Rural Social Equity and School Housed Public Libraries

Article excerpt

Abstract: An examination of the potential of the school housed public library to address information and library needs of rural people by using technology whilst also providing a centre for social and cultural development. Edited version of a paper presented at the Alia (SA) 1997 Country Conference

Suggested approaches to equitable library and information service to nonmetropolitan areas have often narrowly focused on technological solutions. While technology is capable of rapid information transfer, it does not address the cultural and social aspects vital to the life of small communities. Is there a means to respond to the information and library needs of rural residents by utilising modern technology, while also providing a centre for social and cultural development? This paper discusses the relevance of the school housed public library in Canada, and the success of such mergers in rural South Australia.

Rural life in Canada

To discuss rural library service in Canada it is necessary to remind ourselves that the concept of rural life as remote, peaceful and agrarian has radically changed, and with it, the library and information needs of people living a rural existence.

Statistics Canada's Census of population classifies a settlement of 1000 or more population as `urban' and the remaining population as `rural'. In 1851, 87 per cent of the Canadian population was designated as rural. This changed rapidly with the migration of people to cities and towns, and most especially, in recent times, to suburbs. By 1922 the rural population had become the minority. Today only 23 per cent of the total population is rural.[1] Rural was once taken to be synonymous with farming. The portion of the rural population made up by farmers is now less than 15 per cent.[2] Since 1945 the country's population has sorted itself into a tripartite settlement structure: one third of Canada's population resides in the three major metropolitan areas of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, another third resides in medium and small metro areas -- the `fringe metro' or `ruburbs', and the remaining third, the principal focus of this paper, is spread across Canada's vast nonmetropolitan hinterland.[3]

Social changes have accompanied this population shift, and some of these changes have been negative in nature. Vavrek has observed (about the American rural situation) that complex socioeconomic issues sometimes hide the realities of country life which may include poverty, abuse, low educational attainment, malnourishment and poor medical care. He notes that, unfortunately, an idyllic, romantic view of `life in the country' has sometimes been both a hindrance and counterproductive to finding practical solutions for problems.[4]

In Canada, unemployment is higher in rural and small town areas than in city areas. Lowest family incomes are found in towns of 1000-30,000 population. Among the other indicators of well being, it has been found that there are lower education levels in rural and small town Canada, as well as lower literacy and numeracy skills. This is important in so far as `education level represents one indicator of development or the capacity to participate in the `knowledge intensive' growth sectors'.[5] Indeed, the statistics show that in terms of job creation, rural areas are falling further behind their city cousins. This is related not only to farm closures, but the scaling down and closure of goods producing industries situated in rural settings. While crime rates are higher in urban areas, the era of the unlocked front door has long since disappeared in small communities. The spread of urban populations into nonmetro fringe areas often carries urban problems and attitudes with it. Problems associated with drugs, child and spousal abuse are commonly reported. It is no longer appropriate to necessarily think `remote' when discussing `rural'. Because of technological developments such as television and telecommunications, rural areas in some ways have become more like cities. …