Establishing & Expanding a Web Community Called NorthStarNet
BY Alan Minarik and Christina Stoll
The communities we live in have changed over time. But no matter the size of the tallest building, no matter how advanced the infrastructure, they grew to that size from humble beginnings: a fur-trading post, a tribal settlement, or an explorer's encampment. If this is true of our physical communities, it's just as true of our virtual ones. Rarely does an online network spring into being overnight; it takes time, work, and effort from all the people invested in its success. NorthStarNet is no exception.
Developed by the North Suburban Library System (NSLS) in Wheeling, Ill., NorthStarNet (NSN) is an online information network that serves as an electronic community providing Web hosting and other services for its member libraries and, through them, for their participating community organizations and the general public. This article tells how NSN grew from a cluster of four libraries to a vast community of more than 50 libraries and just under 900 organizations and how we, as members of NSLS's Tech Team that oversees the support and maintenance of NSN, envision the community expanding in the years ahead.
The Beginning: 19952001
In 1995, NSLS director Sarah Long decided it was time to create a bigger place for libraries on the Internet. At the time, they were very limited in their presence. Not only was it costly to maintain a Web site, but many libraries struggled to design and populate the sites they did have. But Sarah dreamed of more; something that, she said, "not only belonged to the [Internet] community, but was also a catalyst for libraries to come together." So, with a mere handful of libraries by her side, and with funding from NSLS's operational budget and state-supplied grants, she led these latter-day pioneers into the vast wilderness of the World Wide Web. Hitching their wagons to a star, they set out to start a community.
Like the North Star for which it was named, NorthStarNet served as a guiding beacon to libraries in the northern Chicago suburbs as they took their first steps toward the Internet. And although it started out as little more than a collection of Web pages, the goals of NorthStarNet were much bigger. Each library would be an entry point for organizations throughout the community to stake their claims to the Web, bringing everything from historical societies and community bands to police departments and chambers of commerce in to populate the virtual frontier. Each library would appoint a staff member as a library coordinator (LC), who would be the liaison between the community participants—called Information Providers (IPs)—and the NSN administrators here at NSLS. One of the main roles of the LC would be to market the NSN service to its community organizations and to recruit new IPs to join.
One good example is the Wilmette Public Library, which strongly campaigned for bringing in organizations by promoting NSN in its newsletter and by distributing NSN brochures to its patrons. One of Wilmette's earliest IPs was the Wilmette Community Band (http://www.wilmetteband.org), which found the service indispensable. The band's Webmaster, Alice H. Magos, said, "We were (and still are) technologically and budgetary-challenged, so we jumped at the chance to create another avenue of communication between our organization and its members, potential members, and the community at large ... via a technically supported vehicle and at no cost. It's been a great success."
Before long, NSN libraries found that the options for helping their communities were myriad. Skokie Public Library, one of the founding members, used its NorthStarNet site to develop SkokieNet (http://www.skokienet.org), a Web hub where the subscribers' sites could all be aggregated and cross-referenced under a single banner. Frances Roehm, NSN library coordinator for Skokie, said that it has been "a phenomenal tool for community building here in Skokie. ... [NSN] gives us a way to connect with community organizations, Village agencies, and businesses." She further points out that it has been a boon for the library itself: "The library is viewed as an important collaborator in projects that include information technologies."
But providing Web hosting is not all there is to a community, so the development team here at NSLS worked to make sure NorthStarNet had features that could bring these different groups together. One of the earliest was an AltaVista-based search engine that could return results from across community borders. With this "Main Street" running through these fledgling communities, the sites were able to get the traffic they needed and to make sure their information was seen. The main NSN site, serving as the community's "town hall," also offered informational resources that could be useful to many communities, such as community college schedules, consumer health information, and even concert dates.
As you might expect, such a wealth of resources was quick to attract attention, and before long new electronic settlers were coming to expand our fledgling community. In its first 2 years of life, NSN saw its population explode from its initial four libraries in 1995 to more than 20 libraries by 1997. The community's base was also expanded, both by an association with the Chicago Tribune's now-defunct DigitalCities project and by bringing neighboring Suburban Library System (SLS, which has now re-formed as the Metropolitan Library System) in as a partner. This laid the groundwork for another explosive growth in membership, ultimately resulting in today's population of 54 member libraries representing just under 900 community organizations, including eight member-spanning regional organizations such as the Chicago Botanic Garden (http://www.chicago-botanic.org) and the Greater Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce (http://www.lincolnshirechamber.org).
The LaGrange Public Library was one of the first SLS libraries to join NSN, and it has seen the benefits of membership. Steve Moskal, LaGrange's LC, said, "Businesses see the library as that place to go with technological questions, particularly anything to do with the Web." Part of what made NSN attractive to these communities was its models of community interaction and shared independence. At NSLS, we facilitated community interaction by providing training classes on the different building tools and convening regular meetings for the LCs. But while the system encouraged interaction among the participants, member independence was also important. For that, the NSN development team implemented an organizational structure that freed each level from being reliant on the one above. Because of this, IPs did not need to go to their sponsoring library to make changes to their sites, and the libraries' LCs didn't need to turn to NSLS for everyday site maintenance. This allowed for easy growth and expansion, with each library being in control of parceling out territory, each organization deciding how to build up its own plot, and NSLS functioning as a zoning board to keep track of the growth.
Making Progress: 20012003
By 2001, the NSN community was well developed, but its hardware (purchased in 1995) was getting old. The single NSN server, a 1993-vintage Sun SPARCstation 20, which now housed thousands of community and organization Web sites, was in need of major internal reworking. The NSN population was growing fast, and its old town hall needed to be upgraded to match that growth. The technological structure of NSN had served the populace well, but years of usage and advances in technology meant NSN's efficiency was slowing and repairs were becoming more frequent and more difficult to resolve. The town hall needed new piping, electrical rewiring, and 21st-century insulation.
The goals of this project, coined NSN 2.0, were to update the infrastructure, streamline and automate processes, upgrade to commodity hardware, increase the libraries' control of their sites, and improve IP management. As we began, we discovered that the way various core NSN infrastructure materials had been bundled over the years was going to make it challenging for us to unravel them or to replicate them in a newer structure. "When it first started, no one expected [NSN] to become as big as it did or to grow as quickly as it has," said Rob Zschernitz, NSLS's systems engineer, who has been an integral part of the NSN project since its beginning. "2.0 gave us the opportunity to take the hindsight of NSN 1.0 and redesign and engineer the infrastructure to allow for easy expansion, redundancy, and repair." By spring of 2002, NSLS's development team had mapped out the planning and documentation of 2.0 and was ready to start on the development.
The new NSN was going to be modular, allowing for ease of future growth. Its structure and features were developed so individual components could either be pulled out and replaced with future upgrades, or newer parts could be added with less work. The modularity, according to Rob, has proven its worth. Even after the implementation of 2.0, he said, "we've been able to add state-of-the-art technologies for Web development and dynamic-driven sites. 2.0 opened up PHP and ASP to the users, as well as MySQL databases. The redesign allowed for more reliability and ease of maintaining and using the system for both NSLS staff and members."
While most of the work on the 2.0 project was behind the scenes, the entire community felt the upgrade. The speed and reliability of the NSN infrastructure dramatically increased as downtime and problems decreased, allowing everyone a better online experience not only on the main NSN site, but also on its thousands of hosted Web sites as well.
There's more to a community than providing Web hosting.
One of our biggest additions to the core of NSN was a redesign of the Admin Toolbox, which contained the Web site management tools that participants used to manage their accounts. "The Admin Toolbox offers extended control for libraries over their Information Provider accounts," said Ian Baaske, who is NSLS's Web applications developer, a member of the Tech Team, and one of the lead developers behind NSN 2.0. "Admin Toolbox users are able to log on and instantly see the status of their accounts and virtual domain requests." This, coupled with updates to the NSN calendar, gave users more control over their sites while meeting their long-standing requests. NSN 2.0 also led to the creation of a more streamlined communication process and support for NSN users via a support site and online community forum.
Late in 2002, our support structure for NorthStarNet also underwent a radical change. Up to that point, a single staff member had been the face of the NSN project. But when she left NSLS, we decided to make NSN 2.0 a true team project, so we formed NSLS's Tech Team, which allowed us to share the work. Issues or problems that came up could be discussed and resolved by the team collectively, creating a community-within-a-community.
Development continued and, by summer 2003, NorthStarNet was ready to be migrated to the new servers and to have its new features implemented. Even with the upgraded Admin Toolbox, we wanted to provide even more information and support. So the NSN development team created an entirely new support site (http://support.northstarnet.org). Within the support site is a continuously updated Knowledge Base (http://kb.northstarnet.org) of frequently asked questions and answers. The support site also became the center for storing and accessing policies, documentation, and information needed by participants. It holds marketing and start-up information, content guidelines, and notes from the various NSN meeting groups.
In connection to the support site, the Tech Team re-evaluated how NSLS staff members communicated with the libraries and participants. Previously, communication between us and the libraries ranged from e-mail, mail lists, face-to-face meetings, and posting information on our main Web site; the libraries were responsible for communicating with their individual IPs. However, we found that this diffusion of knowledge and information in various forms to different individuals was inefficient (and potentially problematic if the information was relayed incorrectly), so we developed a more streamlined communication process. We created an online support form so library staff could submit problems or questions from their communities and an online community forum (http://forums.northstarnet.org) so NSLS staff could post information to the entire community. Once all NSN participants could communicate with each other, we were able to synergize the information that was out there. This increased ability for online communication among the participants in the NSN communities strengthened relationships across the Web.
Our Status Now: 20032005
Once NSN's infrastructure had new hardware, the Tech Team turned its attention to our town hall's facade. While the site met its members' needs and had undergone some remodeling several times in the past, its design was still closer to its rustic roots than to that of the modern community that had grown up around it. We also wanted to incorporate the new Admin Toolbox and support features created in 2.0 into one similar look, as well as add newer online communication tools to increase the library and community participants' online experience and strengthen community relationships. All this would fall under the banner of NSN 3.0.
NSLS hired an outside consultant to design a new look and feel for the main NSN Web site, which went live in January 2004. In conjunction with the new design, in the spring of 2004 the Tech Team began developing additional communication tools for NSN participants to enhance their online community experience even more. These new tools, many of which are still under development, will include enhancements to our community calendar; monthly Web statistics; and the addition of blogs, online forums called "cafes," and a less-technical, more-portal-like structure for the communities' sites called a "community in a box." All of these features will include the ability to seamlessly integrate them into the look of any participant's Web site.
Our new statistical reporting features have already been added. They let participants see reports on which search terms brought users to the site, which organizations access the site the most, and which other countries are accessing NSN. The calendar enhancements will allow users to search multiple communities at one time and to create a link to this search which they can include on their site, as well as the highly requested ability to easily create recurring events on the calendar. All library and community accounts on NSN will also be given access to blogging and forum "cafe" options, which they can use to directly interact with their users. Finally, all libraries will be given the option to use a "community in a box" to replace their current community site, which will allow them to integrate all of these new features into one site that requires less technical maintenance—all they will need to do is supply the content.
We've also integrated RSS into the NSN 3.0 features, so participants' sites can be syndicated for wider readability, and we've included a feature that provides listings of non-NSN organizations, which allows our members to easily provide basic information about local organizations (restaurants, movie theaters, auto shops, etc.) that already have their own non-NSN Web sites. We expect to complete these extra tools by early 2005.
To provide all these new tools, NSLS needed to come up with a new system of funding. Improvements were far outpacing the ability of grants to fund them, so we turned to the community to collaborate. NSLS still contributes about 80 percent of the funding for NSN, either in equipment, marketing materials, or staff time, but now libraries participating in NSN also pay a membership fee based on the number of people in their service area. This has allowed members to feel much more connected to the NorthStarNet project; it also has them literally invested in the future of the system.
The Future: 2005?
As new members are added, as membership grows, and as technology advances, we will be eternally vigilant for ways to further connect our members to each other and to the greater world. Founder Sarah Long sees the future of NSN as one being built on the idea of hubs and spokes. "As hubs," she said, "the libraries reach out to the communities. Then new hubs are built around content, such as all arts groups in a region working together." All advancements, though, will be predicated on an open invitation for area organizations—as well as more libraries and even library systems—to come add to the overall community.
Once all of our new 3.0 tools go live, NSN members will be better prepared than ever before to lead their communities into the future and to set up NSN as a community for others to use as a model.
Bajjaly, Stephen, The Community Networking Handbook. Chicago: ALA, 1999.
Durrance, Joan C. and Karen E. Pettigrew, Online Community Information: Creating a Nexus at Your Library. Chicago: ALA, 2002.
Long, Sarah, "Wealth of regional information available on NorthStarNet," Chicago Daily Herald, March 25, 2004.
O'Leary, Mick, "NorthStarNet: A Model for Community Information," ONLINE magazine, July/August 2000.
The Benefits of Belonging to NorthStarNet
Member Library Benefits
- Positions the library as a community leader and resource
- Introduces library services to new audiences
- Enhances the library's online presence with minimal investment
- Allows easy access to technical and marketing support with online Knowledge Base
- Enables resource sharing with participating libraries through discussion boards
- Enjoys ongoing network development through member
Information Provider Benefits
- Free Web hosting on a robust and secure system
- Gateway for a 24/7 Internet presence
- Aggregation of sites ensures high indexing on search engines
- Technology support through library
- Enhanced event publicity on Community Calendar
- Online blogs and cafes for organization and communitywide interaction (Coming Soon!)
Alan Minarik is an administrative assistant for the North Suburban Library System in Wheeling, Ill. He helped to develop the Web site for the Indian Trails Public Library District in Wheeling in 1998. He has also written and edited for the Palatine, Ill. Harbinger. He has been a member of NSLS's Tech Team since 2004. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Christina Stoll is the knowledge management specialist for the North Suburban Library System in Wheeling, Ill. She holds an M.L.I.S. from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. She is a member of the NSLS Tech Team and has worked on the NorthStarNet project for the past 4 years. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.