An Unformed Thought

A few weeks ago the director of my library asked me to design and produce a website for a small community group, the  North Shore Business Development Foundation (NSBDF).  I was happy to be given the opportunity (I start getting the shakes if I don’t get to design a website ever-so-ofter). I had about a week to look over their logo, handouts, mission and vision statements, previous event flyers, etc. and around 7 more days to actually build the website. Time was short because of an upcoming program which the group wanted to use to make attendees aware of the new website. The website was built with a day to spare using the Drupal content management system (CMS).

While designing the website for the NSBDF, I gave a speech about the Drupal CMS to patrons of the Skokie Public Library. Happily, quite a few people came. One was the accidental webmaster of  The Talking Farm, an organic, educational urban farm in the Skokie area. Following the instruction session we set up an appointment to look over the website (done in Joomla) and introduce her to some basic skills/tricks such as using Firebug and the basics of CSS. Talking with her a few weeks later I learned that they will probably be going with Drupal sometime in the future.

These two occurrences so close to one another caused a light bulb moment: what if the library offered to build and host websites for local organizations? Wouldn’t this bring significant value to the community? Could we fill this techie role in every community and become invaluable … forever?

I might not include organizations such as a Park District ( especially after that Parks and Recreation episode) or the Village Government or Public Schools because of their size. But groups like a local historical society or the Chamber of Commerce would be ideal. An open source content management system such as Drupal is excellent for these sorts of websites. It makes it possible to give the content creators enough flexibility to create without having to worry about the mark-up and all that other CMS goodness.

A few libraries are already doing this in one form or another:

I asked Eli Neiburger to describe how the always cutting edge Ann Arbor Library District does this. He wrote:

“The Ann Arbor Library District hosts web content for several local projects in different ways depending on the capabilities of the group. Some sites are AADL products, developed and maintained by AADL’s production librarians, and are presented as sub-sites of aadl.org. Examples are http://aapd.aadl.org, an online exhibit of the history of the Ann Arbor Police Department, or the Making of Ann Arbor, http://moaa.aadl.org, a product developed in cooperation with the University of Michigan. The Ann Arbor Street Exhibits project  presents online the content developed by the Streets Exhibit project. In addition, AADL also hosts arborwiki.org, a vibrant wiki for the city of Ann Arbor and surrounding area; this project is not part of aadl.org and is instead hosted on AADL’s community projects server. The Arborwiki moderators, who are not AADL employees, maintain and enhance the site along with the contributions of the public.”

Darien Library in Connecticut provides hosting for local non-profit organizations. They do not design or maintain the websites though.

For-profits?

But why not offer to do the same for locally owned for-profits? Their are many small companies in a public library’s community that do not have the time, money, and skill level to build their own websites, but these same companies bring jobs, goods, and make the town a nicer place to live. If libraries would build and host these websites their small companies would stay more viable, the community would be a better place to live, and world peace would soon follow… well perhaps just the first two.

I have not considered what this process would look like and imagine it would be different for each library. The  Library Success Wiki would be good place to share the processes chosen, forms designed, etc.

Now I have mentioned Drupal fairly often in this post, but that is just my weapon of choice. Many other excellent options exists such WordPress, or even WordPress MU, Webs.com, Google Sites, and straight HTML/CSS websites.

Does this seem doable? Is anybody else already doing this?

I mentioned this idea to Kyle Jones via Twitter and he, as he normally does, came up with a brilliant direction to take it, which will be posted in the near future.


TTW Contributor: Mick Jacobsen

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7 thoughts on “An Unformed Thought”

  1. Mick … talk to Fran Roehm at your library. She can tell you all about NorthStarNet and other community information networks provided by public libraries. NSN offered a range of services from webhosting to web development. Fran is / was a leader — and cheerleader — for this initiative.

  2. Melissa,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Fran and I work closely on lots of projects and I know SkokieNet quite well. SkokieNet is an outstanding project, but different from what I am proposing. SkokieNet is like an online community bulletin board while what I am suggesting is something like a community IT department… if you will.

    I don’t want to them to fit in the framework that we build – no matter how cool, but for us to create a framework they want.

  3. That’s a great idea and I think many libraries act as a community IT place where there is nothing like it in the community or reasonable near it.

    It’s a question of whether the library is going to be serious about providing this service or not. This is the kind of service a community would love, but could seriously suck up library resources.

  4. I can think of two very good reasons why we shouldn’t do this: we’re not web developers, and we’re not designers.

    While we may know a great deal about the organization of information and how that relates to information architecture, and while we understand user behaviour and user needs, the fact remains that web development isn’t really a core competency that is stressed in most LIS curricula at this moment.

    I believe in using the best, most competent, well-trained people for the job. So while it may be a good idea to have a web team that includes developers, information architects, graphic designers, and server administrators, the reality is that in most situations, librarians will be doing this kind of work from the side of their desks, on top of an already overcrowded portfolio of responsibilities.

    I love the idea of libraries being curators of content for community organizations. But a situation like the one proposed in this post would put a huge drain on resources. Maybe if libraries were going to provide push-button websites where users dump their content into a pre-formatted template, it could work, but developing a well-built custom website from scratch that reflects the user’s needs generally takes more than a week to pull off.

  5. Melissa is correct about North Star Net. Actually, I believe that SkokieNet came into existence after the demise of NSN. Here at Highland Park we had about 40 community organizations that were hosted by NSN and we gave lots of techincal assistance to help them build and maintain these sites. We even hosted the local school district’s website before they moved to their own server. Sadly, NSLS had to discontinue this program due to lack of funding several years ago.

  6. Yes, SkokieNet was part of NorthStarNet, a major part. And each library handled their involvement differently. For example, La Grange PL was like a community IT department (or web dev team). I think that Mount Prospect and a few others also operated in this manner. Other libraries provided resources and support, but the actual development was done by the organization. And then other libraries set up accounts, pointed organizations in the right direction, and that was that.

    Cecily and Jeff both have good points … the library needs to be committed to this long-term and hire staff to do the work on an ongoing, developing basis.

    Like newspapers — which also used to offer community web hosting and development services — libraries are continuing to try to find our best place in this ever-changing world of information flow.

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