Partnerships: Increase Your Impact

Angela Siefer /

The Building Digital Communities: Framework encourages communities to work across sectors to provide information and communication technology to all members of a community. The recommended process of the Framework (and its supporting document Building Digital Communities: Getting Started) begins with a planning process to engage stakeholders. As I talk to the communities piloting the Framework, I’m learning that many have chosen to focus on digital literacy projects, often because opportunities, resources and partnerships already existed.

Even though it would be awesome for all communities to convene stakeholders, develop a shared understanding of digital inclusion, create a community action plan, implement the plan and then evaluate and revise the plan, the reality is digital literacy, broadband adoption and community broadband projects happen without the community wide planning. For those of us struggling with the planning process, may I suggest we look carefully at digital inclusion partnerships. Our example for today: The Free Library of Philadelphia’s digital outposts in community-based organizations.

Colin Rhinesmith is a Doctoral Student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Adjunct Research Fellow at Open Technology Institute, New America Foundation. Colin wrote the article, “Free Library Hot Spots: Supporting Broadband Adoption in Philadelphia’s Low-Income Communities”, published in a special issue on Broadband Adoption in the International Journal of Communication. The article explains the benefits of technology access and instruction occurring in a comfortable location is important not only to the success of each individual’s training but also to getting those individuals to utilize the open access technology and participate in the training. Colin's article explains in detail the added impact a library (or any community anchor institution) can have when partnering with community organizations who have strong relationships with target populations.

From the article:

Partnership Model: Benefits and Challenges

The Free Library Hot Spots represent an innovative community engagement model. The partnership between the Free Library of Philadelphia and four community organizations has given Philadelphia residents a new way to engage meaningfully with information—and with their neighbors.

The four Hot Spots are hosted at Heavenly Hall Day Care Annex (opened in February 2011), the Institute for the Development of African-American Youth (IDAAY, opened in April 2011), the Village of the Arts and Humanities (opened in March 2011), and the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia (CAGP, opened in March 2011). The facilities are staffed by computer assistants who are paid through Knight Foundation funding.

Benefits. Four computer assistants were hired to support community members at the Hot Spots; these assistants have strengthened the ties between residents, host organizations, and the Free Library of Philadelphia and have promoted the Hot Spots’ primary objectives. In my interviews with the four executive directors, two mentioned that the partnership allowed them to reach new constituents and provide additional resources to the community.

Using embedded library staff is an innovative new model for personalizing library services in the target areas. And, as Dailey et al. (2010) mention, “third spaces” (p. 38), such as the organizations hosting the Hot Spots, provide their own essential services to residents that often complement the library and information resources made available through the partnership.

Challenges. The Free Library Hot Spots partnership model is not without its challenges. In one example, two of the four executive directors mentioned that residents were confused by signage promoting the Hot Spots outside the host organization’s building. Many people thought of the Hot Spot as a library branch rather than as a part of the host organization.

Two of the four executive directors also expressed frustration with the fact that the library had received most of the attention for the project, although the community organizations had incurred significant additional costs in opening their doors to host the public computing centers. However, these same individuals also reported that the benefits outweighed the costs, and they recommended that the Free Library of Philadelphia consider more integrated branding and promotion as part of the solution during the second year of the program.