Category: Science

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month David Tarpey

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders. Happy May, I’m excited for spring and warm weather, aren’t you? This month I’m pleased to introduce you to David Tarpey, PhD. David is an entomologist (he studies bugs!) at North Carolina State University. Like I did with our other scientists, Penny, Philipp, Anne-Marike, Pete, Becky, Michael, and Jenny I asked him questions about his job as a scientist to learn more about what he really does. I hope you enjoy learning about his work! Below you can read our interview, and if you’d like to ask him any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

David: I’m an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects. There are lots of types of bugs though, so most entomologists specialize in different areas. My speciality is honey bees, so my area of expertise is named apiculture.

Erin: Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

Courtesy of David Tarpey

Courtesy of David Tarpey

David: I got my undergraduate degree at Hobart College, my Master of Science at Bucknell University and my PhD at the University of California, Davis. While an undergrad I actually got my first experience in research while on my junior year abroad at Oxford University in England studying the learning behavior of birds (starlings to be precise). I took that experience back to Hobart and did a different project for my senior thesis on the mating behaviors of Hawaiian drosophila, the picture-winged fruit flies, which was my first introduction to insect science. I then started my masters project on honey bees, and ever since then I’ve been hooked! My MS project investigated the fascinating process by which a new queen takes over the colony from the old mother queen, which involves rival sister queens fighting each other to the death until only one remains. My PhD project also involved research on queens, studying why they mate with an unusually high number of males, or drones. I’ve continued research on that same question ever since.

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?

David: I’m in the Entomology Department at North Carolina State University, one of the largest and arguably the best entomology department in the country. My typical work day is anything but typical, as I do many things in my position. Some days I teach a large class of non-science majors about how cool bees are, using them to learn about biology in order to appreciate the process of science. Other days I work with beekeepers, teaching them how to best manage their beehives to keep their colonies healthy and productive so the bees can pollinate all the crops that we eat every day. Still other days, I work with other members of our lab to do research on why honey bees do what they do, and how they go about doing it. We use lots of different ways to address these questions, including genetics and glass-walled observation hives so we can watch what’s going on inside.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

David: I’ve always known I’ve wanted to be a scientist. It may be in part because my father was a research psychologist so I’ve always been in academia, or it may be because I’ve loved exploring and tinkering in the outdoors since as early as I can remember. But what really got me excited about science was the first time I opened up a beehive containing ~50,000 bees and a single queen. Realizing how surprisingly peaceful they were and how they worked together for the greater good was so fascinating to me, I just had to understand more!

Courtesy of David Tarpey

Courtesy of David Tarpey

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

David: I really enjoy all the different aspects of my job. Teaching students the fascinating biology of bees constantly renews my love and admiration for them, as does my working with beekeepers to help perfect their management of their beehives. Researching how colonies function is also very rewarding, as I feel like a detective trying to figure out an infinitely complex and interesting puzzle.

Erin: What is something about your job that would surprise us?

David: Being the honey bee expert in North Carolina, one of the more surprising things that I do every year is help the NC State Fair judge all of the entries for honey, wax, and hive products. Beekeepers have many rewards, and they love to compete with each other to see who can bottle the best honey and make the best candles. We therefore help decide who wins the blue ribbon every year!

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?

David: I love sports, so I play a lot of racquetball and basketball, and I also help coach my son’s soccer team. I’m also an avid hiker and enjoy camping in the outdoors. I also wish I could be as hands-on with beekeeping as I used to be, since I enjoy playing with the bees as much as I can.
What do you think first graders? Do any of you ever see bees in your backyard or at the park? What are some of the things you know about bees? Do you have any questions for Dr. David? Be sure to leave him a comment! I think he has a pretty cool job, don’t you?

Thank you, David for being our May Scientist of the Month!

Are There Any Sci Comm Superheroes Among Us?

You cannot do everything. Neither can I, none of us can. A few weeks ago I attended both the Science Online and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conferences. An issue that kept coming up in discussion is how to be better at science outreach and communication. For scientists and communicators (and the many people who are both) it was clear to see that everyone wanted to be better. But, I noticed people getting frustrated, and sometimes even a little heated when it came down to the nitty gritty of HOW to be better.

No one person or group is, or can be, solely responsible for science communication. Science communication is an ecosystem that includes journalists, writers, bloggers, comedians, cartoonists, artists, video and audio producers, storytellers, social media enthusiasts, and scientists. What unites us is our end goal, we all want to share a love for science that explains, while also exciting people about science. How we go about achieving that end goal is different for all of us – and it needs to be. I would argue that the reason the science communication ecosystem has evolved to include so many different types of communicators is because we have a need for different voices communicating about science in different ways. The more quality communication out there, the better.

That doesn’t mean any one person can be a regular sci comm superhero and do it all. I can’t be a journalist, writer, blogger, artist, comedian, cartoonist, video and audio rockstar, etc. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for that. I don’t know anyone who does, and communication is my main focus. I think it’s a little bit crazy to expect scientists to be scientists and also communicators, but on top of that layer on every type of communication. You alone can’t reach everyone, that is why we need all of us out there communicating in different ways. It is the only way we can reasonably expect to reach a wide audience.

Credit: Vegas Bleeds Neon via Wikimedia Commons

Credit: Vegas Bleeds Neon via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve seen a lot of conversation lately about the idea of scientists writing lay friendly abstracts for their scientific papers. I’ll be the first to admit lay abstracts are helpful. I recently sat with a researcher who made a graphical abstract to represent the research in pictures, it was awesome. But, I’ve seen the lay abstract idea get pushed even further into scientists writing full articles for the public. Where do we draw the line? If all the scientists get out there and start writing lay-friendly whole articles for publication in the mainstream…well then what the heck am I supposed to do all day? This isn’t about jargon (please, please, let’s not have the jargon fight again) I certainly don’t think that all scientists are bad at communicating. Some are very good at it, and some aren’t so great. But you know, I would be a lousy scientist. I’m not trained to be a scientist, those aren’t the skills that I have. What I am trained to be, is a writer.

Writing well is something that requires certain skills and know how, in addition to a little bit of talent. It is something that develops over time, the more you write, often the better you’ll get at it. All of the other modes of communication, audio, video, etc. include their own skill set. Sometimes I feel like people take for granted that everyone should be able to write and communicate well. There is a distinct lack of appreciation for the level of skill and dedication it can take to communicate well. That’s not to say people can’t learn how (or that for some, it will come much easier than it does for others) – but the same way I can’t just snap my fingers and be a great scientist, I don’t think you can just wish to be a good communicator and make it so. It takes time, which is the one thing that is in short supply for all of us.

I don’t want or expect scientists to do my job for me. I want to write, I just need the help of scientists so that I can. One thing, in my opinion the most important thing, that scientists can do to be more involved in outreach is to make themselves available to science communicators so we can ask our questions and then synthesize the material for a public audience. It takes time to sit with a writer, I know, but it is time well spent. It is also time that doesn’t require developing an entirely new skill set.

If scientists have the time to learn how to communicate well and then get out there and do it, that’s great. Direct from the scientist themselves communication is awesome. I value it highly. But I also don’t think it’s fair to expect scientists to do their job and then also do my job. Not when being a scientist is itself basically two jobs because in addition to being a scientist, most are also professors and teaching itself is it’s own career. I’m all for stepping down from “the ivory tower” but that doesn’t have to mean becoming a master communicator yourself. Outreach, like communication, comes in many shades.

If you don’t think you have the skills to write well, and you think your time could be better spent elsewhere, then fine. If you’d rather give a talk for an audience or demographic that you normally wouldn’t reach because that’s what you feel comfortable doing, then do it. If you’d rather sit with a journalist for an hour and just talk about your research so that they can go get the article in the media, then great. If the best way you think you can reach the public is by joining twitter and then adding value to conversations about your field of expertise, then do that. If you want to sit in front of your computer and film a short video of you summarizing your work, do it. I’m all for doing something, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything.

I’ve said before in blog posts about learning to code, that I don’t think journalists should be required to excel at every different type of communication. Try, sure. Try out new things. Try new ways of communicating and reaching people. Be open. But there is a difference between trying new things to see if you enjoy or are good at them, and a blanket expectation that you have to use every single means of communicating out there. Similarly, I don’t think you can expect scientists to do every different type of outreach. Some outreach, sure. Scientists can be open to new things too, and try them out to see how they fit. But just like I don’t enjoy code, some scientists might not like Twitter. It’s okay to not like Twitter. I choose to communicate in ways that I am good at and enjoy. I love Twitter, that’s why I use it. I don’t see why scientists shouldn’t have the same rule of thumb when it comes to outreach. There are so many different ways to get a message to someone. We need all of the ways, and we need different people to try them.

I’m not a sci comm superhero. I don’t do it all. Mostly because I like to sleep, and I like my sanity but also because I’m not very good at certain things. I can’t draw to save my life. You’re never going to catch me trying to be a sci scribe. I’m okay with that, because drawing isn’t how I communicate. It’s not what I do, and it doesn’t have to be. Scientists don’t all have to be writers. There are other ways to get your message across without having to be a sci comm superhero. I’m not saying don’t try, but let’s just be realistic here. Yes, scientists need to communicate about their work, but I’m not going to expect scientists to communicate in every way when I don’t even do it myself.

You don’t have to do it all just to do something. Even if that something is just talking to someone who does want to write, that itself is a positive step. So maybe, rather than trying to do all the things all the time by ourselves, we could just try to do a few things, and rely on each other to fill in the gaps. That way we as the science communication ecosystem can reach the most people in the best ways. Is that too idealistic? Maybe. But I can hope can’t I?

Filling the Empty Page: Reading To Write

You’ve started a blog. Congratulations. Now what?

Of the many things I learned while in Journalism school, perhaps the bit of advice that I echo the most is that if you want to write well, you must read good writing. I’ve found this to be particularly true when blogging. If you want to blog about a topic it is extemely adventageous for you to be aware of what others have already said on the subject. It doesn’t do you or anyone else any good for you to produce content that is already out there (especially if your audience is smaller, and definitely if you don’t cover the topic as well as your peers.)

It has been my experience as a science blogger for three years that what you write doesn’t have to be the most timely, exciting thing on the Internet. Sure, those studies and stories that are making waves are great to write about, and when I blog about things like dinosaurs farting themselves to death I get a decent amount of traffic. But why would anyone care what I think of a study on dinosaurs when they could head over to Laelaps and read what Brian Switek has to say about it? Why would anyone care what I think about an infectous disease story when the world has Maryn McKenna’s Superbug? Or any chemical story when Deborah Blum has that beat superbly locked down?

I don’t think there is much value to writing about things that others have already covered, and covered well, unless there is some angle or something I feel like I can bring to the conversation. For the record, “I agree” doesn’t add much to the conversation – unless a topic is controversial and someone is getting attacked by the trolls and you want to show solidarity. If I do have something to say, in most of those cases it would probably be more beneficial as a blogger (especially a new bloger) to add a comment to those existing posts and jump into the conversation than sounding off in my own diatribe. There are, of course, exceptions when I do think it is worthwhile to toss in your two cents about a topic. But, in general if you aren’t going to blog about the latest splashy story, then what ARE you going to blog about?

What has made the traffic on my blog spike, and has increased my profile as a blogger more than anything else that I’ve done is to write about what interests me the most. Simple, I know, but I think when you are just starting out as a blogger it can be easy to feel like you need to be talking about what everyone else is talking about. The way to get noticed isn’t to join the herd, the way to get noticed is to do something that no one else is doing. Writing about what you feel most passionate about, regardless of everyone else, will make you stand out. Writing about something that matters to you, and gets you fired up, is in my humble opinion the key to writing an exciting post. If you’re excited, it will bleed through your writing.

Offer readers something they can’t get elsewhere – whether that is a manifestation of your childhood obsession with Amelia Earhart, a series of interviews with people you find interesting, or ramblings on your love/hate relationship with learning to code. Find answers to the questions that are bugging you, like when I decided to find out why the Scientific American blog network is so supportive of fledgling science writers. Your blog is your corner of the Internet, so carve it out for yourself. Make yourself at home. You wouldn’t decorate your home in a style that everyone else likes just because they like it, so don’t do it to your blog.

bestsciencewritingonlineAll this isn’t to say that the ideas are just going to start pouring onto the page. Just about every week I spend too much time staring at the empty screen trying to figure out what it is I want to say, and what matters enough to warrant a post, and throwing out all my bad ideas before I hit on something with a spark. Which brings me back to the advice I started with: read good writing. The idea for this post came from reading a collection of blog posts called The Best Science Writing Online 2012 (fomerly known as the Open Laboratory) the brainchild of series editor Bora Zivkovic and 2012 edition guest editor Jennifer Ouellette. The collection gets my sincere recommendation – if you have any interest in being a science blogger, you should check it out. Reading the posts in the collection inspired me, and reminded me how important it is to worry less about what you think everyone wants to read, and more about what you want to say.

The sheer diversity of topics, of styles, and of voices in this book is pretty astounding, and drives home the point that writing about what excites you is so important to having a successful blog. Reading all of those posts didn’t make me want to blog about any of the topics, but it did make me want to emulate every one of those writers’ ability to draw on what interests them and write about it in a way that is beautifully their own. Whether than means giving a voice to a fungus fairtale, telling us a tragedy worthy of Romeo and Juliet, or getting pissed off about the way the media ran with a story – all of the writers in The Best Science Writing Online 2012 gave me a piece of themselves in their posts. They are all great writers to be sure, but what makes the posts effective, makes them resonate, is the excitement and interest that they have in their subject whether they are writing about sperm, gin or pirates (really, you should read this collection.)

If you want to write a blog, find the time to read. I get ideas from other writers and other blogs all of the time. It’s never about copying the subject matter, the inspiration comes from putting my own twist on trends and ideas and figuring out what I want to say. I want to talk about what I read, so I write book reviews (even grossly out of date ones) and have started collecting weekly links of my Media Consumption. I want to share my passion for science so I interview researchers for Science For Six Year Olds. When I wanted to talk about grad school, and the job market, I did. When I wanted to write about pengiun sex (and then mention it in a job interview) I did. You don’t have to write about current science news to have ideas that are relevant and worth talking about. Reading other science blogs is the best way I’ve found to figure out what kind of science blogger you want to be and to figure out what fits for you. The Best Science Writing Online 2012 is a great place to start.

If you were to go back in the archives of my blog and see what I wrote about when I first started, it is really nothing like the Science Decoded that I have today. I started out writing a daily post about a science story plucked from the media. I almost never do that anymore. These days I blog more about issues related to being a blogger and a writer than I do about actual topics in science. I think this shift happened because right now I feel more passionate about sharing my experience as a writer than I do about actually doing more science writing (I am priviledged enough that science writing is my day job, afterall.) That’s not to say that I won’t shift back to writing more about scientific research, or to writing about current science news. There is absolutely a need for that type of analysis and for having those conversations online, but I’m not going to force myself to have an opinion about something when there are so many other topics that I actually do have an opinion on. As The Best Science Writing Online 2012 reminded me, your blog should never be a chore. If you always write about what interests you, it won’t be.

SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Pete Etchells

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders! Happy New Year! I’m so excited to start 2013 with our January scientist of the month. This month we have Dr. Pete Etchells, a psychologist. Like I did with our other scientists I asked Pete some questions to find out more about what he does. I hope you will enjoy learning more about him. Below you can read our interview, and if you’d like to ask him any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Pete: I’m a psychologist, which means that I’m interested in how the human mind works. More specifically, I’m a biological psychologist, which is a broad area of psychology that uses biology to understand human behavior. My research covers all sorts of things – from how we make eye movements when looking at things that are moving, to how people perceive the way others walk, or how video games might influence our behavior when we’re growing up.

Erin: What did you study in school and where did you attend?

Pete: I studied for all three of my degrees at the University of Bristol in the southwest of the United Kingdom. My undergraduate degree was in Experimental Psychology, and I loved it so much that I stayed in the same department for a Master’s in Research Methods and then a PhD in Psychology. All together, I spent seven years in University!

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?

Courtesy Pete Etchells

Courtesy Pete Etchells

Pete: I’m actually about to start a new job as an assistant professor at Bath Spa University, but I’ve been doing a bit of teaching there since September. My main job for the past two years has been as a research assistant at Bristol University. I’ve been working on a really cool project looking at why certain types of walking movements might be seen as attractive by others, and whether or not parts of someone’s personality can be seen in the way that they walk. For example, if I rate myself on a questionnaire as being a really anxious person, if I showed someone a video of me walking along, would they similar think that I looked anxious? It’s a really big project, so an average day might involve collecting data from participants in the morning – I work in a motion capture lab, which is the sort of technology that they used when filming movies like Avatar! Testing someone takes about 3 hours, and after that we have a lot of video, motion capture and questionnaire data that we need to collect together and tidy up, so I’ll probably be in my office doing that at my computer. Two days a week, I teach classes at Bath Spa University on Biological Psychology, so I’ll head over there in the daytime to give the class, and then rush back to Bristol to finish off my work for the day. It’s pretty hectic!

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

Pete: I don’t think I ever decided to be a scientist – I think I’ve always been one. You don’t need any qualifications to be a scientist, you just need to be interested about how the world around you works. I’ve always been excited by trying to figure out how stuff works, so doing a science degree at University was a natural choice for me.

Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?

Pete: The best part of my job is that it’s so varied – some days I might be in a dark lab running experiments, while other days I might be in a coffee shop working on a paper. It means that I don’t get stuck doing one thing for too long, which I think would make me bored. Also, I love teaching – I love giving classes on how the brain works, because it’s such a huge and fascinating subject that’s relevant to everyone listening.

Erin: What is something about your job that might surprise us?

Pete: Lots of people think of scientists as stuffy old men in white coats who never leave their labs. One thing that you might find surprising (apart from the fact that we don’t look like that!) is that we get to go all over the world to talk about our work. Every year, we have conferences where scientists in a specific area get together and tell each other about what they’ve been researching over the past year. Since I started my PhD, I’ve been lucky enough to go to Naples in Florida, Albuquerque, Philadelphia, Montpellier in France, Laussanne in Switzerland, Holland, and lots of other exciting places! In 2014 I’m hoping to go to a conference in Brazil, which would be brilliant because I’ve never been.

Erin: What are some of your favorite things to do for fun?

Pete: I’m a gamer, so I play lots of video games in my spare time – Halo, Professor Layton, World of Warcraft, all sorts of things! I also play guitar to relax and unwind. I also have two lovely little kittens called Louis and Molly, who spend a lot of time causing trouble that I have to clean up afterwards.
What do you think first graders? I think Dr. Pete has a really interesting job. Is there anything you’d like to ask him about his research or being a scientist? Be sure to leave any questions in the comments!

For my adult readers you can catch Pete on twitter @DrPeteEtchells, and if you are interested in being a scientist of the month feel free to DM me @erinpodolak. Thanks so much for volunteering Pete!

Crowdfunding A Library

Before you read this you should know that for this post I interviewed a personal friend, Cassi Elton, whom I have known since the sixth grade (we’ve come a long way since 1999.) I’ve supported her project financially, so obviously I’m not an impartial voice. However, the purpose of this post isn’t to raise funds for the Antelope Lending Library – it is to take a closer look at the structure of the project. With grants harder and harder to obtain, harnessing the power of the Internet as a community is playing a larger role in taking a project from enthusiasm to reality. Crowdfunding is something that is already being done to support science research, education, and other community projects so I asked my friend to share her experience.

First things first, who is Cassi Elton and what is the Antelope Lending Library? I’ll allow her to explain using their fundraising video:

Elton is a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. She saw a need in her community for a library on the southeast side of Iowa City – located closer to several schools so that students can go there regularly rather than needing parents to take them downtown to participate in events at the main library. As you can see from the video, the people involved in this project are certainly not short on ideas and excitement – or on books. They already have stacks of donated books. What they need is a physical space. So where does the money for that come from?
While there are grants and funding opportunities for educational, community based projects, according to Elton they usually support programming. So, it is a lot easier to find a grant that would support classes for STEM education, than it is to pay for a building to hold them in. This is something that I’ve heard echoed by scientists and researchers as well – not that they need a building, but that getting started is becoming harder and harder because to get a grant for research you need to have already done research. A lot of work goes into getting to the point where a project could compete for a grant. It reminds me of the employment dilemma so many of us are facing today:  to get experience you need to already have experience. To get financial support, you need to have proof that your research or project is worth funding.
So if a grant isn’t an option to fund the physical space needed for the Antelope Lending Library, what else is there? Private philanthropy is a possibility, but the Antelope Lending Library is a small endeavor. These are graduate students trying to do something to make an impact in their local community. Finding a philanthropist willing to give the library $20,000 as a lump sum is highly unlikely, I mean how many people do you know that would give that kind of cash to a library that doesn’t actually exist yet? What is far more probable is that if Elton, along with her fellow graduate students and members of the community start reaching out to their personal networks the sum needed for the library’s rent can be cobbled together from smaller gifts – everything from $10 to $1,000. That’s where the Internet comes in.

The Antelope Lending Library is hosting their fundraising on Indiegogo – which some people who read this blog may already be familiar with, since it is the website used by Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal to raise over $1 million for a museum dedicated to Nikola Tesla. But Indiegogo is just one platform for launching a project like this. Kickstarter is another popular crowdfunding website. For scientists there is also PetriDish, and RocketHub which hosted evolutionary pharmacologist Ethan Perlstein’s successful campaign to crowdfund a methlab (for science, of course.) One of the things Elton says she likes about Indiegogo is the fact that through flexible funding the Antelope Lending Library will still get whatever funds are raised even if they don’t hit their $20,000 goal. Although, with more than $6,000 raised to date the question of what to do in that situation is a complicated one, “It is stressful because if we don’t reach our goal then what are we going to do with the money we get?” said Elton, “Push forward or try to come up with a different project? We’re responsible for these donations and we take that seriously.”

When I asked what the experience of trying to raise rent money through crowdfunding was like, Elton has positive and negative feedback. On the positive side, putting the project on the Internet took the community from individuals in Iowa City, to individuals across the country. “Something really great about the Internet is that the community can extend beyond your physical location,” said Elton, “A lot of the donations are people from all over the country who value books and libraries so it’s great to get their support for a project that isn’t in their town – but that they still value.”
Although, Elton was quick to point out that calling on existing relationships was the first thing they did to start getting the word out about their campaign, “We have gotten donations from strangers – at least they are strangers to me, but the majority of the donations so far have come from people that I or my family contacted,” said Elton.
Another positive (or negative, depending on how you look at it) aspect of crowdfunding the library on the Internet was the ability to make in impression using multimedia. If you watched the video above, you’ll see that Elton shot it herself at home – but even this homemade endeavor is more appealing than a simple block of text. “The multimedia aspect is really great, but it was really intimidating to make a movie,” said Elton. “To make a movie is easy – to make a GOOD movie, that is harder.” Elton says it took roughly two months to get the movie together in part because volunteers balancing timing with other commitments presents a challenge, but also because a video itself is a project and trying to be ambitious and do a great job with it can consume a lot of time.
“The video isn’t the only way you are letting people know about the project, so it’s not the end all be all you are also letting people know what other sites to go to, and the written summary is also important,” says Elton. “Let people know through your own social media, the video is a part of it, but it’s not all of it.”
While incorporating multimedia was its own rewarding challenge, Elton says there are some downsides to fundraising on the Internet. According to Indiegogo it can take seven interactions with a cause before an individual will consider donating. So, the Antelope Lending Library has to get their campaign in front of people over and over to be effective – but they also have to balance getting out there with being overwhelming or annoying. “It’s hard to ask people for money,” says Elton. “With this you have to ask them for it several times that can be a lot.” Elton also says that with a campaign that spans 60 days, building up momentum and continuing to be excited, getting the word out, and keeping those who have already given up to date on the campaign’s progress is a big time commitment.
Another tip Elton has for anyone interested in crowdfunding their own project, is to make sure that when people ask you, “Why are you doing this?” (Which they inevitably will) you have a solid answer ready. It is also important to have an open conversation with other similar organizations in the area. The public library in Iowa City is aware of the Antelope Lending Library and has no opposition to a library opening on the southeast side of town – especially since the public library doesn’t have the resources for a location in that area. “Keep conversations going and stay open to collaborations,” says Elton. It makes it easier for the community to support a project that they know other organizations in their community also support.
Elton also highlighted social media – their website is hosted on Tumblr, they also have Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter pages – for getting the word out about the project. “Ultimately, I think that person to person outreach is the most effective,” says Elton. “As you get people on board, they talk to people so it’s still a one on one interaction but it expands.”
With grants more competitive than ever, I think we’ll see more and more projects like this turning to the public for help. The Antelope Lending Library project is just one example of how crowdfunding can work – if you’ve been involved in a project that used the Internet to raise funds, I’d love to hear about your experience.