Community Networks on the Internet

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Community Networks on the Internet

Originally published in Library Journal

ARL Research Note #48

Steve Cisler May 25, 1994

Community Networks have been around since the 1970's when Community Memory in Berkeley, California, put terminals in public places for citizens to read and post material of all sorts on a centralized time-sharing system. There are still terminals in Berkeley Public Library, and other libraries have been involved with systems such as Santa Monica, California's Public Electronic Network (PEN). In the late 1980's when I wrote a newsletter entitled Connect: Libraries & Telecommunications, I talked to reference staff at the library who were providing online reference requests and answers before many of us even considered such a service possible. Neither Santa Monica nor Berkeley's systems are on the Net. Most others are or plan to connect to the Internet.

Now, as interest in Internet access grows, and policy papers on the National Information Infrastructure appear daily, many communities are very concerned and excited by the possibilities of new services being offered to their citizens. Some will be provided by established broadcast media and commercial online services, but others will originate locally in the form of bulletin board systems, public access catalogs that contain more than bibliographic information, and community networks. Most, but not all, community networks are grass-roots efforts by coalitions of interested individuals and organizations to provide some level of communications and information services aimed at the local level: a town, county, region, or sometimes a state.

Several foundations and government agencies have funded community networks over the past few years. The Morino Foundation of Great Falls, Virginia, has supported the National Public Telecomputing Network, the non-profit that is organizing the Free-Net movement, and many libraries and librarians are involved in organizing committees or in hosting the Free-Net in their town. Brian Campbell, long active in ALA, is chairman of the Vancouver (BC) Free-Net.US West Foundation has backed Big Sky Telegraph in Montana. Ameritech made a generous grant to National Public Telecomputing Network in Ohio. Department of Education LSCA funds have supported libraries involved with Heartland Free-Net in Peoria, Illinois, and Tallahassee Free-Net in Florida. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting recently made sizable grants in Fairbanks, Alaska, Denver-Boulder, Colorado, and San Francisco, California where the public libraries are teaming up with the local Public Broadcasting System affiliate to start or improve community networks. The local library in Blacksburg Area Branch Library in Virginia is very active in the Blacksburg Electronic Village. They provide free Internet access and training for residents who are planning to use BEV.

A large infusion of money will come from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration grants aimed at schools, libraries, hospitals, local government, and non-profits who are planning networked services. Most of the grants will be for 50% matching funds, and the emphasis is on planning or demonstration projects where collaboration is as important as the technology. The Department of Commerce received over 1000 applications, and the recipients will be announced later this year. Most likely, there will be a broad distribution of grants according to geography, groups served, types of organizing consortia. The emphasis, however, will be on local grants, not huge chunks of funds being administered by some umbrella organization with minimal local control.

My own interest in community networks dates back to 1987 when I helped get my public library involved in a Pacific Bell telecommunications trial called Project Victoria. One of the most popular parts of the project was a short-lived multi=line bulletin board for the city of Danville, California. In 1992 I began holding ad hoc meetings at different conferences to educated interested librarians and networkers and to get gauge the interest in the emerging systems. As a result of these meetings, Apple Library of Tomorrow has been supporting various systems in Telluride, Colorado, Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, Riverside, California, Cambridge and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Project GAIN in upstate New York, Medina County, Ohio, and more recently Boulder, Colorado, Taos, New Mexico, and Tallahassee, Florida. All of these efforts, with the exception of the Museum of Photography project in Riverside, have strong involvement from the public libraries.

The roles of public libraries vary, and even libraries with no computers at all can participate. At the most basic level, the library can convene a meeting to discuss the issue of electronic information paths into the community. Librarians in Juneau, Alaska, earned a lot of points in their community by having such a gathering and inviting citizens and VIPs to discuss how the National Information Infrastructure would reach that town. Secondly, some libraries serve on community network organizing committees. San Francisco Public Library is working with local PBS stations, the WELL, and other organizations on building the community network there. Third: training. Leon County Public Library System in Tallashassee, Florida, has taken on the job of support and training for the Tallahassee Free-Net, and already, hundreds of citizens have been trained in the library. Fourth: running the system. Libraries can house and manage a server or servers for community systems. The physical access to most libraries would be an advantage over computing centers or MIS data centers. The common threads running through all of these roles are our familiariaty with information issues and our commitment to service.

In early May, 1994, Apple Library of Tomorrow and the Morino Foundation of Great Falls, Virginia, convened a conference, Ties That Bind: Building Community Networks, in Cupertino, California. Registration was open to anyone and at very low cost. Invitations were extended to include many groups who were slightly aware of the issues and possibilities but whose influence would be felt as more cities began organizing. A lot of the usual suspects of the network circuit made presentations, but many newcomers took part in the program. We consciously left large blocks of time free for ad hoc birds-of-a-feather interest groups to convene and discuss other subjects and issues that we could not anticipate. Since we were demonstrating the possibilities of networking, each of the presentation rooms had connections to the Internet with a capacity of about 1.5 megabits per second. There was also an area with three machines for small group demos and Internet exploration. George Brett from the Clearinghouse for Network Information Discovery & Retrieval took digital photos with a QuickTake camera and mounted them along with commentary about each day's activities on the World Wide Web at the Coalition for Networked Information. Other people experimented with wireless PowerBooks; they sat in the meeting rooms or lecture hall and checked their mail or used TurboGopher while the presentations were going on.

In striving for diversity, we had about 15% librarians and the rest of the attendees were from many cultures and many professions: hackers, MIS directors, writers, journalists, lawyers, foundation representatives, community network system operators, Internet trainers, federal employees, and entrepreneurs. It was a very intense 48 hours. Many of those present were familiar with the Internet, but some did not even have electronic mail yet. My own feeling is that these systems can be the local entrance to the Internet as well as to information and communications services that are of interest primarily to local residents.

With all the recent writings about virtual communities and the effects of electronic communications, we need to remember that the same technologies can be used to enhance rather than supplant local relationships. All new technologies are used in ways that the creators cannot predict. Some of the attendees were concerned that people were joining Free-Nets and other community networks only to get access to the Internet and had little interest in local information. For others, the tools now available to the electronic publisher who is connected to the Internet, offer a small community the chance to literally establish their place on the electronic map. Next month I will write about Mosaic, the Internet client software used by many people who have direct connections to the Internet. Many cities and local entities such as public libraries, museums, and local governments are mounting information on World Wide Web servers and are becoming known more rapidly than other towns with no electronic presence.

Although the conference sessions discussed software and hardware, my impression was that most of the discussions centered around issues of growth, support, funding, and future direction. Keep in mind that this movement has been almost invisible: there are no journals, no trade shows, and no books yet published on the subject. Sporadic newspaper and magazine articles have appeared, as well as a few academic theses, but this conference was one (not the first) attempt to give some direction to community networking.

When I decided to have our grant program focus on community networking and libraries, the reason was two-fold. Libraries have been working with public access information systems for centuries and with automated ones for a couple of decades. Libraries are beginning to realize that community networks entail far more than stuffing community information files into MARC format. It means collaboration with groups and individuals who may know little about libraries, whose agenda may not fit exactly with the style of some libraries. The organizing committees will be impoverished if librarians are not participating, and libraries can't continue with business as usual when these community networks are growing up in their own town or country. One observer noted in his town that the community network and the library were fighting for "the moral high ground" as to which group would best serve the public. Because of the large amount of grant money now available from a variety of private and government sources, we can also expect to see turf wars spring up in some areas. At present, this seems to be happening to some extent in New Mexico and in Hawaii, but librarians are not the parties who are embroiled in these issues.

See Also