If your library or your Kansas community has what we used to
call “a presence on the web”, please take a moment to remember and be
grateful for John Reid Howell, an extraordinary friend of our profession
and state, who died Sunday, January 22, 2017.
As one half of Kansas on the Net, in partnership with his wife Susan Howell, John was a pioneer in bringing the Internet out of the realm of science and research into the world of everyday life. In eagerly forming an alliance with Kansas libraries, he helped put Kansas in the very early forefront of a transformation that continues to this day.
Kansas on the Net grew out of a happy mix of enthusiasms. Both John and Susan adored small towns. As a mathematician and computer specialist with Boeing, Inc., the technology, challenges and potential of the web fascinated John. And out of his gregarious nature and a desire to make visitors from the Seattle and Chicago offices welcome in and appreciative of Kansas, eventually came over 300 websites devoted to small communities in our state. John’s literary bent (as revealed in his remarkable Poetry of Kansas web collection) ensured that the colorful, the quirky and the unique always got their due for every town. As a computer person and a gifted photographer, Susan brought not only pages, but whole communities to vivid life.
Much of this occurred prior to May of 1996, nearly prehistoric in terms of the public web. It was at that point that an agreement was made to transfer hosting of KOTN from private servers to Blue Skyways, the ground-breaking web service launched by the State Library in 1995.
The new partnership exceeded expectations once it became clear that both the State Library and the Howells had the same vision for the future of communities on the web – community ownership. While Skyways continued to provide no-cost web hosting, the Howells began training staff and volunteers from libraries and municipalities statewide, covering the technical, aesthetic, social and diplomatic skills of web life with wisdom and charm.
Just as demand was about to exceed the limits of a part-time vocation, word came that the Boeing Corporation had agreed to make KOTN/Skyways John’s full time job through their loaned executive program, for one year beginning in September 1997. Although he was fond of saying to his SLK contacts “You are all my bosses”, the reality is that the partnership remained a partnership, with the library providing guidance, resources, assistance and direction. “Supervision” was never remotely called for.
The first year’s outcomes so pleased everyone involved that Boeing broke precedent and extended the “loan” for a second year.
By February 1999, 203 towns had websites on Skyways, 65 of them locally maintained. At the end of the year, Boeing extended the assignment a second time – through March 2000. In making the announcement, Michael C. Germann, Director, Communications and Public Affairs from Boeing-Wichita, wrote:
“John’s work on this project has set a new standard for success in Boeing’s Loaned Executive program. It has truly been a partnership between Boeing and the Kansas State Library. I am incredibly proud of the work John has done and the way he’s represented Boeing in the community.”
At the official end of Boeing sponsorship, the number of town websites had grown to over 300. A fair number of school districts, other municipalities and organizations were also represented. But the partnership continued, adapting to the times and the circumstances. From 1998 to 2005, the Howells more often than not were volunteers, hosts, and or managers at The Internet Booth provided at library conference through the Kansas Library Network Board (the “research and development” arm of the State Library). John contributed often and enthusiastically to other ventures as Blue Skyways continued to evolve. As recently as 2016, he donated much of his extensive Kansas poetry collection to the State Library and to Washburn University Mabee Library.
John and Susan were recipients of the KLA Presidential Award twice – in 1998 as library advocates, and in 2003 for meritorious service. The Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development named them Leaders of the Year in 1999.
Eventually, it became clear that the Internet, as a worldwide phenomenon, was on its feet and could survive without being promoted and propped up by Kansas and its libraries, so Blue Skyways was discontinued. Much of the content was successfully relocated; most notably the entire Kansas GenWeb project and the Howells reclaimed a great deal of material originally part of, or created for, Kansas on the Net.
Kansas libraries and communities should remember and be grateful for John, his gifts and the way he shared them with us. Not necessarily for the websites and training that resulted – technologies and people move on. But in our business, we talk and dream a lot about successful partnerships, and new adventures that transform our services and communities. In celebrating this true-life example, we celebrate the life of a dear friend and an unforgettable man.