Vision: The Library of Michigan
In the summer of 1994, representatives from the state Library of Michigan and from some of the more technologically advanced regional cooperatives (including Mid-Pen) met at a conference in Cincinnati to use the “Tell-It” method to evaluate the development and use of technology in their state. These library leaders developed a mission statement for Internet access for the state of Michigan. This statement is important because it is centered on Article 6 of the state constitution, which reads: “Every citizen should have access to all libraries.” In the context of electronic access to information, these library leaders interpret the constitution to mean that every citizen should have access to the Internet as well.
Subsequently, in 1994, the Library of Michigan initiated a statewide effort to provide Internet access across the state through a direct grant program. With LSCA support, the Library of Michigan granted individual libraries funds to connect to the Internet and regional cooperatives funds to develop regional technology training centers and connect to the Internet. Funds supported the establishment of additional Internet nodes, training and education, conferences and teleconferences, multi-type library planning, and projects such as community network development. Gary Silver credits the Library of Michigan for having a vision and moving quickly to invest in training library staff and building the infrastructure required for Internet access.
The Mid-Pen Vision
In May 1992, Silver and the Mid-Pen board decided not to replace interlibrary loan personnel upon retirement, but instead to use the money to attract outside funds to improve information technology and the telecommunications infrastructure in the Mid-Pen region. In order to connect the Mid-Pen libraries to the world through the Internet, in 1994 the board decided to “take it big.” This decision broadened the cooperative’s mission to include bringing the Mid-Pen region local access to the Internet and assuming an entrepreneurial role to ensure the financial sustainability of Mid-Pen and library services. The board realized that bringing the Internet to the Upper Peninsula would be a significant undertaking, since at the time Merit could provide only a few dial access ports within the existing infrastructure. That service would not be adequate or affordable in this isolated region. The decision also required that the board and staff of the cooperative be willing to take a financial gamble.
Mid-Pen and Internet Connectivity
The gamble paid off and Mid-Pen is responsible for the presence of the T1 line in the Upper Peninsula that connects Traverse City to Iron Mountain to Marquette. Mid-Pen cooperated with Merit’s network MichNet to develop a MichNet backbone node to provide high quality Internet access to local communities. Since January 1996, Mid-Pen has operated a T1 line. As a backbone node, Mid-Pen pays no telecommunications fees, much to the benefit of its public library members. By late 1996 each of the six counties in the Mid-Pen region will have 56KB dedicated lines (six go directly into libraries) and public dial-in access through a local phone call. K-12 educators and students in the Mid-Pen area may also gain access to the Internet through Michnet via Mid-Pen.
The presence of the T1 line gave Mid-Pen the technical connection required to develop fee-based Internet services for the general public, which in turn helps to pay for free information services provided by the Mid-Pen member libraries. Mid-Pen’s Community Access service (http://www.up.lib.mi.us/Access/home.html) provides individuals or organizations unlimited connections to the Internet (including the World Wide Web, ftp, and e-mail), software, technical support, two e-mail addresses, and free Internet classes for a monthly fee of $20.00 and a one-time installation fee of $20.00. The fees received from each account are split equally between Mid-Pen and the customer’s local library. Mid-Pen’s Internet server has a 45-modem private dial-in pool for use by the approximately 450 subscribers to the Community Access service.
Because of the Mid-Pen T1 connection to the Internet, two additional Mid-Pen staff members have been employed, bringing the total staff to six people. The new staff members provide technical support, customer service, and training in a mix of free and fee-based services, to both member libraries and to the general public. For example, Mid-Pen member libraries pay the salary of the Mid-Pen’s web master, providing a low-cost means for maintaining web pages. Revenue generated by fee-based services covers the ongoing cost of the T1 line, server maintenance, technical staff, and ongoing investment in technology and training for Mid-Pen libraries. As a regional service organization, Mid-Pen supplies leadership and consultation, and sometimes serves as the incubator for new program ideas. For example, Kelly Sodergren (Mid-Pen’s systems administrator), Mike Gach (a technical consultant to Mid-Pen from Media Products Group), and Silver hatched the idea to circulate time-dated Internet passwords to the public for free, much as books are circulated. This would enable patrons to try out access to Internet resources from their own computer. Barbara Roark, director of the Spies Public Library in Menominee–a Mid-Pen member library–has adopted the idea and it will be a reality in her library by the end of 1996.
Mid-Pen used leverage to attract funds to support widespread Internet access for all libraries in the system. Mid-Pen’s Internet initiative began in May 1994, when it applied for an NTIA grant. Although the proposal was not funded, Mid-Pen learned a great deal in preparing it. In October 1994, a similar proposal was funded through LSCA I funds to build a training facility. Merit paid for installation of the T1 backbone, with the understanding that Mid-Pen would pick up the ongoing charges for the node. A $35,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in 1995 for “rural datafication” purchased equipment to offer public Internet access in libraries via dial-in to the MichNet backbone and modems for the Mid-Pen server. Installation of this node provided something that Merit wanted as well: a T1 redundancy to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This means that nodes now ring the peninsula, preventing any one network failure from cutting off all other nodes. A 1995 Library Services and Construction Act grant from the Library of Michigan equipped Mid-Pen’s training center with audiovisual and microcomputer hardware, a local area network, staff, and training materials.