Magazine article American Libraries

It Takes a Village to Put a Library Online

Magazine article American Libraries

It Takes a Village to Put a Library Online

Article excerpt

A COMMUNITY-BASED EFFORT BRINGS THE INTERNET TO A REMOTE MONTANA TOWN

For the Lincoln County Public Library in Libby, Montana, fulfilling the ALA's "Equity on the Information Superhighway" (see p. 9) initiative to make libraries gateways to the Information Age meant walking on water in new and uncharted ways. Its participation in an innovative Internet project enhanced library services and brought tangible benefits and a new sense of hope to this small, rural town.

Located in the remote northwest corner of Montana and flanked by a 94,000-acre, mountainous wilderness area, the village of Libby (population 2,800) had seen its economic base erode with two mine closures and diminished timber sales, resulting in a 17% unemployment rate. Viewed by telecommunication providers as an impoverished backwater community, the town had no plans for local Internet access.

"With the area losing much of its traditional blue-collar base," said orthopedic surgeon and Internet enthusiast Randale Sechrest, "we realized the potential of developing a telecommuting industry. We have a beautiful setting, but lack jobs. We knew the project was worth pursuing and that we needed to put down our differences and say, how can we get this job done."

Introduced to the Net while traveling in 1993, Library Director Greta Chapman also immediately realized its economic potential for the community as well as its ability to enhance library services. "If Greta sees something that has value, she's going to go after it," remarked County Commissioner Larry Dolezal.

The opportunity came early in 1994 when Chapman was approached by Sechrest and Tony Pajas, a retired veterinarian who now serves as system administrator for the countywide KooteNet enterprise, named after the Kootenai River that flows through Libby. Coincidentally, Pajas had just completed his coursework for a master's degree in computer science from Montana State University and had returned to Libby looking for computer-related work.

With participation from county officials and other community members, the volunteer Lincoln County Technology Group (LCTG) began. Its goal: to bring affordable, local Internet access to everyone in the county.

As one of the KooteNet movers and shakers, Chapman found herself a facilitator on several fronts. She already enjoyed a solid rapport with her county commissioners regarding annual budgets and library services and now expressed to them the vision of LCTG. County Deputy Bill Bischoff's hard work resulted in $50,000 in capital investment from the county, money that required no property-tax hikes.

Likewise, Chapman, through LCTG, helped organize community meetings with utility providers and Montana's Public Service Commission. Utility line upgrades were essential, LCTG insisted.

Montana Public Service Commissioner Bob Rowe considers Libby a model of community involvement: "They were, and still are, very effective in keeping the phone company engaged and communicating high expectations. They had a clear sense of where they wanted to be."

That sense of direction yielded impressive returns. Having no separate location, LCTG literally "built a closet" for the Internet hardware in the basement of the Lincoln County library. Having no commercial provider, they capitalized on Tony Pajas's unending devotion to the project and installed the Internet node themselves. They were limited by the $50,000 in start-up capital; therefore they approached a specific goal in stages, bringing local access first to the residents of Libby and four months later to the rest of Lincoln County. Their motto was, "Let's find a way to do this. Let's get it done."

By October 1994, the basic Internet service, KooteNet, was up and running for the Libby area. New accounts exceeded expectations, reaching 120 in the first four months, 550 to date.

Window to the world

Nestled at the base of 6,000-foot mountain peaks, Lincoln County residents had found their window to the world. …

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