From 1989 to 1996, members of the greater Iron Mountain community, including Mid-Pen, worked together to form a community information network called Walden III. The process welcomed total community involvement and produced an information system of content by and about the community. It linked public libraries; local government; schools; charitable and service organizations; social service agencies; and the medical, business and professional communities. The local government, school, hospital, chamber of commerce, and Mid-Pen served as chief partners. Mid-Pen was the physical home of the Walden III network and played an important role in the early growth of the project.
In 1994, Mid-Pen with other local organizations applied for an NTIA grant for a community networking project. Although the proposal was not funded by NTIA (but was subsequently funded with LSCA funds from the Library of Michigan), the 1994 guidelines for NTIA grant applications influenced the direction of the Walden III project: The community network was developed at the grassroots level and was nurtured by community resources. Gary Marsdon, a local businessman and backer of the community network, described the early excitement of developing the concept of Internet access through a community network–excitement shared by the library system, business partners, community leaders, educators, and social service agencies. People were generous with their time, hoping to see economic rewards and community services “on the cutting edge.”
In October 1995, Walden III incorporated as a membership organization, but after the new board of directors was elected the organization faltered. Significant differences of opinion and competing visions developed within this new board. In this case, the competing visions of how information service for the community should be developed and operated led to problems. As a result, many of the visionaries, including Silver, chose not to be involved with the network leadership and left the group in March 1996. Walden III became the Dickinson County Community Network (http://www.diisd.k12.mi.us/). The new Dickinson County Community Network is affiliated with the Dickinson-Iron Intermediate School District, which now provides a server, system maintenance, and ongoing volunteer student labor to help nonprofit organizations develop and maintain web sites.
Lessons from Community Networking
Although there has been a breakdown in the development of this community network, Walden III was not a failure. Mark Ponti, a local businessperson active as an advisor to both Walden III and the successor Dickinson County Community Network, observed that Walden III “stumbled over procedural and organizational structures.” He suggests that new directions for the Dickinson County Community Network are being defined. The network is now “divorced from the business side.” It does not maintain information for commercial organizations, but instead points to a separate, newly developed homepage for the county Chamber of Commerce.
The Mid-Pen experience shows that community networking can be dynamic but fraught with conflict. There are many issues to be negotiated and resolved, such as whether the network should be an open or closed organization; whether it should provide free or fee-based services; whether it should have a local or a global homepage, and if the content should be local or global; and how publicly funded libraries and commercial vendors of information products and services can coexist. There is a need to separate nonprofit from commercial interests, at a minimum, to handle contributions and grants.
Beyond these organizational issues, the principal players in the Walden III network experienced a conflict of values. Librarians involved felt strongly that as much information as possible should be made available as widely as possible to all. They believe that the concept of ownership of information and the perception of commercial advantage or disadvantage derailed the most sincere efforts for cooperation among not-for-profit and commercial organizations. Also important to librarians, but not universally held among Walden III principals, were beliefs that the community network should serve as a forum for the people and that if everyone shares, resources will be unlimited. A joint “sense of ownership” of the community network became a very important issue. For some parties it was important that the technology be used and owned by all, but for others the need to “own” specific parts of the technology (the hardware, the software, the content) was important, and thus became a divisive issue. Mid-Pen experienced “virtual battles with real scars” over issues of ownership.
As a regional support system for libraries, Mid-Pen also struggled with finding the appropriate role for itself in local community network development. The Dickinson County Community Network is now independent of Mid-Pen. One community observer predicted that eventually the pendulum will swing back to involve the local library and Mid-Pen in the Dickinson County Network, for example, with the change in the directorships of both of these organizations since 1995, and with the ongoing redirection of the community network.
Mid-Pen now has a body of knowledge from the Walden III experience that it is using to support the four newer community networks in Escanaba, Menominee, Ontonagon, and Ironwood. Mid-Pen provides access to the Internet backbone, education and training, and technical assistance, and serves as a channel for state aid. Silver believes that getting support from many sources and leveraging the pieces to create a new service is key to making a community network work.
Interactive Internet Learning Kiosks
The Internet Kiosk was developed jointly by Media Products Group and Mid-Pen. Primarily local funds, and some LSCA I funding from the Library of Michigan in 1996, supported the development process. Mid-Pen now owns 20 percent of the product, which has the potential for commercial sales. The kiosk offers an interactive tutorial on using Internet information resources and Internet access through easy-to-use technology. The kiosk is designed to be used in library public service areas to handle routine Internet instruction and guidance, and in public areas, such as shopping malls. These instructional features and guided search functions are especially important to help librarians in small, often one-person, rural libraries concentrate on the more complex parts of finding information for patrons and less on routine instruction.
The kiosk is designed as a PC with touch screen in a box, similar to an ATM machine. The product is an interactive multimedia CD-ROM with an Internet connection, which can also be used on a high-powered, multimedia personal computer–that is, without the box. Netscape is integrated into the product, which can display a screen split between the interactive, multi-media teaching resource and the online Internet activity. The local library can modify the front-end software to show the library name, a local map, and local information resources.
An LSCA III grant from the Library of Michigan was made for production of a prototype for beta-testing in fall 1996. The product has been demonstrated at several library conferences and to Michigan librarians, who were enthusiastic about it. Mid-Pen librarians, too, have reacted favorably, commenting that it is “simple [in] design and very accessible but with complex functionality.” The developers are searching for venture capital to bring the product to full development and to the marketplace within the next year.
Impact on Community
- Citizens across the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan now have affordable, reliable, high-speed access to the Internet.
- Community members report that with Mid-Pen’s Internet activities, there is a blossoming of Internet activities in the Upper Peninsula: there are now three Internet providers in Iron Mountain, community members are developing community resources for the Net, personal use of the Internet has become widespread, and PC sales have increased.
- Internet awareness is generally heightened in Iron Mountain (the city in which Mid-Pen is located and in which it initiated community networking), and there is widespread use of the Internet at home to enhance leisure time.
When asked his views on the impact of the Internet, one frequent user of the local community network and Internet chat services said, ” I don’t go to the library anymore!” He speculated that attendance at the library had dropped. But at this point, his own local library had not yet set up public access to the Internet. He felt that Internet access at the library would be desirable, because “the Internet is a way for people to become more knowledgeable about everything.” He reported that his personal Internet contacts have increased his automobile business, and praised Mid-Pen for being the first to offer Internet access in the area.