Volume 26, Number 1, Spring 2004


Only Connect

Mark Pumphrey, Director, Polk County (N.C.) Public Library

For the Polk County Public Library, technology planning has been all about connections.

Some of those connections have been just that—literal, physical connections. After all, the library’s free public access computer terminals link users in this small western North Carolina community with the rest of the world.

Other connections revolve around new ideas and opportunities. When the planning process is continuous and open-ended, leaders with vision are in a position to identify and tap into compatible new initiatives, such as those presented to the library by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But in the end, many of the best connections have to do with community. Acting in concert with a remarkable statewide Internet access initiative, we were able to bring people together in a technology planning process that has already resulted in the investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in an Internet infrastructure that will transform Polk County’s economic profile in years to come.

The Gates Connection

The past several years have abounded with opportunities and their accompanying challenges, beginning with the generous gift of public access computers from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Subsequent opportunities permitted us to leverage the original Gates gift in ways that furthered the goals of both institutions.

By the time the Gates Foundation came to North Carolina several years ago, the Polk County Public Library had already laid much of the groundwork for a twenty-first century library. The board of trustees had identified information literacy as a service priority and had created a technology plan and equipment replacement policy under the leadership of the State Library of North Carolina. The circulation and catalog system was fully automated, a Web site was in place, and a few public access computers had been squeezed into the main library. In addition, the library was participating in the OCLC Interlibrary Loan network and a statewide licensed reference database project called NC LIVE. .All that was the good news.

On the other side of the ledger was the fact that the library was stretched to the limit, and there was little budget relief in sight.

Fortunately, 2000 was also the year in which a new branch library came into being. A successful fund raising campaign by the citizens of Saluda, a small mountain town “up the Saluda grade” from the county seat of Columbus, allowed for the renovation of an historic building on the town’s main street. The gutted building had no wiring, few interior walls, and an entire basement with no designated purpose. Opportunities and challenges were everywhere.

The availability of basement space meant that the library could apply for one of the twenty-one Gates computer labs that were to be located in North Carolina. The challenge came with the realization that the building would have to be completed within the time frame established by the Gates Foundation, and that the computer lab would call for Internet connections that were almost prohibitively expensive.

In the first of a multitude of community connections, the telephone company agreed to wire the building for free. In addition, they reduced the monthly Internet charge in exchange for permitting customers to pay phone bills at the branch library. The County Commissioners found contingency funds to support the connection for the remainder of the fiscal year, and the town of Saluda agreed to pay half of the remaining monthly charges for the Internet connection.

Volunteers worked alongside construction crews in practically every phase of the project, and on December 1, 2000, the Saluda branch library opened, sporting a cluster of public access computers and the coveted Gates Computer lab.

With new Gates computers in Saluda and Columbus, the library’s Internet connections were well in place. But we knew that if they were to play a part in bridging the digital divide in the county, the library had to create connections of an entirely different kind.

The Next Level

We got our chance to do this when the state legislature created the North Carolina Rural Internet Access Authority, launching a statewide campaign for improving Internet access in eighty-five rural counties. They called it e-NC.

Each of the eighty-five counties was invited to choose an “e-Champion” to lead the campaign locally. In Pol County, we saw it as a way not only to extend the Gates initiative, but also to improve public access computing throughout our county, and I seized the opportunity to serve as the county’s “e-Champion.” His first job was to enlist a balanced and inclusive local steering committee representing five communities of interest: agriculture, business, education, government, and health. The response was heartening.

The twenty-two members of the original steering committee were among the most technically sophisticated, creative and responsible people living and working in Polk County. They shared relevant information about their constituencies and they made a point of connecting with the community through public meetings, surveys, a local Web site, and any other means at their disposal.

An e-Community Plan

Through the Rural Internet Access Authority, grant opportunities were attached to each phase of the e-NC campaign. The first grant was a $10,000 planning grant to support an eight-month process of creating an “e-community” plan.

The committee used a portion of the grant funds to hire a project administrator with superior technical expertise. Then they divided the elements of the plan into four categories and began to brainstorm and draft sections of the county’s e-community plan. It soon became apparent that those four sections -- Public Access, Connectivity, Training/Digital Literacy, and Web Applications – would become the foundation of a working model that would serve them well in the months ahead.

The final e-community plan, submitted in May 2002, was, in all regards, a countywide technology plan. It included an assessment of the community’s current Internet profile and identified a set of initiatives to promote high speed Internet access countywide.

It was also a working document that could reflect changing circumstances and incorporate new input--including that from Polk County citizens, whose thoughts were sought frequently during the preparation of the plan. The next phase of the e-NC initiative called for e-communities to begin implementing the plans they made in phase one.

Public Access

The first implementation grant opportunity was a $12,000 Public Access Center Grant, which the steering committee wrote as a team. Thanks to that grant, a Public Access Center was established in Green Creek, a rural community that had no broadband Internet providers, much less a public access computing center, and Internet connections were upgraded at the county’s other public access centers at the two libraries.

Connectivity

All this activity, however, was only a prelude to a major e-NC connectivity grant application, which the committee termed the PANGAEA project. The name is apt: Pangaea refers to the global land mass said to have preceded continental drift on the planet earth. It reflects the committee’s belief in the power of the Internet to bring all the continents together as one.

This project, which was funded in the amount of $375,000, will install a seven-mile fiber optic cable running from the South Carolina state line along a central highway that connects businesses, the hospital, the community college, the school system, key county government offices, and the public library.

Known as a “last mile project,” PANGAEA will link public agencies and businesses to an Internet service provider of broadband Internet access at the OC-3 level or better. In turn, it will link to a “middle mile” project funded by the federal government.

Once the network is built, it is expected to have the capacity to generate revenue for its own operation and expansion. To support this expectation, the steering committee formed e-Polk, Inc., a not-for-profit organization with its own board, authorized to administer this project and lead future efforts.

Digital Literacy

A third element of the e-community technology plan was digital literacy. A member of the steering committee who is a computer trainer was named the county’s “Digital Literacy Champion.” She has conducted training at all the public access centers and served as an advocate for public access computing at all the centers.

Other training connections have included an Asheville agency teaching computer basics to the county’s Hispanic population and TechForce, a group of middle school and high school students, who provided one-on-one computer tutoring.

Web Applications

An e-Polk/county government connection is emerging as the vehicle for implementing the fourth segment of the community plan. The county manager, who is an ex-officio member of e-Polk, plans to use e-Polk as a conduit for improving county services and the economic development climate in Polk County. Over time, they will address such issues as web site development, online availability of county services and documents, GIS mapping, networking of county departments, and a community bulletin board.

Going Forward

The community’s connectivity goals don’t stop with the current fiber optic corridor. The next phase of the PANGAEA project will draw in the remaining rural third of our county that has no high-speed Internet access.

Residents there may never have cable or DSL Internet access, since the small number of business users there may not justify an investment by the telecommunications companies. So e-Polk will attempt to build a network for this section of the county using an available technology, such as wireless, that does not depend on laying fiber optic cable.

They also hope to regionalize the scope of the PANGAEA Project through funding sought from e-NC and its “Best Edge” project, which focuses on areas which cross state borders where Internet access is inadequate on both sides of the state line. The project will give particular attention to the needs of academic institutions and companies engaging in scientific and technical research or commerce.

At the public library, other technology advances are in the works. Architects are designing a new central library facility, which will offer greatly increased technological capacity. Pumphrey hopes to have a wired Bookmobile one day, and his e-Polk colleagues have even toyed with the idea of providing a “Netmobile,” a mobile unit to provide public access computing in remote areas of the county.

“Only Connect.”

There are times when the best part of planning is putting yourself in a position to take advantage of good fortune. Surely good planning and good fortune have converged in this small county’s efforts to improve quality of life and economic promise for the community. Still, another theme that has been central to the progress of the past several years: “Only connect.” E. M. Forster coined the phrase in Howard’s End, and it has become one of Pumphrey’s favorites. That is what it’s all about. Connecting with others, near and far, and together becoming agents of change. Connecting past and future with thoughtful and flexible planning. And for me and my e-Polk colleagues, connecting Polk County businesses and residents to whole new worlds of discovery and learning on the Internet.