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How to Host a Hackathon at Your Library

hackathonHackathons have become increasingly popular over the last few years, and they’re no longer conducted just by tech startups and companies. Groups as varied as professional sports organizations, local government and universities have embraced the concept.

These events can be extraordinarily beneficial for local communities. A marathon coding session can produce technology applications for the library as well as build upon STEM education efforts. As both community centers and technology hubs, public libraries are ideal places to host hackathons.

Technopedia defines a hackathon as “a gathering where programmers collaboratively code in an extreme manner over a short period of time. Hackathons are at least a few days – or over a weekend – and generally no longer than a week. While working on a particular project, the idea is for each developer to have the ability and freedom to work on whatever he/she wants.”

Many hosts design their hackathon with a specific purpose or theme. For example, Code for Civic Hacking events aim to develop solutions for government and community challenges like the lack of affordable housing or unemployment. Your hackathon can focus on the needs of the library, with coders developing library-related mobile apps or revamping the website. Other projects include creating new ways to put vast amounts of library data to better use.

One example is the Toronto Public Library, which hosted an Open Data Hackathon to explore new ideas for taking advantage of public library data. The projects included a catalogue speech interface, an interactive query system, and a map to explore library neighborhoods. You can view all of the pitch presentations from the event here.

Hosting a hackathon at your library is a big undertaking, however. In Georgia, after the Chattahoochee Valley Libraries hosted a Hack the Library event, deputy director Gabriel Lundeen shared his experience in a blog post.

If you’d like to host a hackathon, here are a few takeaways that you can use as a framework for designing, promoting and hosting.


Create a Project Plan

Not surprisingly, such a large event will take you and your staff months of work. Start the process by putting together a project plan and a timeline. It will help you track all of the logistical and marketing details to ensure nothing is overlooked.

Partner with Your Local Tech Community

Reach out to local technology organizations and begin building relationships. Local techies and coders can help you create a list of challenges for the event, help you promote it, and act as mentors to young and inexperienced participants during the event.

Find a Sponsor

Your costs will include food, prizes and marketing, so it’s a good idea to find a sponsor who can provide financial support. Reach out to area businesses, especially those who recruit and hire technology developers. Their next great hire might attend your hackathon, so they will benefit too.

Pay Close Attention to Logistics

Hosting 60-70 students, amateur techies, government officials and developers is a logistical challenge. You’ll need to arrange plenty of seating and table space, easy access to electrical outlets, WiFi, food, and more. This useful Hackathon Guide covers many of the details you need to run a successful event.

Promote the Hackathon

As you map out your marketing plan, be sure to take advantage of partnerships and sponsor opportunities. Ask your local tech community to promote via their own channels, and seek support from sponsors for media outreach and advertising. In addition, reach out to local schools and after-school tech clubs to get the word out.

Invite the Press

The hackathon is an excellent opportunity for the media to see the library in action, engage with participants, take tons of photos, and incorporate pitch videos into their articles. So don’t forget to reach out to the local press well in advance and offer them complementary access to the event.


Remember that this type of event doesn’t end after just 48 hours. Several projects will continue to completion, helping to strengthen your new relationships with members of the tech community. If all goes well, it’s likely you’ll see more local techies using the library, and you will find yourself planning more hackathons.

5 Planning Tips Based on the Latest Pew Library Survey

pewchartGood news! Americans do value their public libraries, according to the latest report from the Pew Research Center.


But while two-thirds of Americans still visit libraries to borrow books, 80% say libraries should offer programs to teach people how to use digital tools.


The study provides several insights that can help libraries become even more relevant to their communities. As you work on your next three or five-year plan, you’ll find it worthwhile to delve into the details of this report, which will help guide your investment decisions.


Let’s look at a few that could impact your planning.


  • Add Digital Skills Programs: In addition to the strong demand for digital skills programs, 37% of Americans say libraries help them understand what information they can trust. This is a significant increase from 2015, when just 24% of Americans responded in this way. Many libraries already offer programs covering how to conduct research using library databases and how to use the Internet to apply for a job. But they should also consider adding programs especially for children and senior citizens, to help them learn how to use computers, smartphones and apps.


  • Embrace the Maker Movement: Half of Americans also say their public libraries should invest in new creative technologies such as 3-D printers, a finding that indicates strong support for adding a Makerspace to your library.


  • Update and Promote the Website: Fewer people said they visited their public library’s website in the previous 12 months. However, half of those who did used a mobile device, up from 39% in 2012. In addition, 58% of website users searched the library catalogue, while 44% conducted research or got homework help. There are likely several reasons why library websites aren’t attracting visitors. There may be low awareness in the community, or the site simply isn’t friendly for mobile users. A website update can be an expensive and time-consuming project, but it may be necessary, especially for older websites. If you do embark on such a project, be sure your new site is responsive and mobile-ready. Another way to improve traffic is to launch a marketing campaign aimed at building awareness.


  • Promote eBooks: There’s also a clear need for public libraries to do a better job of marketing their library eBook programs. Only 44% of Americans know that their public libraries loan out e-books, despite the fact that 90% of libraries have such programs.


  • Non-Users: Nearly 20% of Americans have never been to the library. According to the Pew study, non-users are often male, 65 or older, Hispanic, Black, high-school graduates or less, or living in a household earning less than $30,000. Community outreach programs can be effective in reaching diverse and underserved populations. Consider forming partnerships with local community leaders, businesses, and schools, and creating new programs based on the needs of specific population segments.


These are just a few of many findings in the report, which is worth reviewing in greater detail. You can read it here.


5 Steps to a Better SEO Strategy – and More Website Traffic

If you’re feeling underwhelmed by the volume of traffic to your public library website, it may be time to conduct an audit of your SEO strategy. The search engines are always adjusting their algorithms, which makes it necessary for website owners to regularly revisit and adjust their search engine optimization strategies.

But what’s the best way to conduct such an audit? Moz is an SEO consulting firm that offers advice on how to improve your ranking in search engines. In this YouTube video, which is part of the company’s Whiteboard Friday series, CEO Rand Fishkin recommends website owners consider five questions about their organization and the people it’s trying to serve.

To create content that brings more visitors to your website, you need to describe the library’s unique value and the ways in which you help solve community and user problems. But getting people to visit your website is just one goal of SEO. You also want people to visit the library in person. Or, as corporate marketers might say, you want to convert them to customers. Your SEO audit also should define this process.

Rand’s video offers practical, easy-to-follow advice. I’ve taken the five questions he poses in his video, and adapted them for public libraries, with suggestions for how you might answer them. Keep in mind, though: your answers will be specific to your goals. Here are Rand’s questions:

What does our public library offer that helps solve our visitors’ problems?

One answer to this question might be: Our public library offers research databases to help local businesses create strategic plans.

What is the unique value we provide that no one else does?

One advantage of public libraries? Our services are free. For example, you might answer this question by stating: “We offer free access to computers and to the internet for people who can’t afford their own.”

Who will help amplify our message?

The key takeaway here is that you must define both your target audience and key influencers. For example, local media influences both community opinion and behaviors of local residents. In social media, members of local Facebook groups will share opinions about local businesses and services. So it’s important to actively share library news in these groups, not just on your Facebook page.

What’s the process for turning website visitors into library users?

Just because someone visits your website, it doesn’t mean she’ll walk through the library doors. If your goal is to raise funds for the library, you first need to map the donor’s journey from fact-finding to understanding the library’s need to making a commitment to give. A public library web marketing funnel might look like this:

  • A resident of your community will search online to find local charities to support.
  • This search may lead him to the public library website.
  • He signs up for your newsletter via a link on the site.
  • He receives an invite to a library fundraising event.

How do we expose what we do in a way that search engines can understand?

Of course, content creation is the way to drive people to your website. You must write content that answers questions and solves problems for your target audience. For example, some members of the community may want to download ebooks from the library, but have no idea how this works. You can create a simple video explaining the process, and post it on your website. This is exactly the type of content search engines want, and when they find it, they will rank it highly.

Google and other search engines are placing heavy emphasis on well-crafted content that answers their users’ questions. The five questions in the Moz video provide an excellent framework for understanding how to create content that will rank highly in the search engine algorithms. After you watch the video, you’ll find it easier to create an effective SEO strategy for your public library website.

Snapchat Geofilters for Your Public Library

snapchat-mobile-app-1024x682Snapchat is tremendously popular among members of the Millennial generation, an important audience for public library marketers. This group makes up the largest share of the workforce, and they are the largest living generation. Their influence will affect us for decades.

As public library marketers, we need to continually innovate new ways to reach this demographic. That’s why I’ve started to explore all the opportunities Snapchat has to offer marketing professionals.

Which brings me to the recent launch of the New Jersey State Library’s Snapchat Geofilter. We’re really excited about this, and I not only want to share this news, but also inspire you to create a Snapchat Geofilter for your library.

So, what is a geofilter? It is a location-based piece of graphical overlay that users can apply to their Snaps. The artwork enhances the user’s photo with information about their current location. For example, a local university can use this feature to create an overlay of the school’s name and mascot.

Users then can add the overlay to a selfie taken on campus, and then share the image with friends. It’s a fantastic way to promote the university by building awareness.

Creating an geofilter for your public library requires some design skill and tech know-how. If you’re adept at Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, you can design the overlay yourself. Other options are to hire a graphic designer or to find a student volunteer to help you create the artwork. Be sure to follow Snapchat’s guidelines carefully, however, otherwise your design could be rejected.

From the guidelines, here are the artwork requirements:

  • All graphics used must be 100% original.
  • No logos or trademarks. The only exception is that Snapchat will accept college and university logos submitted by authorized officials from those schools.
  • No photographs.
  • No hashtags.
  • Be creative and make it visually compelling.
  • Don’t cover up too much of the screen.
  • Make sure it’s relevant to the location and something that people will want to use.

In addition, the web-optimized, transparent PNG files should be 1080 pixels wide and 1920 pixels high, and sized at no more than 300 KB.

When you submit your geofilter to Snapchat, have a good description ready. As an example, here’s the one we used for the state library:

The New Jersey State Library provides services for all New Jersey libraries. The non-profit statewide library acts as a resource for patrons with a variety of books, electronic resources, activities/events/meetings and more. The library helps patrons to achieve their personal, educational and professional goals. The New Jersey State Library is a great place for our community!

During the submission process, Snapchat will ask you to define your geofence. Note that it can only cover the relevant area. For public libraries, you will probably need to limit the geofence to your building. Snapchat prohibits geofences from covering an entire country, state or province.

If Snapchat approves your geofilter, any user who enters your building or the parameters of your geofence will be able to snap a photo, overlay it with your artwork, and then share it with a friend.

Fun and creative filters are likely to capture the attention of your visitors, and it’s easy to see how geofilters can get Millennials excited to share their enthusiasm for the library. I encourage you to test this feature out and let me know how well it works for you.

The next time you visit the New Jersey State Library, we invite you to take a Snap and add our overlay. Take a selfie, post it, and tag us!

Crowdfunding: Will It Work for Your Public Library?

donations-1041971_1920Looking to fund a particular event or resource for your public library? One option worth evaluating is crowdfunding. Popular among entrepreneurs and artists, raising donations through online platforms such as Fundly or Indiegogo can be an exciting and effective method to fund projects.

Crowdfunding offers public libraries a way to gather donations from a large number of people, who each give a small amount. When donors give enough to meet a campaign’s fundraising goal, the nonprofit receives all the donated funds.

But creating a crowdfunding campaign isn’t as simple as posting your project on one of the many online platforms. Andrea Levandowski, Project Manager for Small Business Development and Technology at the New Jersey State Library, has given several talks about how nonprofits can take advantage of this approach, and she has assembled a very useful guide to crowdfunding on the New Jersey State Library website.

While public libraries can use crowdfunding to support annual events such as reading programs or to raise donations for their library foundations, running a campaign requires a significant investment of time and resources. Because many nonprofits don’t raise any money at all, public libraries should learn as much as possible about this method first.

That’s because crowdfunding isn’t always right for nonprofits, and Andrea recommends considering all other options first, including seeking grants and gifts from big donors, holding traditional fundraisers and using direct mail.

But for those intrigued by the idea of crowdfunding special initiatives, here are five steps to follow for setting up your campaign.

Find the right platform for you.

There are dozens of online crowdfunding platforms, and some are better suited for nonprofits than others. Research each carefully to find the one that best fits your purpose and your budget. Focus on features, not a platform’s popularity, and be sure to understand each platform’s pricing structure. Typically, they will charge a percentage of each transaction for payment processing plus a flat fee.

Understand the limitations upfront.

Crowdfunding and peer-to-peer fundraising platforms usually require nonprofits to use the money for the purposes stated in the campaign. Keep in mind that in many cases, funds are not released unless your funding goals are reached.

Time spent planning is well worth it.

Be sure to put together a comprehensive marketing plan before launching your funding campaign. This should include:

  • Goals for the campaign, including funding goals.
  • A budget, including costs for marketing, advertising, design work and incentives.
  • Incentives for each level of donation. For example, small donors might get a thank you in the library newsletter, large donors may get late fee forgiveness for a year. Or, consider partnering with a local business who can donate items to be used as incentives.
  • Length of campaign. Shorter is often better because it creates a sense of urgency, and it’s less of a strain on resources.
  • Legal and financial considerations. Be sure to review and understand the legal risks and financial obligations. It’s a good idea to seek professional counsel before kicking off any campaign.
  • Timing of campaign. Avoid scheduling the campaign at the same time as other fundraising efforts. Doing so may limit the success of both campaigns, and it can stress resources.

Put one person in charge.

To ensure that things run smoothly, Levandowski recommends putting one person in charge of the campaign. Crowdfunding requires constant attention. A campaign or project manager can keep all activities on track and prevent important tasks from falling through the cracks. Because campaigns typically run 24×7, the project manager will need to assemble a team to handle social media and answer donor questions.

Communicate after the campaign.

Be sure to follow up with all donors. Of course, you’ll need to deliver on each incentive, but saying thank you is important for energizing and building a community. You’ll want to continue your relationship with your backers, to make it easier to approach them for the next campaign.


For more details about how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign, be sure to visit the library guide. And if you want to see the elements of a successful crowdfunding campaign supporting a local library, visit the Indiegogo page of the Roseland Village Library in Sonoma Valley, Calif.

Why Public Libraries Should Embrace Brand Storytelling

booklet-426781_1920When you work in a library every day, the power of storytelling is clear. Thousands of people walk through our doors, and many will discover at least one story in the stacks that moves them. Great writers know how to evoke emotional responses from readers.

Everyone has a story to tell – not just authors or filmmakers, but brands too. The good news is that the ability to move people isn’t unique to great writers. Brand marketers understand that good storytelling is the key to getting consumers to feel emotionally invested in their brand.

That’s why brand marketers use the very same storytelling structure that great writers do. By incorporating storytelling techniques into marketing activities, the public library can motivate and inspire both advocates and visitors.

Let’s take a look at each of the major components of story and how they apply to building the public library brand.


Just as great novels have themes, so do brand stories. Themes are the common link between all marketing activities, helping to tie them together in a more meaningful way. When all your stories relate to one theme, your brand becomes more memorable.

How can you determine what your theme should be? Bring your staff together and brainstorm the answers to these questions:

  • What value does your library bring to the community?
  • What is your mission?
  • What impact do you have on each segment of your community?
  • What benefit do visitors gain from your library?

Structure & Plot.

The novel format consists of a single narrative arc, comprised of multiple chapters or stories. A brand is similar, except that its story is continuous and never-ending. Still, each story you tell should fit into your larger theme. These individual tales are comprised of three parts:

  • The beginning, which introduces your characters and setting (e.g. The teenager whose dream it is to attend college and who comes to the library every afternoon for homework help.)
  • The middle, which sets up the problem and supplies the tension (e.g. He needs a computer to complete his homework, but he doesn’t have one at home.)
  • The end, which provides a resolution (e.g. The library provides him with free access to a computer every afternoon, which allows him to get good grades and an acceptance to college.)


All great stories are rooted in great characters. They are so real and so relatable they could be our best friends. We root for them when adversity strikes.

The best brand storytellers are the ones who put their customers at the center of their stories. They are the heroes, not the brand. When prospective library visitors or advocates see themselves in other people’s stories – when they share the same problems and issues – they will find it easier to relate.

In addition, a story’s hero is always transformed by the action. This is critical to the success of telling a brand story because it shows how customers benefit from library services. For example, to promote your resources for job seekers, tell a story about a successful job search. This both emphasizes the library user as hero and reinforces what the library can do for the community.


Remember that a story is versatile and can be told through a variety of media. It’s not limited to the written word. In fact, younger audiences tend to gravitate more to visual content, so embrace video, images and audio when telling your story.

Storytelling, as we know, is an art. But it’s not simply for great writers. When you put story at the center of your marketing activities, you’ll engage a larger audience and build loyal fans.