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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > February 2005

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Vol. 25 No. 2 — February 2005
Librarie$ + Nonprofit$ Add Up to Profitable Community Partnerships
BY Jeanne Holba Puacz

About 18 months ago, we at the reference desk of the Vigo County Public Library (VCPL) in Terre Haute, Ind., noticed a troubling fact. Many of our small, local, nonprofit agencies did not have Web sites, making it difficult to locate and share information about these groups with the community. We began to ponder that if we, as information professionals, had trouble locating information about these groups, how would the rest of the community ever learn about their valuable services and programs?

Doing Market Research

Several VCPL staffers, including Clarence Brink (the head of our reference department), Chris Schellenberg (the community services librarian), and I (a systems and reference librarian), decided to investigate why so many of these groups had chosen not to maintain their own Web sites. The groups, we began to discover, had not decided against having Web sites; rather, most felt that they were unable to afford the luxury. Many of us today take Web sites for granted. We automatically assume that all organizations will have easily accessible and informative sites. However, for many of our nonprofit organizations with severely limited budgets, designing and implementing a Web site can seem like a completely unattainable goal.

We sensed an opportunity and began to formulate a plan. What if the library could partner with these nonprofits to help them create, post, and maintain informational Web sites? The nonprofits would benefit, as they would get a Web presence at no cost; the library would benefit, as information about these local groups would be easily accessible when needed to answer reference questions; and the community would benefit, as it would be far easier for the general public to learn about the value of these local groups. The potential benefits of this type of community-building partnership seemed to far outweigh the liabilities, but, as with all projects that demand library resources, this project had to be formally evaluated before it could be approved.

Developing the Project

When we presented our idea for approval, we were disappointed to find that not everyone was as excited about our partnership proposal as we were. The library administration and board of directors were concerned about how much time it would take library staff to build the sites, how and how often site updates would be made, how much library server space the sites would consume, and which local groups would be eligible for participation. Rather than allowing these concerns to dampen our enthusiasm or quash the project, we decided to try to use them to our advantage. We addressed each concern and incorporated the limitations into a library policy and a partnership agreement that the library would enter into with each nonprofit organization that chose to participate.

The issue of how much staff time would be necessary to build each site was easily addressed. We opted to create a simple design template that would be used for each organization, thus dramatically reducing the time it would take to build each site. We also decided to ask each nonprofit to send us the information they wanted on their site electronically so it would not have to be re-entered by the library staff.

The VCPL systems staff members were extremely concerned about the project. They were afraid that we intended to give each group access to the library servers so that the groups could regularly update their own Web sites. We decided that this access was impractical. Not only would it pose a serious network security risk, but also, since most of the organizations targeted would have little-to-no Web authoring or posting experience, this access would provide no actual benefit for them. Instead, we decided to offer to update the sites for the groups involved. To limit the amount of work that this would impose upon us, we stipulated that groups could send updates on a quarterly basis.

To calm the fears that this project would consume all the available library server space (and then some!), we decided to limit the total size of the sites. Because our intention was to make informational Web sites available to these groups, we did not feel that this would lessen the impact of the project. By limiting the total size of the sites to 100 to 300 kilobytes of space, we could ensure that there would be adequate server space for all interested groups (with plenty left over for the library). Although these limits may seem severe, they have actually proved to be quite sufficient for the sites that we have completed. The template ensures that the sites are primarily text with space for a few pictures; this helps to ensure that the file sizes are small and fall well within the limits.

Deciding Which of the Organizations to Include

Deciding which organizations to include proved to be a somewhat troublesome issue for us. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible; however, we realized that this could lead to our being overrun with demand or, more distressing to our administration, being asked to develop a site for a group that might be in conflict with the library's mission. To avoid problems, we developed the criterion for inclusion with the help of our administration. We invited all Vigo County nonprofits with 501c3 status to participate in the project. Those nonprofits that do not have 501c3 status but that are already actively partnering with VCPL on a project or goal (as well as those that have been included in our local Community Resource Directory) are also eligible. In an effort to also serve local groups that do not meet the project criteria, we decided to offer Web-design training classes to all Vigo County nonprofit organizations.

Creating a Resource Guide

The concept of serving all groups in the community, even those that did not meet the criteria set for participation in the Web site project, prompted us to re-evaluate our goals. We began to feel that we could and should expand the scope of the project. The library regularly receives questions relating to nonprofit organizations: how to form them, how to locate and apply for grants, how to file taxes, etc. Who better than us to create a portal of links to connect our community and our community groups with this valuable (but often difficult to locate) information?

Thus, the project grew from simply developing Web sites for select nonprofit groups to developing a resource guide designed to aid all local groups and the community at large. In addition to information about how to partner with the library to develop a Web site, the Web resource portal would also include such items as a directory of local nonprofit organizations, Indiana-specific nonprofit information, tips on how and where to find funding, information about how to become a nonprofit, tax information from the IRS, and links to the incredible resources of The Foundation Center. This resource guide is intended to be dynamic; it will be updated and revised continually as we find and add new information that is deemed potentially valuable to our community.

Finally Setting Up Shop

Once our guidelines were established and approved, we were ready to start contacting groups that might want to participate in the project. Many local groups would meet the criteria, so which should be first? Our community services librarian proved invaluable in solving this dilemma. She suggested we start with the ones that were already working closely with the library on other projects and even volunteered to contact the targeted organizations.

The first people we contacted were very excited about the project and its potential. They happily supplied us with text and pictures and were thrilled to receive completed, albeit small, Web sites in return. The positive reactions of the initial groups have been great advertising for the project. They have shared their Web sites and their experiences with others. Now, instead of the library having to contact potential partners, interested groups are starting to contact us!

Closing the Deal

We received approval for this project about 12 months ago. In less than 1 year, the Vigo County Non-Profits: Information & Resources Project, as it has been dubbed, has gotten well under way. At this time, we have partnered with 15 local nonprofit organizations to create and host their informational Web sites. We have also created a nonprofit directory that includes listings for several hundred local organizations. Directions, forms, and tips for becoming a nonprofit, finding funding, and filing taxes are on the project's Web site. What started as a simple idea for making information about local nonprofit organizations more accessible has now developed into a profitable partnership between the library, the local nonprofits, and the community.

Check Out Some of Our Sites

Vigo County Non-Profits:
Information & Resources Project

First Book of the Wabash Valley

Greater Terre Haute Branch NAACP

Mental Health Association in Vigo County

Saint Ann Clinic

Wabash Valley Literacy Coalition

Jeanne Holba Puacz is a systems and reference librarian at the Vigo County (Ind.) Public Library. Additionally, she is the library Webmaster and is responsible for the majority of the public computer training. She received her M.L.S. from the University of Illinois­Urbana-Champaign. Her e-mail address is

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