A Technology Center for Missoula


Project background: the city of Missoula has secured funding from HUD (The Department of Housing and Urban Development) to develop technology within the neighborhoods of the city.  HUD supports such efforts as part of its program of “Neighborhood Networks”1.  The city is going to distribute ten grants of $50,000.  The University of Montana wants to get one of these grants to direct a project for a local neighborhood in need – a project that can be implemented within a year.  The following is a proposal for this project.


            In Missoula there are locals who for one reason or another do not have sufficient access to digital technology.  These reasons fall basically into two categories: cost and knowledge.


            So, for example, some students in the primary and secondary schools of the city come from families with limited resources, which cannot afford the cost of a laptop or the monthly cost of an Internet connection.  These families live throughout the city and are not localized in a restricted neighborhood or in a large housing complex, as occurs in larger cities.  In fact, the population of Missoula is only 67,000, which is close to the population of a single neighborhood in large cities like San Francisco.  (For example, the population of the Mission District, a neighborhood of San Francisco near the center of the city, is 47,000.)


            There are also adults in their working years who also lack access to the Internet and computers.  It may be that for one reason or another, the cost of this access is too high for them.  They may be unemployed, or working but living on modest budgets that do not permit such “luxuries.”  It may also be that they never have had the opportunity to learn the basics about using this technology.  These people also live and work throughout the city.


            In addition, some senior citizens also might have limited resources and furthermore possibly never have had contact with this technology.  As is the case with the two groups above, these persons likewise live throughout the city.


            These three groups of people need the same things to gain access to digital technology: a computer, broadband access to the Internet, assistance in using both, and a place to do it.  Due to their distribution throughout the city (which, remember, is only the size of a single neighborhood of large cities), it is essential that the place is located in a building easily accessible by the public.  Such a building already exists: the Mansfield Library of the University of Montana.  The library is accessible on foot and by bus, as well as by car.  It has long hours of operation: from Monday to Friday from 7 am to 1 am, Saturday from 9 am to 7 pm, and Sunday from 9 am to 1 am.  The library has 85 desktop computers and 15 laptops.  The desktop computers are hard-wired to the Internet, and the laptops use the Wi-Fi of the University.  Both types of connection are broadband.


            In times past, use of the desktop computers was available to all of the public – students and nonstudents alike.  In those days, it was common to see people of all ages using the computers and the Internet.  Of course, there were university students doing their homework for their university classes.  However, there were always a few community users among them.  Some primary and secondary-school students, often with a parent, used the computers and Internet access to complete their own homework.  Also, some adults of all ages worked on their projects to investigate something using the Internet access, or write something using Microsoft Word, or communicate with someone using e-mail, or compute something using Microsoft Excel or other packages.  It was a taste of the library of the future, in which digital resources take the place of the printed resources of books and journals.  The use of the computers was unlimited for any user, except that community users were asked by library personnel to yield a computer after a reasonable time, in times of high demand.  Moreover, no password was required to use the computers.  However, the laptops were only available for checkout by university students.


            All this changed in the summer of 2009.  The administration of the library and the university decided to restrict the use of most computers to university students.  Now, a password available only to university students is required to log on to on those computers.  The library set aside only 7 computers in a section apart from the rest for use by community users.  On those 7, a user obtains access to a session of only one hour.


            The reason given by the university for the change was some “conflicts” between students and community users over the use of the computers.  It is probable, however, that both groups were simply reacting to the limited number of computers.  Moreover, among the community users there seemed to have been three problematic individuals, who caused 80 percent of the conflicts, which seemed to relate more between them and the library staff than with students.  One of the individuals is probably a schizophrenic, and the other two seem to have severe personality disorders.  In fact, the new arrangement did not remedy the problems with these three: the schizophrenic and one of the other two eventually were banned from the entire university, while the third had left shortly after the change on his own.  By contrast, it appears that the vast majority of users, both university and community, do not present these types of problems and can easily work side by side – as had existed before the change in policy.


            The effect of this policy change has been dramatic and in many respects has essentially blocked community users from the “digital library.”  The former users of young students from the primary and secondary schools are almost totally absent now.  Even among adults, it does not seem that now there is the same diversity of users as before.  The use is so restrictive that it appears that many community users simply cannot do their investigations and work, or find it too uncomfortable to be feasible in the new arrangement.  One gets the impression that now there only are a few diehard users who refuse to quit.  A computer systems administrator characterized the community users as “12.”


            Also, the university restricts the use of its broadband Wi-Fi only to university students.  So, even if a visitor has his own laptop, he can’t use it because he can’t connect it to the Internet.  The university already has the ability to provide Wi-Fi for visitors.  The system already is in place for doing it, and sometimes the university in fact does do it – as during orientations for new students.  In effect, it’s only necessary to flip a switch.  Nevertheless, the policy is to deny access in this manner, in general.  The university cites various reasons for this situation, like some policies of the Montana university system, or some requirements of the Department of Homeland Security, or “competition” with the private sector.  However, the fact is that her sister university, Montana State University in Bozeman, does have Wi-Fi for visitors.  If that university can do it, the same is true of this university.  Other universities throughout the United States also have this access – like, for example, the University of Arizona in Tucson, the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and the University of Washington in Seattle.  Besides, this very university turns Wi-Fi on for visitors when it feels like it.  In other words, yes, it is possible to have a Wi-Fi system for visitors, and many universities do so – including this one, at times.


            As a state university, the university obtains much funding from the state and federal governments.  Because of that, it has an obligation to make its facilities accessible to the public.  Among the staff of the Montana State University Library in Bozeman, there is a strong recognition of this obligation.  In fact, except for sports like football, there is probably no better way to showcase the university to the public than with a library equipped with modern digital technology accessible by community users.


            With these things and history in mind, it is proposed that the best use of a $50,000 grant for a project to develop technology within neighborhoods of our city, to be directed by the university, is the following.  It is proposed that the university use the entire grant to purchase and equip some laptops for use in the Mansfield Library by community users.  For this amount, it will be possible to buy and equip about 50 laptops, or perhaps a few more.  The laptops should have these characteristics:


• an HD screen with an “aspect ratio” of 16:9, which is the size of modern HD television,

• a high speed, multi-core processor,

• the Windows 7 operating system, Home Professional Edition,

• Microsoft Office 2010, Professional Edition,

• the ability to connect to Wi-Fi,

• an integral camera for video conversations in Skype,

• Norton “Internet Security” antivirus protection, and

Computrace and LoJack’s “Pro Premium” anti-theft protection.


            Some people might suggest using the public library instead of Mansfield, but for various reasons this isn’t the best plan.  The project is to be directed by the university.  The university has control over its own domain, but that’s not the case with the public library.  The university would not have the confidence that its intention was going to be implemented in the other environment.  The personnel of the public library, as is probably the case in many libraries, seem to be struggling to understand how digital technology is going to change the function of a library in the future.  Their point of view still might be more “old library” than “new library.”  For example, in fact they have just received a substantial grant.  What did they buy?  They spent $250,000 for a van for a “bookmobile” – instead of using those funds for investment in digital technology.  In Mansfield Library, it will be assured that the project is going to go as designed.


            In order to get these funds, it is proposed that it is a requirement that the university has to “flip the switch” and turn on the existing Wi-Fi for visitors, and continue to provide this service for these 50 laptops, as well as for any other visitor with his own laptop.


            Internet access is a key issue in any discussion about the “digital divide.”  Some people (notably, cellular service vendors) say that the solution is a subscription to broadband service with a wireless telephone company, like Verizon or AT&T.  However, this service still is very expensive and very limited in the amount of data that can be transferred.  Certainly, it would not be possible for someone of limited resources to even consider it.  Moreover, even if someone can afford one, the transfer limit excludes serious work.  Actually, a system like that of the university is needed, with many users, so that statistically the average use is reasonable.  While one person is working locally on his computer, another person can be downloading from the Internet.


            If this is acceptable to the university, the next step will be to buy the 50 laptops.  The method will be to contact several laptop vendors, such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sony, and Toshiba, with the desired characteristics listed above.  The goal will be to obtain the best performance with the least cost.  Due to the fact that the university qualifies for price reductions as an educational institution, as well as discounts for multiple units, it will undoubtedly be possible to buy at least 50 laptops of high quality and functionality.


            Then, the 50 new laptops ought to be available for checkout by community users.  This use of the grant will maximize the benefit for the people of the Missoula neighborhood.  Also, it takes into consideration existing resources, such as the library building with its long hours of operation, as well as the knowledgeable staff there.


            A user should be able to check out one of these laptops for “day use” in the library.  That is, there should not be time limits like one or two hours, as is common, but it should only be necessary to return the laptop before leaving the library that day.  As a security measure, the laptops should be equipped with electronic tags that sound an alarm if anyone tries to remove one from the library.


            There are library personnel who can provide assistance in using the laptops.  There is always a computer technician on duty, who is an expert in their operation.  In fact, the best way to learn anything in the computing world is by means of “just-in-time training.”  By this is meant that a person asks a couple of questions about how to do something and immediately tries to do it on the computer.  Then, when his knowledge of the computer and its systems are better, he asks a couple more questions, etc.  If you do not operate in this way, it is very easy for a person to get lost in the complexity of the world of computers and the Internet.  It is only easy if it is taken in small steps, one step at a time.


It is possible – although not absolutely necessary – that there might be some people in the community and the university who would want to offer classes on some aspects of computers and Internet use.  Certainly, this ought to be encouraged.  Courses could treat topics such as e-mail, browsers, search engines, and Microsoft Word and Excel.  In general, it is important that users understand how to find the information that they need and how to use this information in things like letters or reports in Word.


In this way, the library will become once again a resource for the neighborhood that includes both the university and Missoula.  People of all ages will benefit.  Children of the primary and secondary schools will be able to complete their homework with their parents and the assistance of the world of information on the Web.  People of working age will be able to find the information that they need in order to better their lives, look for a job, write a job resume, buy something at the best price, contact someone using e-mail or Skype, and much more.  Senior citizens will be able to do many of the same things, and perhaps in some cases will be able to enter a world that they have not had the opportunity to explore before.


            These days, access and knowledge of digital technology are essential for any effort.  The world of information no longer is in books, but now is on the Internet.  Without access to computers with connections to the Internet, this entire world is denied to a person.  Therefore, it is important that libraries like Mansfield make this world as accessible as possible, to as many people as possible.  The program which has been presented above will do exactly that and will put in place a resource of immeasurable value for years, for the Missoula neighborhood.









1 HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development).  “Neighborhood Networks”.  December 29, 2011.  In particular, click on “About Neighborhood Networks” under the icon, and “Neighborhood Networks Work Portal” at the right center.  Consulted December 29, 2011, in http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/housing/mfh/nwn


2 The University of Montana.  Mansfield Library.  Consulted December 25, 2011, in  http://www.lib.umt.edu/


3 Google Earth.  Missoula, Montana, the University of Montana, and the Mansfield Library.  Tour of the city by satellite view.  Consulted December 26, 2011 in the following, in which you can also look around for yourself using the controls above to the right or by simply pushing the image with the mouse, if you like: http://www.creativemethods.com/espanol/temas/MissoulaTour.htm


4 Google Maps.  Missoula, Montana, the University of Montana, and the Mansfield Library.  Satellite view.  Consulted December 26,. 2011, in http://maps.google.com/maps