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Building Community Information Networks: Strategies and Experiences

Sheila Pantry, Editor


Library Association Publishing





ISBN 1 856043371


This edited collection shows the extent of current CIN developments, and increases awareness of their value. It gives an international perspective of the developments, and an overview of worldwide research and the technologies available. It includes models of CIN structures, such as: a country model, a city model, a geographic area model, a locality model, a subject model, community broadcasting, a local newspapers model, an association model.


Having just survived the first twelve months of the establishment of the Tumut Electronic Network Centre I was most interested to read this book. Perhaps, if I had read it twelve months ago I would have less grey hair.

The definition of a Community Information Network (CIN) varies, but basically, it is a locally operated electronic network designed to meet the information needs of a community. They are dedicated to bringing the benefits of the information age to as many people as possible at the lowest cost, to level the playing field between the ‘information rich and the information poor’.

Although, the book reviews the European and United Kingdom experience in information networks, it is still applicable in Australia. As with most things relating to computers, some of the technologies referred to may be dated. However, the main thrust of the book deals with issues relating to Community Information Networks and these are still relevant.

Issues discussed include funding, access, objectives, staffing, training content and community awareness and support. This last is an essential part of the success of any CIN, for a network to be truly a community one it must be community driven and those responsible for its development must never lose sight of this ideal of ‘community’.

A diversity of CIN models are reviewed. These include those designed for a specific target group, a rural community, large cites and a national library network. The authors show that it is possible for many different types of people, groups and services to come together and produce a community information network of their own.

CINs may be operated by a variety of community organisations from schools to special interest groups or libraries. In this book there are contributions from all sides of the equation. Included in the appendices is an excellent list of web sites which operate CINs and which may serve as a model for those interested in establishing a network.

Each community has its own distinctive characteristics and information needs. The CINs in this book have responded to those needs in different ways. Setting up a CIN is a huge undertaking and there are many hazards to be met along the road to success. Contributors have encountered many of the hazards and clearly outline their responses to the problems encountered.

The chapters on ‘Establishing a Community Information Network’ and ‘Better Communities Through Better Information’ would be of particular interest to librarians looking to demonstrate the relevance of libraries in this technological age. CINs are a concept which libraries may be involved with and which can clearly show the library as a multi-functional resource. The ‘Ask a Librarian’ project referred to in the book is an excellent example of a positive response by UK librarians to the changing community expectations of the library.

This is a book which shares experiences of those who have set up Community Information Networks and shows that they can be successful, even if this success requires a lot of determination, hard work and, yes, grey hairs.

Lyn Quince, Librarian, Tumut Shire Library,
LASIE Australia, June 2000

In the Introduction the Editor, Sheila Pantry states “… you will find a collection of stories of some of the variety of CINs which exist”. This is what I liked about the book: it is not theory bound, instead it focuses largely on the practical and is written in an accessible style which allows some insight into the individuals and their commitment to providing wide access to community information. It is like reading snippets of conversations of individuals’ personal journeys; something I found refreshing and engaging. It manages to make transparent the issues and difficulties of setting up Community Information Networks (CINs), while simultaneously encouraging and enthusing the reader.

This book is an eclectic mix of case studies, insights, definitions of the different types of CINs, their development, the technologies available, and models of different types of networks. The breadth and depth of experience of the contributors gives the reader a great deal of confidence in this collection.

The contributions are multi-faceted, dealing with many different aspects of CINs. However, they are tied together by the notions of accessibility and inclusion that run through all contributions. Its main tenet is the importance of local-/community-based electronic information networks, and how they can aid in the development and sustainability of communities.

The book has 14 contributions, beginning with an overview of the origins of CINs and some of the issues related to information providers and provision as well as the new technology and skills required. David Miller’s contribution takes this introduction further by defining terms and examining the development of CINs during the 1990s, outlining categories of CINs and some of the challenges and difficulties to be faced. He then offers a two-phase, step-by-step approach to establishing a community information network, which gives any interested party the bare bones of a project plan – whatever type of information network is envisaged. Helen Leach’s contribution again builds on the previous two contributions by David Miller, presenting some of the findings that have come out of the CIRCE Library project and examining some of the issues concerned with using Internet and other current technologies to network community information. Technological considerations are then addressed by Graham Bagshaw, who gives an overview of current technologies, including the Internet, WWW and email, and the issues related to providing an accessible community network. Kevin Harris’s ‘The online life of a community’ is one of the more theoretical pieces in the collection, examining what we mean by community, the characteristics of a community and the relationship between it, information and communication. John Dolan examines the new challenges faced by libraries in the provision of information by new technologies as well as their unique position in being able to provide access to information.

The majority of the remaining contributions are focussed on models of existing European-wide CINs, which give a flavour of the diversity of CINs, and models of good practice – including city networks, a regional network, a small locally-based network and a subject model outlining the experience of supporting life-long learning through ‘Networks for Learning’ in South Yorkshire. Finally a specific, group model is examined through the experiences of Women Connect – a project aiming to support women in getting connected, encourage networking and learning online, and increasing women’s visibility and strength in shaping the Internet. The book concludes with a summary of the organisations, associations and partnerships that have evolved at a national, European and global level to promote and develop CINs and encourage the sharing of good practice.

The main strength of this collection is its accessibility. Its style will engage the novice and professional alike, with little prior knowledge of technical issues required, and for the most part providing comprehensive explanations – particularly in the technology-related sections. In parts I felt it was trying to be all things to all readers which, while not a bad aim, let it down in some areas. Firstly some (only some) of the technical detail did not seem to work well with its generally accessible style. Secondly, this is a slim volume of 208 pages providing an overview of many issues and projects and the seasoned practitioner may feel that the bringing together of so many diverse projects/perspectives has resulted in a loss of detail. Thirdly, the focus was mainly on case studies written by project managers: an omission – which I believe to be unfortunate – is the feedback and evaluation of the use of CINs from the communities they serve.

However, I feel the aim of this book was to provide a much-needed overview of the state of play in this area and, as such, it has a wide potential audience – from experienced information providers to community activists, students, library staff/managers, voluntary organisations and training organisations; basically anyone interested in information and how networks can be developed to enhance and add value to its creation and delivery. It brings together snap-shots of what is happening in this new and exciting area, linking projects with issues and sources of funding (which is always useful to the practitioner). It also practises what it preaches and includes a wealth of references in the form of web sites, which will allow the reader to follow up specific models as well as general issues.

The subject area is broad and diverse and encompasses many disciplines and issues. There has been little written in this area in book form which brings together such a wide variety of experience and this volume successfully manages to present a coherent contribution to the debate from individuals and groups working in different sectors.

Cath Dyson, Training Officer, Manchester Women’s Electronic Village Hall
UKOLUG Newsletter, Vol. 10, No. 6, Nov/Dec 1999, p. 32

THIS IS a success story. Like any other success story, it runs the risk on every page of reporting merely how some organisations got it right. It falls into this trap in several places, but many chapters do tell us what we want to know: what did the organisers of various schemes learn from their success, and how would they approach another scheme.

In 1996, Sheila Pantry and others in South Yorkshire were working to develop a regional forum for community networkers; this led to the first Community Information Networks Conference held at Sheffield University. Alongside this initiative, two important associations have come to prominence: Communities Online has become a national focus for local networking. With the election of the Labour government in May 1997, Communities Online was through the door of the Department of Trade and Industry within seven days. Within three months it had received almost £100,000 of funding to develop ‘local IT for all’ and ‘a learning network of the many innovative initiatives now under way: digital cities, virtual towns and community networks.’ The second association, the European Association for Community Networking, has had a slower start, but shows every sign of a sound future.

With the euphoria of such progress, Sheila Pantry has moved to set down what local organisations have actually been doing. Many of these organisations are based close to the South Yorkshire area, and are reasonably enough taken as representative of local initiatives anywhere. Contributing authors have also had much enthusiasm to convey. Community Information Networks (CINs), better known as FreeNets in the US and Canada, are obviously a vital communication platform. They are also the clear target for government cash when access-for-all, the information society, the information-poor and other emotive phrases come into the political equation.

How to start and operate a CIN is therefore the kind of advice that many communities could use. Does this book provide it? Well, the answer has to be less than a definite ‘yes’. The early chapters should explain the basics and suggest patterns; the tone is uneven and faintly uncomfortable. Chapters 2 and 3 (by David Miller of the Department of Information Studies at Sheffield University) is thorough in setting out the phases: establishing the vision, designing the project, developing a web site, analysing requirements, raising awareness, identifying partners; but some of the first steps turn up at too late a stage. How to connect an individual to the net seems very basic, but it is not covered until half way through chapter 3: ‘the first thing needed to connect to the Internet is a computer’. Two pages later, the ‘deliverable: WWW server for the project set up and running’ is timetabled at three months. All this doesn’t fit. A further query forms in the mind as all the references for the early chapters are years old; at the end of chapter 3 we have a total of eight references. Some of these date from 1994 (one to FAQs in that year, another quoting a web site for Educom, which merged into EDUCAUSE in 1998), and an IFLA paper given by Chris Batt in 1995. Now surely we can do better than this? If an Internet year is three months of ordinary time, we are being offered some really elderly stuff here.

It’s not all like this. Kevin Harris of the Community Development Foundation, writing on ‘the online life of communities’ (chapter 6), presents an excellent account of why we need CINs, what they can do, how social exclusion occurs and how it can be prevented. This is an outstanding paper on social policy (and the references are mainly from 1999 too), very likely the best thing I have read for ages, and intellectually it simply does not belong here. It is on a different plane altogether, and would convey nothing to the novice trying to get started. And do we know if indeed that is whom the book is targeting?

Better for confused beginners are the chapters of case studies; the ‘bibliography’ is quite rightly no such thing, but several pages of web site addresses with brief annotations. This is certainly a useful source. One final query is the almost total absence of any mention of SPIN (the Society of Public Information Networks); they are well supported in the public sector and hold good conferences, but here they are mentioned only once, and that in the bibliography.

Ray Prytherch, Independent Consultant
Managing Information, May 2000, 7:4


Sheila Pantry OBE BA FCLIP manages an independent information services consultancy and electronic publishing business, including websites. She has had a long and varied career in information management in a range of industry sectors, and also in government as Head of Information Services for the Health and Safety Executive. She specializes in worldwide occupational health and safety information and is an experienced trainer, writer, editor, lecturer and conference organiser.

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