By Meredith Farkas | February 12, 2007
I have always been an idea person. I probably get that from my dad who has had dozens of business ideas in the 29 years I’ve known him. However, before I became a librarian, I rarely pursued any of the ideas I had. I usually either didn’t know where to start or I didn’t think I was capable of pulling it off.
While I was working as a child and family therapist, I tried to start a summer arts program for disadvantaged young people in a very disadvantaged city I frequently worked in at the time. I don’t want to go into the gory details, but I worked on this for six months (dealing with a dozen charitable organizations and artists) and it ended up not working out in spite of the fact that my friend and I got a venue and volunteer artists to teach the kids. It was definitely discouraging to try so hard to do something good for people (that I wasn’t going to benefit from in any way) and not be able to make it happen. That experience was so characteristic of my experiences in the mental health field. There were just too many barriers to actually making a difference.
I can’t tell you what a happy experience it has been finding out that the opposite is true in this profession. Librarians with passion and good ideas can really make a difference in our profession (when they are not stifled by their employers). I have been encouraged to run with so many of my crazy ideas, both in my daily work and in my professional service. I am someone who is willing to work my butt off if I feel like I can make a difference, but when I feel like I’m constantly running into brick walls, my motivation quickly dies away.
The online world gives us even more opportunities to get our ideas out there. Who would ever have thought that some gal who’s barely been out of library school two years would have written a book, have gotten a column in AL, have created wikis for the profession that other people actually use, and have created an online course to teach librarians about social software. After two years in the social work profession, I don’t think anyone would have taken my ideas seriously. I was still treated like a kid who had little insight to offer. There is a real openness among so many in this profession to good ideas, regardless of who they are coming from. And being that you can’t always see how old people are online, people are really judged on the strength of their ideas, not their age or years of experience.
Last March, Five Weeks to a Social Library was a little embryo of an idea growing in my head. I originally was thinking about an online conference with synchronous and asynchronous components, but after the experience of HigherEd BlogCon and watching the ALA Library 2.0 Bootcamp unfold, I started to think a class would be a better idea. I remember talking to Dorothea Salo about it (since she is as passionate about free online learning as I am) and then mentioned it to Michelle Boule after she spoke up so strongly about her issues with the Bootcamp project (she was a participant in it). In June, after I turned my book manuscript in, I wrote up my idea for the course, including how it would run, how many participants we’d have and what tools we’d use in the class. I sent that out to Dorothea, Michelle, Amanda Etches-Johnson and Ellyssa Kroski both of whom had expressed interest in doing something like this. We asked Karen Coombs to be involved since she is a tech goddess and the more tech goddesses one has involved in an online project the better! We started meeting over the summer via IM and collaborated asynchronously through e-mail, an internal wiki and Google Docs and Spreadsheets. We modified some of my original ideas to create what is now called Five Weeks to a Social Library. Each of us took on a specific topic from those we’re covering in the class and created the readings, examples and activities for that topic. Having learned from past experiences, I wrote up A LOT of documentation for the Drupal, MediaWiki and the other tools the participants would be using.
But the real meat of the course came from the amazing presenters who were kind enough to volunteer to take part in this venture. You can see the full list of them here. We have live Webcasts and asynchronous screencasts and podcasts by really knowledgeable people in the field. The beautiful thing is that this content will not just be available to those formally involved in the course. Everyone can watch the screencasts, podcasts and archived Webcasts!
There were other wonderful people who helped with all this who absolutely deserve recognition. The first is Heather Yager. Heather was our intern for the course. Shortly after I sent out the first e-mail about the course, Heather e-mailed me and asked if we wanted an intern. When we saw what a talented graphic/Web designer she is, we put her to work skinning Drupal for the class. Creating the graphical template for Drupal is likely the hardest part of setting it up, if you’re not going with an already existing template. Heather did an amazing job and we are so grateful to her for her contribution to the course. Heather is a library school student at the University of Pittsburgh and is about to graduate in April, so if you need a talented and hard-working Webby librarian, snap this girl up!
We also had help from David Free and Tom Peters. David was our Podcast Guru, offering podcasting advice to us and our presenters. Tom was so generous in offering the use of a conference room in OPAL for our Webcasts. We are so thrilled to be affiliated with another project that is so closely aligned with our interests in free education for librarians!
My husband, Adam Farkas, generously offered us the necessary server space for the course and installed Drupal for us as well as a number of modules along the way. He has played an advisory role throughout this process and his help is greatly appreciated. The University of Houston was kind enough to give us space on their streaming server for some of the video content, which was a great help!
What I really wanted to say in this post is, isn’t it amazing that something like this can be put together? We didn’t spend any money on this. We’re using open source tools for the course infrastructure. We didn’t need to give our idea to a corporation, charitable organization or academic institution, so we remained free agents. We planned this while spread out all over the U.S. and Canada communicating via social software tools. And we’re all rather young librarians who haven’t been in the profession for all that long. That this course even exists is a testament to what a wonderfully open profession we are a part of and what a great leveler the online world is. I love that in here, I can be judged by the content of my ideas, not my appearance, age or position in the field.
Please, come stop by our course! Take part in the conversations going on there (anyone can comment). This week we’ll be talking blogs and next week is RSS. We hope that everyone, whether directly involved in the course or not, will get some benefit from what we’ve done here. And we hope that this shows other libraries and librarians that something like this is possible. You can do this too.