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Connecting BTOP Peers to Collaborate, Learn, and Train

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As part of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Project (BTOP), which is a federal stimulus program for thousands of organizations and public libraries around the country to help expand and improve broadband access, we’ve been interviewing grantees to glean their best practices, challenges, opportunities, and hopes for the projects they’re working on.A few weeks back, my co-worker Kami Griffiths, got on the phone with Steve Podgainy, the executive director of the Portland Public Library in Maine to talk to him about their project. As one of the largest public libraries in the state, serving around 250,000 people as a regional hub, they are part of the BTOP-funded Maine Public Library Information Commons Project. The project has about 100 participating libraries across Maine, working to enhance or establish public computing centers and technical training for patrons.

Unlike many of the BTOP projects we’ve featured on this blog over the past couple of months, this project is largely being administered centrally, with coordination and direction coming straight from the Maine State Library. Although this allows for some unified planning and actions for the 100 participating libraries, it has posed some challenges for getting started since some key decisions – like determining grant funding for hiring additional staff or choosing what video-conferencing tools will be used for all participants to use – are not yet decided upon.

Even with the delay in coordinating such a massive group of libraries on the project, Steve spoke with excitement about the things he knows will be coming down the pike.

For the video conferencing piece I think for us, besides direct service to users, I think the internal benefits this gives us for training and connecting with colleagues, not just around the state, but around the country to engage in conversation or training around the specific issues that we need to resolve or to tackle. This is a huge benefit for us, because we don't have video conferencing capabilities right now. And for us, being the largest public library in Maine, we don't have a lot of peers. So it would be invaluable to us to have just that many more tools to connect with peers.”

As a relatively rural state with a small population, they discussed the great system they have set up to network and collaborate with other libraries across the state, which has positioned them well to execute the BTOP grant successfully and really grow and deepen their public computing access and trainings for patrons. But, they don’t have a system to network or collaborate with libraries in other states that may be closer to the Portland Public Library in size and makeup than their local, smaller branches or affiliates.

This is a key part of what TechSoup’s work is hoping to provide for BTOP grantees around the country (and nonprofits and libraries more generally). Obviously, having tech tools like the latest video-conferencing setup and having staff trained on how to use it can be a great step toward reaching out beyond your physical borders. But having best practices, shared knowledge, dos and don’ts, curricula for different levels of community needs, tips on how to bring trainings to people, and guidelines for setting up and maintaining labs are a big part of what we’re trying to collect and share through our work. In addition, we’re working hard to provide great information to help these projects move forward so we can see the results of greater access and digital literacy across the country. In doing that, one of the most important pieces is providing opportunities for library leaders like Steve to network with others who are tackling the same issues so they can work together as peers to enhance and grow their programs – whether they’re in Maine or Mississippi.

In closing the interview, Kami pointed Steve to the Cookbooks and Library Spotlights that already exist on the TechSoup for Libraries site, as resources that may help them get started in connecting stories, shared experiences, and even finding peers to connect with. And if you haven’t checked out the previously published posts about BTOP funding, check them out here.  

We’ll continue to blog about different challenges, successes, and resources from BTOP grantees around the country as well as provide general information about expanding broadband in your community. Watch for more!

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