Last November, I went to a meeting of Vermont colleges where we discussed doing more consortial activities. We broke up into groups to discuss different ideas and then reported to everyone at the meeting. One of the things we discussed in our group was the idea of skill-sharing. It is often the case in smaller libraries (and sometimes even in bigger ones) that your staff does not have all the skills they need to do all the things you want to do. At mine, we lack coding skills. Another library was desperate for someone with a background in managing archives. And so on. We all had something we lacked and some of us had staff with the skills the other was looking for. However, like most things discussed at meetings, nothing ever came of it. I’d wanted to create a wiki where we could each write down the skills we have at our library and the skills we need (or projects we want to do that we need help with). However, the people at the meeting were really freaked out by blogs and wikis and were really big on in-person meetings (which is tough, even in as small a state as ours — it can take three hours to get to some places in the state). So while I think it’s a great idea to do some sort of skill-sharing, I don’t really know how I could implement such an idea with a group that is really not going to go for using any sort of social software.

Still, the idea has been marinating in my head since November, and I’m so thrilled to see that I’m not the only person thinking in this direction. This week we see the birth of Pay “IT” Forward, a space where people can share their tech skills with others. Folks who are willing to help others can post their contact info and area of expertise that they’re willing to help people with. I don’t know if I’m techie enough for the list, but I wanted to do my part so I posted my contact info and said I’d answer questions about wikis. Since I already get at least a few wiki-related questions a week, it’s not such a big deal to get a few more. Right now, the list of people willing to help is just a page on a wiki that isn’t even in alphabetical order. I’d love to see it become a database where you could search for people by geographic area and by skill area (which would maybe allow people to choose general skill areas — like network admin, web design, etc. — and then also write in specific things they have expertise in). It could also be set up where people can write up projects they are working on that they need help with and what they’re looking for so that people who feel most confident in that area can take it (rather than having the person choose someone who may not feel up to the task or may be too busy). I’m not a database designer by any stretch of the imagination, but I saw some on the list (hint hint!) and I hope that’s what this project grows into.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from Glenn Peterson from the Hennepin County Public Library (a library that is doing some terrific stuff with tech). He has a new venture called EngagedPatrons.org which provides services to libraries that want to create a more “engaging and interactive web presence.” Here’s some info from the press release:

“Many public libraries would love to offer their users a more interactive web presence, but don’t have the programming skills to make it happen”, said EP founder Glenn Peterson. “Other libraries have a strong interest but are stymied by uncooperative IT departments. Some aren’t even allowed access to their own web servers”, Peterson noted.

EngagedPatrons.org solves these problems by offering a series of web “modules” hosted on its own web servers. Member libraries can customize the modules to meet the needs of their users by filling out an easy-to-use web form. When completed, the library is provided with the HTML code needed to link users from their website to their new service hosted at EP. Libraries can embed EP services within the look-and-feel of their own website for a seamless experience for their users.

EngagedPatrons.org currently offers these modules:

  • Library Events – searchable listings of upcoming events at the library, including the option for online registration, integrated graphics and more.
  • Library Blogs – communicate with users in ways never possible before, get the word out about happenings at the library and turn on optional patron comments to start a two-way conversation! RSS feeds are included.
  • Contact Us – offer your users an easy way to get in touch with you right on your site.
  • Custom Databases – EP can also help libraries create customized, searchable databases based on existing card files or in-house databases.

What is really cool about this is that EP is offering these services for FREE to public libraries that receive less than $1 million per year in total income. To other libraries, the services are offered at a low cost. I think what he’s doing is great, but that he’s really selling himself short. His time isn’t free and server space certainly isn’t free either. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making money from libraries, especially if you are providing them with a good and needed service and you are charging a lot less than it would cost them to hire their own techie. If I were to do it, I’d charge everyone, though on a sliding scale. I really see this as a model for making real money as a techie librarian/free agent without having to join some faceless vendor. I’d love to partner up with my genius husband and provide services like this one day. I worry that Glenn will quickly become inundated with freebie libraries, but I’m sure he’s thought about this a lot more than I have and has sound reasoning for the way he’s doing it. Either way, it’s a very good-hearted thing to do, and I hope he makes piles of money from it.

I know tech skills are in high demand, but they aren’t the only things we’re often lacking at smaller libraries. We could benefit from the expertise of a lot of non-techie librarians. How about archivists, preservationists, non-book catalogers, foreign language-speakers, instruction librarians and many others? At my school, we really could use someone who could give us a clear roadmap to improving our instruction program. And we have skills here that other libraries might want, like a super-fantastic archivist and a distance learning librarian who knows a thing or two about social software. I’d love to see this skill-sharing go beyond tech. I’d also love to see it be more of a two-way street. I’d love to see a database of “haves” and “wants”. For each library that has a “want”, they have to also post a “have,” a skill that they have that not every library has and that other libraries may want. And if they can find someone listed who has a want they can fill, they can just take on that task. I guess it requires trust that people will not just be selfish and will give at least as much as they get. I don’t know if this is a viable model, but I’d love to see it attempted. Obviously, some tasks would require that people are geographically close to one another, but if you have enough participants, that shouldn’t be a problem in most (but not all) places.

And another way we can share is by depositing the things we write into repositories. You can add all sorts of things like tutorials, book chapters, articles, presentations, etc. And what you’re adding to is an amazing collection of knowledge in the library science field. I just added to E-LIS for the very first time, depositing the article I’d written for WebJunction. As I publish things that I’m allowed to archive, I’ll be putting more in there. This is a great way to expose more people to your work so that they can benefit from your knowledge. It’s cool to make your stuff available on your Web site, but even better to make it available in a searchable repository for the profession. Or if your institution has a repository, you can add to the wealth of institutional knowledge contained within. And if you want to learn more about repositories and the open access movement, look at some of the great resources on the subject that Dorothea Salo has archived at her institution’s repository!

It makes me feel warm and fuzzy to see the ideas come together for us to really share our skills and knowledge. :)