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Making the future a reality.

How would you like your library patrons to be able to send electronic mail to friends across town or around the world? Access medical and legal information? Complain to the mayor about potholes? Find out what is happening at their children's schools? Look up bus schedules, class schedules, and homework hotlines? Read minutes of city council meetings or Supreme Court decisions? Get world and national news without turning on a television or picking up the morning paper? And all from a library terminal or from their homes with a personal computer and modem?

If your library is located in a community that has its own Free-Net, your patrons may already have the capability to do these things and more at little or no cost. If your library would like to start a Free-Net, but you don't know how to begin, the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN) can not only help you get started, but can also provide services to your Free-Net on an ongoing basis.

What Is a Free-Net?

"Free-Net" is a term that has gained widespread use in the past few years and has come to describe the kind of community-based electronic computer network that will provide the kinds of information listed above to anyone in the community. But the term Free-Net is, in reality, a registered trademark of the National Public Telecomputing Network, an Ohio-based 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of community computer systems.

A Free-Net is a multi-user system that has much of the sophistication and power of a commercial service like CompuServe or America Online, but it is locally owned, operated, and designed to meet the unique needs of the community it serves. Anyone in the community who has a personal computer and a modem can dial in to a Free-Net 24 hours a day, or they can simply go to a location that has computer access, such as a library or educational institution. Although Free-Nets do offer electronic mail from the Internet, Free-Nets are not a way for users to obtain free Internet access.

How It All Began

The first Free-Net in Cleveland, Ohio, grew out of an Apple II+ medical-related question-and-answer bulletin board system called "St. Silicon's Hospital," developed at Case Western Reserve by Dr. Tom Grundner. So popular was the BBS that it prompted Grundner to write about it for the New England Journal of Medicine. AT&T saw the article and donated a minicomputer to Grundner's project. The electronic hospital grew into an electronic city by adding a post office, a government office, and a library. Grundner's electronic city was the first version of the Cleveland Free-Net.

In accordance with this first model, Free-Nets are locally driven and governed, and are dedicated to bringing the benefits of the Information Age to as many people as possible at the lowest possible cost. Free-Nets are physically located in libraries, schools, community colleges, universities, corporate locations, or in hospitals.

"The library is such a wonderful location for a Free-Net," said Gail Featheringham, director of the Teledemocracy Program for NPTN, "because it already is an information source, has open hours, and serves the public. Libraries are often computerized so the computer-literacy skills transfer, and it is non-political, serving all populations." Featheringham, in addition to working on the Teledemocracy Program for NPTN, is also its Internet librarian and works on its Web site. She came to NPTN from the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, where she worked in the Computer Services Division as an Internet trainer.

Often special interest groups meet in the library. Close contact with community agencies along with a good library public relations front help the word of the Free-Net spread more quickly. Services available through a community's Free-Net are limited only by the imagination and resources of its organizers.

What Is NPTN?

Formed in September 1989 by Grundner, the National Public Telecomputing Network is dedicated to establishing and developing public access, computerized information, and communication services for the general public. NPTN is similar to Public Broadcasting or National Public Radio. Telecomputing, of course, is not radio, television, or print media, but has characteristics of all three plus additional characteristics of its own, such as the ability to have interactive dialogs, realtime dissemination of information, and comprehensiveness of data to satisfy a wide variety of community needs.

In 1991, just two years after NPTN organized, a five-city network of community computers existed. Today, there are 51 affiliated Free-Nets online and an additional 118 organizing committees. They span 41 states and 10 countries, including Australia, Canada, Finland, New Zealand, the Philippines, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Sweden. Many of these are in public libraries.

The Electronic Village

Using the services of NPTN, organizers in the Battle Creek, Michigan, area brought the Great Lakes Free-Net online in October 1993. Residents of the area can access the Great Lakes Free-Net through a public access workstation in the Willard Public Library in Battle Creek. Dubbed the Electronic Village, it has a post office, courthouse, library, school, and other typical "buildings" found in a village. "Locating the Free-Net in the public library is the best thing you can do," said Laura DePompolo, who works in the library's media center handling 10-20 Free-Net questions per day, "because the library is already an information center."

One of the interesting features of the Great Lakes Electronic Free-Net is an interactive question-and-answer public forum with judges, which grew out of the Michigan Judicial Project. Local schools are coming online with information about clubs, school calendars, a "teacher's lounge" for communication among educators, and a module which will enable communication with parents.

How to Form Your Own Free-Net

Libraries and other community organizations interested in starting a Free-Net can join NPTN, which will help them through the process with Free-Net starter kits. The Rural Information Network (RIN) kit is designed to assist communities with a population base under 50,000 to organize and develop a Free-Net. The Metro Information Network (MIN) kit assists suburban and urban communities with a population base over 50,000. The kits help organizers to formulate a budget, set up the initial organizing committee, select the right hardware and software, and become an official NPTN Organizing Committee. Once a community becomes an officially recognized Organizing Committee, NPTN connects it to an electronic mail listserve, provides access to full-time NPTN staff to help with technical, legal, and organizational questions, and makes available an online database of fundraising opportunities.

Once online, communities receive professional public relations assistance, permission to call the system a "Free-Net," and the full suite of over 100 CyberCasting services including Academy One for K-12 schools, Teledemocracy Program for access and connection to government information, Health & Wellness Program for education about common health issues, and the Resource Center for access to various documents and publications. NPTN also supplies a 3-hour videotape training program that will help organizing committees learn how to write effective grant proposals and find potential funding sources through its computerized database of funding agencies.

NPTN also provides assistance to its affiliates and organizing committees in such areas as non-profit organization, corporate law, insurance, copyright, and governance. NPTN supplies guidance for creation of policies, guidelines, and contracts to guard against liability, censorship, and invasion of privacy.

Another service of NPTN is a newsletter which is published bimonthly on the Internet. NPTNews is distributed to various listservs. Editor Bev Robertson, who is a librarian at Rocky River Public Library in Rocky River, Ohio, became involved with NPTN several years ago when she was on a task force for the Cleveland Area Metropolitan Library System which was studying a proposal to add a library to Dr. Grundner's electronic city. "I saw NPTN's mission to be closely aligned with that of public libraries," said Robertson, "with free access to information by the public, but in a different venue. What is especially exciting about this is that they really are going 'where no one has gone before'--establishing an entirely new service in communities all over the world."

NPTN is governed by a seven-member board of trustees, and its president is NPTN founder Dr. Tom Grundner. The organization is funded by membership dues from the users of its community computer systems, corporate and foundation grants, donations, and fundraising activities.

For further information about the National Public Telecomputing Network or to obtain a starter kit, contact Lori Szekely at For the Rural Information Network Program, contact Dennis Hoops, director, at; for information about the Metro Information Network Program, contact Elizabeth Reid, director, new systems development, at All three individuals can be reached by phone at 216/498-4050. For information about NPTNews, contact Beverly Robertson at
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Title Annotation:libraries and free-nets
Author:Commings, Karen
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Date:May 1, 1995
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