Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Museum in Every Community?

Accreditation Commissioner Bill Eiland recently stopped by my office to share his concerns about the hundreds of small communities in the South struggling to maintain their culture, identity and population in the face of economic and demographic tides. Bill thinks (and I agree) that community-based museums can be both anchors and engines for such small towns.

But museum culture is such that each of our organizations is unique, and singular in origin. It takes a driven founder, or visionary group, to figure out everything from how to incorporate as a nonprofit, to what it means to BE a museum, design exhibits, collect, preserve, etc. etc. If every museum is a one-off, it makes it that much harder for them to spring up where they’re needed.

Bill's timing was extraordinary—on my computer screen at that moment was David Dewane's Kickstarter project, raising funds to launch the Librii community library project in Ghana. David plans to become the modern-day equivalent of Andrew Carnegie, spreading public libraries across the continent—except with an entrepreneurial business plan to create revenue-based organizations that meet acute local needs for education and for broadband access.

The Librii project tackles issues I think museums need to face: how to make museums scalable, replicable, easy to start and operate, and financially self-sustaining.

David proposes to solve this problem for libraries by creating a standardized template for architecture and operations that can be personalized for each community’s needs. Working with local partners, The Librii team finds a site, delivers and installs prefab modules grouped around a central plaza, provides trained staff, and works to make the library economically self-sufficient within 6 months of launch. Its strategy is to provide tools for a given community to tackle its own particular needs, rather than swooping in with solutions, as so many non-sustainable "aid" projects do.



I had a lot of questions about the project, and David obligingly provided answers in a recent exchange of emails.

What makes Librii a library rather than a computer lab?

There are several important differences. First, these libraries will have a variety of offerings beyond internet access, including access to physical books and educational programs. Second, while there will be some paid services to generate operating revenue, we will make every effort to maximize free offerings. Third, our libraries will be staffed by professional librarians whose job is to make sure patrons are finding the resources that are most relevant and beneficial to them.

Who are the librarians going to be? If they are hired from the community, how are you going to train them?

We've been working with the Ghana Library Association and the Ghana Library Authority since early on in the development process. We also have a strategic partnership with Librarians Without Borders to help us develop a training platform for the Librii staff. Recently, we've been in discussions with the Nike Foundation and some other NGOs about the possibility Librii being staffed fully by young women. There is a lot of data that suggests investing in adolescent girls produces powerful ripple effects throughout communities.

Does Ghana have a tradition of free public libraries? If not, how do you communicate about what Librii is to the local community? Is there any challenge of expanding awareness off the variety of resources and services provided in the pods?

I am going to focus my answer on Accra, rather than Ghana, because we are really targeting one metropolitan condition at the moment and not the whole country (or continent). In my own personal experiences, I have visited a number of public libraries and web cafes in Ghana. Both struggled with the same problem: providing up-to-date content. The libraries had a lot of outdated materials and limited and slow web access. Some web cafes had very slow service and hi-speed cafes were too pricy and lacked resources besides internet. What I did see on the street was a population that was surprisingly young and clearly hungry for progress. I saw daily examples of hard work and ingenuity that leads me to believe that as long as you provide tools, people will figure out how to leverage them to the greatest possible effect. That is what we are trying to do with Librii.

The project clearly has caught the imagination of many supporters: as I write, Librii has raised over $38,000 towards their 50,000 goal, and they have until April 4th to raise the remainder. I recommend you take a look—it’s a good example of a well-designed crowdfunding campaign. It presents a well-done video, a compelling case statement, attractive benefits (including updates on who is using the library, and how) and a clear timeline of how the funds will be used. And while you look it over, think about whether this model might have applicability to museums.

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