On May 12, representatives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and OCLC announced the creation of WebJunction (http://www.webjunction.org/), a Web site developed by OCLC through a 3-year, $9 million grant from the foundation "to support anyone working to provide successful and sustainable public access to information and technology." The site is intended to provide "a community-centered online space to share that knowledge through conversations, online classes, and instructional documents."
The announcement was made by Richard Akeroyd, director of International Library Initiatives at the Gates Foundation, at the Library of Congress, in front of an audience of librarians from all over the country who were in Washington to participate in Legislative Day. Akeroyd said that WebJunction was an extension of the Foundation's Public Access Computing Project, which has met its original goal of installing 40,000 computers in 10,000 libraries. "By providing free, online technical assistance, the site will help libraries of all sizes maintain and even grow their public access workstations," he said.
Marilyn Mason, the program director for WebJunction, said that the site responded to libraries' critical need for: "support for computer services that goes well beyond technical, equipment-related concerns…WebJunction will help library staff be more effective in offering and sustaining public access computing…by connecting them with each other, in an environment of difficult budgets."
She elaborated on the user-driven, collaborative nature of the site. The current content is based upon a study of user needs, and it will continue to adapt to changing needs, which users are encouraged to express in a variety of forums. Mason expects that some of the best content will come from users who accept the site's invitation to submit their own tips, tutorials, and success stories-in fact, OCLC is sponsoring an awards program for the best of those contributions.
In creating the site, OCLC has drawn on the unique expertise of four partners. The Colorado State Library brought to the project its years of experience in conducting user needs assessments. The Benton Foundation brought its experience with digital divide projects and building online communities. TechSoup provided a great deal of syndicated training content. Isoph, experts in instructional and graphic design, provided assistance with the site's design and e-learning course content.
The site currently offers technology resources, a buying guide, a learning center, and a community where librarians can draw on each other's knowledge and experience to solve common problems.
The Technology Resources section is extensive. Among its offerings are: online tech support and troubleshooting resources; guidance for choosing software and databases that best meet your users' needs; an introduction to hardware, peripherals, and their setup and maintenance; an overview of networking options, security measures, connectivity, and maintenance; Internet information, including using search engines, developing Web sites, and managing e-mail, listservs, and online communities; and tips and tools for making workstations and Web sites accessible.
The Policies and Practices section offers guidance in creating acceptable use policies, managing problems with inappropriate use, and training and managing volunteers, as well as in developing, budgeting, staffing, and implementing Technology Plans. It also includes tips on marketing, fundraising, and grant writing.
The Learning Center offers online courses, downloadable lessons, training tips, and other tools. "Troubleshooting Computer Problems" will surely be one of the most popular of these free online courses; other offerings range from basic to advanced, on such topics as Introduction to PCs, Certified Internet Webmaster Foundations, XML, Windows XP Upgrade, Excel, Word, Access, and PowerPoint. As might be expected, the content is heavily weighted to Microsoft products, at least at this point.
New as the site is, the tips and tutorials and handouts for those who are Leading Training already include materials developed by libraries, such as the Teen Volunteer Orientation Document provided by the Tucson-Pima Public Library. Other offerings include a guide to routine computer maintenance, information on protecting your computer from viruses, and a tip sheet on creating a monthly budget using Excel.
Another feature of WebJunction is the Buying Guide, which includes product reviews for hardware and software, information on discounts and donation programs, and general purchasing advice for assessing which products meet your technology needs.
The heart of WebJunction, however, is its Community Center, which describes itself as follows: "In our community, we recognize our achievements, share news and events, ask reference questions, and make connections with others on our experiences, challenges, and successes with public access computing."
There are several topical moderated forums, on Hardware, Library News, Technology Planning, Software, Public Access Policies & Practice, Funding Public Access Computing, and Connecting with Information Technology-and every one of these forums has already posted discussions. "All Aboard" is the Community Message Board, "where members can meet and greet each other, discuss public access topics, post and answer questions, suggest new areas of conversation, and more."
"I'm Curious, George," is the site's "ask-a" service, where WebJunction's online reference librarian (and one-time Jeopardy contestant) George Needham will answer users' questions.
A monthly newsletter titled Crossroads will be available both on the site and as a PDF file delivered to subscribers' e-mail addresses. A Members Directory will help librarians find partners for their public access computing dreams and schemes.
Of course, all of the individual components of this portal site are already available on the Web-online courses, technology tips, discussion groups, and handout exchanges. What WebJunction offers is one-stop shopping for all of the above, in a supportive community of peers-and for free.
That's what WebJunction does now. What it will be doing a year from now is up to the members, as they express their interests, ideas, and needs, and OCLC responds to them. Marie Groark, spokesperson for the Gates Foundation, has described the site as a "living portal." It will be interesting to watch it grow up.