By Meredith Farkas
American Libraries Columnist
Distance learning librarian, Norwich University, Northfield, Vermont
Technology Goes Local
Collecting local knowledge with social software
When I first moved to Vermont, I searched the Web for information about the area and found very little. In Chicago, it’s easy to go online and find the best place to get curly fries, the best dry cleaner, and the best park to take your kids to. In Vermont, that information tends to stay locked in the minds of the people who live here. So for newcomers, there’s sure to be a lot of trial-and-error involved in finding the “bests.” And I certainly made lots of mistakes before finding the places I now frequent.
Why should people have to reinvent the wheel when there’s so much community knowledge just waiting to be shared? We usually think of social software as technologies to connect people with common interests who are geographically distant. However, it can also be used to connect people around local interests and to collect local knowledge more effectively.
A perfect match
Libraries have always been keepers of local history and culture, from genealogical resources to artifacts in special collections. Librarians also are frequently asked about local services of which they may not have firsthand knowledge. Some of our patrons may know more about these services than we do. Using social software to collect community knowledge fits in well with most library missions on many levels.
Since a wiki can receive contributions from many people, it’s a perfect tool for collecting local knowledge. Wikis have been created for cities including Davis, California; Omaha, Nebraska; and Birmingham, Alabama. One of my favorites is RocWiki (rocwiki.org). Billed as the people’s guide to Rochester, New York, the RocWiki website contains information about restaurants, public transportation, hair salons, malls, recreation, local culture, and much more that has been added by the people who live there. It’s received contributions from over 3,000 people, reflecting diverse knowledge and viewpoints.
Interested individuals residing in the area developed RocWiki, rather than a community organization or the local government. However, to me, a local wiki seemed like the perfect project for libraries. Having all of that useful local information on the
library’s website would likely make it the online hub of the community.
The wiki created by Stevens County (Wash.) Rural Library District (scrldwiki.org) collects and disseminates local knowledge about the large and sparsely populated county. The wiki is still quite young, but it’s already become a wonderful resource with a growing number of contributions from the community.
Other libraries have started local wikis, including the LoudonPedia (loudounpedia.wetpaint.com) in Virginia and Melbourne, Australia’s WikiNorthia (wikinorthia.net.au).
Another wonderful local resource is SkokieNet (skokienet.org). Created by the Skokie (Ill.) Public Library, SkokieNet is an impressive community portal built on the online content management system Drupal, which allows for the creation of static pages as well as blog content. Any community member can submit news, photos, local information, and even creative writing to the site. The Skokie Stories section includes personal stories from community members, which also makes the site a repository for local culture and history.
When thinking about projects like this, it’s important to consider the culture of your population. Some communities may not be comfortable sharing knowledge so openly, while others will take to it like a duck to water. You also want to make sure that the technologies you use are not a barrier to your patrons.
The local knowledge residing in the minds of our patrons is a treasure. Using social software, we can collect and preserve that knowledge for the benefit of the entire community.