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Virtual library slated for Charlotte

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Paul Brown

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Using funds won in a challenge among community foundations, a Charlotte funder will create a virtual community library to serve the local area.

Foundation for the Carolinas received $277,686 as a winner of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge, held to find ways to identify and address information needs in the regions served by community foundations.

Unlike regular libraries that contain published written works, the virtual library will be a repository of information that appears in public forums but typically is transient and unrecorded, such as lectures, sermons, speeches and task-force reports.

The library, which has yet to receive a formal name or web address, will be an archive of information rather than a blog.

The library will be searchable by topic, date, presenter, theme and organization, and may include a “geomap” feature that uses a coded map to show which topics are discussed in which areas over time.

The geomap feature would allow users to see the progression of ideas and trends across time and location, providing a perspective on which topics were considered important at different times.

The inspiration for the virtual library sprang from a meeting on housing held by the foundation, says Brian Collier, one of the idea’s creators.

The goal of the gathering was to collect information deemed important by local organizations and governments.

The foundation received 75 documents from the meeting, but didn’t have a good place to display the findings, he says.

Shortly after that, the foundation discovered other groups had repeated housing research that the foundation already had done, duplicated efforts that could have been avoided had the documents been made publicly available.

The need for a forum to communicate with the community and the opportunity for funding from the Knight challenge led to the idea for the virtual community library.

The idea was fleshed out by Collier, senior vice president of community philanthropy at Foundation for the Carolinas; Susan Patterson, program director for Knight Foundation’s programs in Charlotte; and the College of Computing and Informatics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The documents from that original housing meeting are expected to be the first media added to the library’s collection, says Collier.

To grow the library into a reliable and wide-ranging source of community information, the foundation plans to hire a project director to find information for the library and inspire organizations to participate by sending in their media.

Collier anticipates the library’s early days will require this sort of assistance to jump-start the program and build up the library’s reputation.

The foundation also will offer grants to help organizations purchase software and hardware to record and send their media to the library.

“The benefit to the organizations is huge,” says Collier. “I don’t know how many times someone’s said to me ‘We brought in this great speaker, but only 25 people showed up.’ I think this will be one way for the organizations to do their events and allow access to those people who really would have attended if they had access or had the time to attend.”

The foundation hopes to take the library online in early September, but many issues remain before bringing the system to life.

Gathering information from traditionally untapped sources will require new ways of collecting and handling information, says Collier.

The foundation must consider how to handle controversial, defamatory or even illegal information that is submitted to the public forum.

And guidelines must be developed for deciding which information merits inclusion in the library, especially when virtual space becomes limited.

Foundation for the Carolinas is working with its partners, NPower Charlotte Region and the College of Computing and Informatics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to design the system and resolve these questions.

NPower’s assistance to the project will be with infrastructure consulting, and the College of Computing and Informatics will provide web and software solutions consulting.

“People just don’t have the time and they don’t have the access to go to all these events,” says Collier, “but we believe these should be documented and conserved.”

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