Spring 2003

Programming on the Nightshift: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
by Anne McFarland

In an earlier Nightshift piece, I talked about local information—what it is, how we might access it, why it's important to community networks, etc. Some of the information is general info that it helps to know if you live in a certain community: things like the hours at City Hall, the names of councilpersons, etc. But there's a lot of information that is very individual, the kind Tom Grundner talked about when he talked about the "radius." That's the individual expertise type of information. With either kind, the question is how to get the information both to and from the community.

Like most community networks, mine needs to let folks know that we're around so that we might collect the information that they have. This, of course, is the reason that public relations professionals flourish. However, we don't have money to hire one, so we try to do what we can. And considering that all of us have had lots of experience with different nonprofits, we do have some knowledge of various ways to get the word out.

In the last days of the warm, laid-back summer, our hardy core group gathered for dinner and decided that we would do more than have monthly meetings that were open to anyone who might have heard of us and wanted to put up a website. A number of people had come—and continue to come—to those meetings, representing various community groups, and we're hosting a reasonable number of local websites. But in the tradition of those who are excited about the web and what it can do for communities, we thought we'd actually do some programming to attract folks to our site.

We figured that we'd alternate these programs with the "working" meetings, and we chose dates for four community programs. Everyone took responsibility for something, and my job was organizing and publicity. We printed an attractive flyer, distributed it, and reserved space for the meetings at the public library.

Our first program was "Build It and They Will Come," a title that we were sure would get attention. It featured a panel of the folks who had already built websites with the hope that they might encourage the more timid nonprofits to get going on their websites. We got very good publicity from the weekly newspaper, but only the presenters showed up.

Instead of just going home or out for a beer, the panel gave their presentations to each other, and those of us on the board found great things that we didn't even know were on the site—the case of the networkers being too busy to look beyond the home pages! One of the presenters, a non-techie, put together a really nice document that other non-techies could use in building their sites. Actually, one library patron did wander in and seemed interested in what we were doing, but as for attracting real community participation, our program was a complete bust.

Our next scheduled presentation was the brainchild of one of the trustees, a retired medical librarian who's formed a nonprofit to collect books for third world countries. Considering the state of the Cleveland Public Schools, he gives a goodly number of books to local teachers as well. His concept is that there are a lot of people in our community who have similar international connections around many other endeavors. He's heard about a lot of them by word-of-mouth, and he had a sense that a program on facilitating international connections on the web would be a good boost for the community.

But this concept is hard to articulate, let alone reduce to a catchy title. So a planning meeting ended without a decision about what to call the program. Promises were made to get material to me ASAP.  But a few weeks later nothing had shown up. I put out email asking if we should cancel the program. "Oh no," the concept person said. "I've got people lined up." But two days before the program, he called to tell me that he thought we'd better cancel it. I bit my tongue instead of saying, "I told you so," but I made him call the library to cancel the room.

Still, I figured that our next meeting would be a go, and I was excited about it. Because of a joint school district, we serve two communities. And we are curious about the technology plans—or lack thereof—of these two communities. So the idea was to invite appropriate people from each city hall to join us to talk about the plans. We figured publicity would be easier to get in this case, since both cities have fairly formidable public relations offices.

Way back in the summer, the techies had agreed to organize that program. Therefore I hadn't worried about it at all, since they always come through. But after we cancelled the international program, I thought maybe it would be a good idea to remind them of their promise. So I sent out an email, to which the first response was: "Which presentation was going to be next? The ecology program or the technology plan program?"

I had to let that one sit overnight before I could respond. Otherwise my email would have shouted, "AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO LOOKED AT THE PROGRAM THAT WE DISTRIBUTED?"

At the next meeting we decided that we really couldn't do these programs by ourselves. I sulked because I thought that the city technology plan program was a really good idea. One of the members suggested that we ask the city councils to put on a program addressing that topic. Instead of saying, "LIKE THAT WILL WORK!," I said that I really didn't think the cities would follow through and that I was really sorry that we couldn't do that program.

But I said that I understood—as much as anybody else—exactly why we couldn't do it. There's only so much one can do on the Nightshift. We have a site up and running. We host a dozen organizations. We have a forum. Not bad, really, for the Nightshift. So we were a little ambitious about the program planning. I still hope that we plan at least one program for next year. I have a Charlie Brown-like faith that the football won't always be yanked away at the last second. Community networkers are like that!

Anne McFarland is the Reference and Research Librarian at Cleveland Law Library Association. She works with ACORN, Project Connect, and the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Community Network.

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