By Ben |

For the research project of my 1996 internship, I had studied three of NPTN's member Free-Nets, and my favorite by far was Great Lakes Free-Net (GLFN) in Battle Creek, Michigan, so in the summer of 1997 I got another grant to intern at GLFN. Unfortunately the same faculty member was not available to supervise my research, so he recommended a prof from the sociology department. I had only had one semester of sociology, but I thought I had an idea of how to do sociology research based on the studies I'd read for that one intro class.

The previously independent GLFN organization was in the process of merging with the public library for budgetary reasons, and the new library-employed executive director started her first day on the job the day I arrived for my 10 week internship. Since I had already been using GLFN for a year, she wound up picking my brain about how it worked and who did what, but she had not been involved in the decision to bring on an intern and had little use for me. I don't really remember what I spent most of the summer doing besides going to community events and interviewing people for my paper.

I had planned to self-publish the research paper on the Web as I had done with the NPTN one, and my prof had no objection, but the executive director insisted on reading it first, and she said under no circumstances could I publish it. Although I had dutifully changed all the names, she pointed out that all the volunteers and board members knew me and would recognize each other. I stood by my assessment (that the library merger was being forced on the volunteers without respect for what they had built and why), but ultimately I agreed not to publish, and the paper has never seen the light of day.

The other main thing that I learned that summer was that working-class people have different values from those I grew up with. Although Battle Creek has a similar small-town feel to my hometown of Bartlesville, Phillips Petroleum in the '80s had attracted far more white-collar scientists and managers to Bartlesville than Kellogg's did to Battle Creek. I was very naïve about the street gangs and hook-up culture that preoccupied people my age in Battle Creek. Nevertheless, older folks were always glad to see me and include me in community events.