitment to providing broad and equitable access and to protect the privacy of researchers. They stated that “we don’t feel like it’s our job to be centrists, but rather to serve as a counterbalance to forces of copyright and institutional risk avoidance. We won’t get our way all the time, but we have a professional and human obligation to advocate for open access and respect for our researchers’ privacy.” I wanted to be part of a team that was intentional about how they did their work, was focused on building relationships with collaborators and centering people, and that wasn’t afraid to advocate for shared principles both in and outside of the organization.

How have the values changed?

These values have not remained static over time. The original fifteen values are now seven, grouped into four major themes and prefaced with some text that explains our current thinking about why the values exist and what work they’re doing for us now. Some of those changes were the result of refining and clarifying what we meant to say, but others derive from changes for us as individuals, as a team, and as an organization.

Hannah: Our most recent revisions of our values were completed in July 2023, and followed an organization-wide review focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging that prompted us to see the need to be more explicit about technology being shaped by human biases, histories of oppression, and power, and that we seek to counter the resulting exclusion and structural oppression. We updated our preamble, “engage and empower users”, and “support broad and equitable access to archival materials” values to more directly acknowledge and address this reality that had been previously implicit in the text.

Another important area of evolution in our values has been to connect values related to providing broad and equitable access and researcher privacy and self-determination to digital accessibility and the concept of universal design. Since 2018, we’ve increased our understanding, technical expertise, and advocacy in this space, and that learning has allowed us to more clearly identify and strive to counter oppression based on disability in our work. Our values underlie the work that we do, and as we learn from and engage with others in doing that work, the work in turn helps us find new connections that shape the values.

Patrick: We were left a bit rudderless when Sibyl moved on from her job as Head of Digital Programs in late 2014, and we had three members left on the Digital Programs team that each had fewer than three years of experience at the organization. When everything calmed down after Sibyl’s departure, we had an opportunity in 2015 to take stock of our situation, reevaluate our work, and think about our role in the organization. Our first major update to our values became an act of self-determination; our clear statement of, “This is who we are, and this is what is important to us.” If you look back at the history of our values over time, you’ll see us moving away from positioning ourselves as a service provider for the RAC towards drivers of digital strategy. I think one particular change to the “Engage and Empower Users” section is illustrative of our change in thinking about our team’s roles. We no longer “serve” multiple communities, and instead we actively “engage directly” with them.

Over time, you’ll also see more focus on the human elements of our work as we attempt to be more explicit about minimizing harm. For instance, our original value of “Focus on the user,” evolved into “Engage and empower users,” showing a marked change from just involving them in the process, to trying to make users feel engaged, supported, and empowered when working with our systems. If you trace the changes to our values over time, you’ll see us being more and more explicit about how humans fit into our work. As we all grew more confident in our technical skills and our own personal areas of expertise, our values grew beyond generic statements of core skills to reflect our understanding of how our unique skills can be leveraged to support individuals, our workplace, and our profession.

Hillel: As both Hannah and Patrick have noted, the ways in which our values have been honed over time were in large part a result of organizational and personal change. On the organizational side, the arrival of Bob Clark in 2015 as the RAC’s first Director of Archives brought a coherence to our Archives Program as a whole. As we clarified our role in the organization, our values shifted as well.

As individuals and a team, we’ve also grown our expertise a lot over the intervening years, as we’ve figured out places where there is a need to build sophisticated skills and others where we need to focus on knowledge transfer. As those skills have sharpened, our articulation of our values has too. We’ve also grown to understand that, although there are distinct roles on the D-Team, there are also core skills that we should all have: project management, process analysis, facilitation, and training. These skills are really the building blocks for being able to put our values into action.

Overall, I think there’s a marked shift in the tone of the values from imperative to descriptive; from “you should do it this way” to “we do it this way because we believe in certain principles.” To me, that’s very much a reflection of how the work these values are doing has shifted dramatically in the last ten years from a means of building a counterculture to being an example of who we are and aspire to be organizationally.

How have the values changed us?

Just as these values have changed over time, it’s also clear that sustained engagement with them has fundamentally changed who we are both as individuals and as a team. The way we think about, talk about, and do our work is deeply impacted by these values.

Patrick: Regularly examining our values and interrogating why we were doing our work became a way to guide and shape our work for the future. As mentioned in our 2017 Code4Lib talk that Hannah linked earlier, “Our approach has been to rearticulate, reaffirm and recommit to our values. Shared values come first. Strategy and technology follow. When we know who we are, we can start making consistent decisions about what we should and shouldn’t be doing.” Periodic reviews and updates to our values have helped us focus on what we think is valuable as a team, and collaboratively working to update them gives us an opportunity to re-center ourselves and our work. Generally, we review our values at least twice a year as a team, but that number has fluctuated over the past seven years. Our updates usually take stock of how we feel about our current values (Are they accurately representing our thoughts and work?) as well as give us an opportunity to talk about where we think we’re falling short (Is there anything we’re missing that feels important to us?). It’s this regular introspection that has led us to push ourselves for continual growth.

On a more personal level, regularly engaging with our values has helped push me to be a better person both in my professional and personal lives. Conversations about accessibility, diversity, equity, and user empowerment during our regular updates have made me more aware of my own personal shortcomings in these regards and have spurred me to be better both at work and outside of it. I feel like I’ve grown and pushed myself more professionally to live up to the values that we claim to support; I couldn’t truly say that I was following them without also understanding the impact of my work.

Hannah: The periodic reviews that Patrick noted are typically initiated in a team meeting with follow-up asynchronous work where we wordsmith and draft specific language based on our meeting discussion. We’ve approached these revisions in different ways over the years to make space for different kinds of exploration and insight. Different facilitation approaches will bring up different ideas. For example, our most recent revision grew out of a “What, So What, Now What” activity that I facilitated, which was designed to help us make sense of the impact of recent organizational and team changes that had occurred and connect those with possible values updates.

For me, both the process of creating and reviewing these with the team and the values themselves have been foundational to understanding why my work matters and how to do my work in ways that support what matters. They have also helped me build relationships with the people I work with as we learn and articulate together what it means to care about, empower, and be accountable to each other.

Hillel: From my perspective as a manager, it’s hard to overstate just how important these values are in initiating the conversations about the “how” and “why” of our work. These aspects can be hard to talk about because they are less tangible than the “what” and overlap with personal identity and motivation. In my experience though, if you can’t get aligned on the “how” and the “why”, the “what” is at best incoherent. So I’m always looking for ways to have these conversations, and to then use those conversations to direct our collective strategy. Having an artifact and a regular schedule around which we engage with it has allowed these conversations to be both easier to have and more productive.

How have the values changed the RAC?

The impact of these values has extended beyond just the Digital Strategies team. We’ve seen them drive the creation of policies, encourage the use of specific phrases by other teams and, more recently, foster a deeper understanding of the power of values statements for the entire organization.

Hillel: One of the things that’s been very gratifying to me is seeing how these values have leaked out into the rest of the organization. That effect has often been indirect, but a phrase we added in 2015 to describe the qualities of access we were seeking to support – “broad and equitable access” – found its way into the mission statements of other teams and ultimately into our recently-revised organizational mission statement.

But I think perhaps the most profound impact these values have had on the RAC is proving that these kinds of values statements matter; that they significantly impact the day-to-day operations of the organization and are not just nice words that we wrote and put in a drawer to be retrieved on holidays and special occasions. They’re baked into our project planning processes, regular reporting, and evaluation mechanisms. As part of revising our organizational mission and vision statements, we also developed the RAC’s first statement of values. I feel quite confident in saying that these organizational values would not exist without either the D-Team values or our persistent engagement with them as a team.

Hannah: Another tangible impact that I’ve seen in the organization is the manifestation of these values into RAC policies that support them. This is apparent in two projects led by the Digital Strategies team: drafting a Privacy Policy in 2020 and ensuring its associated privacy protections for our users, and creating our first Accessibility Statement last year that commits to and supports “providing broad and equitable access to our collections, facilities, programs, services, and websites for people with disabilities in ways that are welcoming and inclusive and that support a right to privacy and self-determination.” These documents exist because we identified privacy and accessibility as things that mattered, and then incorporated that thinking into our project planning and internal advocacy.

Our values related to collaboration and creating a culture of learning have also been guiding ideas in the ways we’ve approached cross-team initiatives, as exemplified by the Web Analytics Owners Group that I formed in the spring of 2020. This grew out of a Digital Strategies project to assess our use of web analytics at the RAC that revealed an opportunity to standardize and better leverage our approach by building expertise across all program areas in a collaborative way. The Owners Group was formed with reps from each team with a non-hierarchical knowledge-sharing model that included enough structure and intentionality to keep things organized and each other accountable, and enough flexibility to allow exploration and build community. Initially an experiment in the context of COVID shutdowns and remote work, the group has persisted and demonstrated learning models that continue to influence how we think about collaboration in the organization.

Patrick: The values document has also become a valuable strategic planning and prioritization tool for the Digital Strategies team. As I mentioned above, strategy and technology follow shared values on our team, and in practice that means that we let our values guide the projects we decide to prioritize and even those projects that we decide to undertake. If a project doesn’t have a strong connection to one of our values, it probably won’t be prioritized above others without a strong institutional mandate. We even included a section in our standard project planning document that ties the project into our organizational and team values.

Investing in ourselves and the profession is one of our team’s foundational values, and we’ve seen concrete evidence of how continual learning has directly changed the RAC for the better. Hannah has already mentioned her work on digital accessibility at the RAC and is currently working on getting a Digital Accessibility Specialist certification to better advocate for broad and equitable access to our users. Hillel’s lessons on social care and sustainability from his involvement with The Maintainers have directly affected the way we think about architecting systems and services. His engagement with Project ARCC and the DLF Climate Justice Working Group spurred a collaborative carbon footprint study at the RAC, which prompted the organization to take steps to move towards a more ethical use of energy. Personally, my desire to empower users and value the labor of anyone working with our systems has spurred me to seek out AWS certification so I can learn more about tools that might be helpful in aiding our ongoing DevOps projects and take some of the load off our IT Teams, developers, and end users. We’re always looking for ways to take what we learn and apply it to our work in better support of values!