Communities of Practice and Sustainability

I wrote the text below as a summary in support of another project. Posting here for my ease in case useful in the future.

Communities of Practice (CoP) Benefit Sustainability

A community of practice (CoP) is a group of active practitioners working in a shared domain as a community. CoP differ from project teams, which are focused on project goals and deliverables, and differ from communities of interest, which are focused on information sharing and where members are not necessarily practitioners and do not necessarily have expertise in the shared area. For a CoP, the community evolves practice together, with individual work developing as integrated and aligned with the community.

Some CoPs emerge more organically, as with practitioners who share a physical space, and where their individual work requires regular engagement with the CoP to meet day-to-day objectives. Other times, as with a new program where the community does not already exist, dedicated effort is required to establish the CoP. For example, communities of practice are particularly important for moving a project to a program, with projects having defined deliverables and end dates, and programs having ongoing work. Project team members are often the primary or only support for projects. Programs require ongoing engagement with active practitioners for continued operations and sustainability.

To be sustainable, digital resources must have ongoing engagement with members of the community of practice, who work together as part of their practice in using/maintaining the digital resource; and, in the process, who also work to evolve the digital resource, recruit and onboard new community members, and integrate the digital resource into existing and new workflows. As Bethany Nowviskie, former Director of the Digital Library Federation, explains: “We should put as much energy into connecting and building up people—into developing and supporting motivated, skilled, diverse, and intersecting communities of expert practitioners—as we do into connecting the services, systems, and corpora that are the other pillars of a national digital platform.” Nowviskie’s statement emphasizes the critical need for human and community development as part of the work for national digital systems.

The lifecycle of a CoP includes inquiry, design, prototyping, launching, growing, and sustaining. When a project is through the launch phase, with an established robust technical infrastructure and community of users, new projects can develop further, by growing and evolving the existing user community into a CoP with increased participation and contribution, when the project team intentionally cultivates the community to inform strategies and goals for ongoing sustainability.


Bethany Nowviskie, “Supporting Practice in Community,” presentation at the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) Focus Meeting, Washington, DC, April 28, 2015,

Brian W. Keith, Bonnie J. Smith, and Laurie N. Taylor. “Building a Collaborative Digital Archive and a Community of Practice.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 17.2 (2017: 419-434):