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A National MPOW

I was tickled to see incoming ALA president (and BiblioBlogger in Chief) Leslie Burger’s comment on my recent post, and want to expand on it, because I agree–and I think we’re all in agreement, however you define “we.”

Five years ago, when I interviewed for the position of chief bottlewasher at My Place Of Work, I got on one of my starry-eyed kicks and talked about taking it nationally. Later on, I was advised, don’t bring that up. “They” didn’t like to hear “that.”

But that was then and this is now, and we now have people in charge who think globally and are far more entrepreneurial and future-seeking, and who are asking me now what I proposed back then: why don’t we treat My Place Of Work as what it is, a national resource, and ask other states to kick in?

Given today’s funding realities, that’s a reasonable question–not a new one, but still reasonable. I have actually been thinking that way since 2002. In the old state regime, thinking beyond California was so frowned upon that when I set up our partnership with Washington State that year I tried hard to keep a very low profile about it–say, about as low as if I were setting up a meth lab.

I made a few mistakes with our first partnership–originally we developed a separate website, which in retrospect I have to say was even uglier than MPOW’s old website, which is just as well since no one used it, and my pricing model was the sort of thing only a librarian could think up–but it’s a good partnership and we both benefit. It’s an unusual relationship; in LibraryLand, partnerships between states are rare (and when you provide examples, as some of you will, remember that word, “rare”). Librarianship tends to be feudal and stop at state lines (if not city or county lines), and our partnership, among other things, has been an example of tearing down those gates on behalf of our users.

I also developed partnerships with organizations such as California Digital Library, where we created 400 web records for a special project website, a content batch which we now export to them as an XML set (aren’t we cool?). This was not frowned upon by the old regime, and it was win-win all around. CDL got our expertise and some cool content, we made a little money and got content we could use, and I have thought since then that we should market this capability more aggressively. I was even approached by a public-radio producer about a content set, and though that never happened I wondered, could there be more where that came from?

But back to other states kicking in. There are two theories of MPOW I’ve experienced in the last five years. One, more of a minority view, is that we put it behind lock and key and keep it a California-only resource. I would call that idea old-school, except in librarianship, where we’re all about universal service, it’s really more no-school. The value to people outside California is almost incidental to MPOW’s value to its home team; it doesn’t cost us very much more to keep MPOW a globally-available web resource, and we benefit from the wide exposure we have–plus we do not have the overhead of gatekeeping to worry about.

Increasingly, with fresh faces and voices in charge, there’s formal support and encouragement for where I timidly ventured in 2002. (I have another possible state partnership pending. I can’t disclose details at this point.) I did have to get MPOW to the point where it was attractive and professional enough to appeal to other state. We were told by more than one state that our old butt-ugly, heavily dated design was a turn-off (I know one partnership was lost due to our hideous old design), and our clunky old back-end system increasingly wasn’t supporting our work.

The real question, now that we’re so pretty, is how we get others to participate; whether other states think MPOW is worth buying into; and whether I can gather the skill and input around me to do it right this time.

It has been suggested to me that we don’t need MPOW any more, that there’s just no role in this world for a separate web portal that’s admittedly not that easy to search. Everything on LII is ipso facto in Google, for example, so who needs it? Give it up, Schneider, I’m told: at best you can maybe sell your content to a database provider. Nobody wants what you’re offering. You’re so last year.

If I listen to those voices, I start nodding and agreeing–until I go back to the facts of our phenomonal growth (is your library website getting 10 million hits a month? Does your newsletter have 35,000 subscribers and growing?), or until I open another user feedback that tells us we helped someone teach a class, or find a medical site, or help develop their library’s reference web page. Until I remember that Google itself featured MPOW in a library newsletter–a way of saying that we coexist, each serving a valuable purpose.

I feel some guilt for not having pushed partnerships faster and more aggressively. We’re a small operation, but maybe if I had worked longer hours, worked smarter, or spent less time on other work activies we’d have them lined up out the door. Maybe if I had a clue about pricing models and outreach we wouldn’t be in this position. But I’m not too proud to say that if you have good ideas and can help me, I believe in MPOW, and will do what I can to lead it into a better, stronger, perhaps more equitable place than it has ever been.

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