Perspectives of East Tennessee's Rural Public Librarians about the Extent of Need for Professional Library Education: A Pilot Study

Article excerpt

This article presents findings from a pilot study that explored the perspectives of East Tennessee's regional public librarians about their extent of need for professional library education and the knowledge, skills, abilities, and opportunities required in the region's rural libraries to best serve their communities. Data collection methods included: quantitative web-based survey with select open-ended questions; ongoing feedback from regional librarians in the University of Tennessee's School of Information Sciences' (SIS) advisory board and alumni networks; paraprofessional experiences shared by students in the SIS synchronous distance education program; anecdotal feedback collected from local/regional/state-level library networks; and strategic planning in East Tennessee's two regional libraries. Research findings indicate that East Tennessee's regional public librarians have a strong desire to access professional library education that integrates rural library management and information technology competencies to help their communities effectively address some of their unique debilitating challenges and circumstances.

Keywords: rural public libraries, library education, East Tennessee, exploratory pilot research, web-based survey

Background

The U. S. Census Bureau defines "rural" as areas with fewer than 2,500 people and open territory (Economic Research Service, 2007). The Encyclopedia of Rural America defines the related concept of "nonmetropolitan" counties to describe the spread of housing developments outside the boundaries of metro areas that have no cities with as many as 50,000 residents (Rathge, 1997, p. 627), in addition to being non-urbanized (Office of M anagement and Budget, 1998). The word "rural" in this article is used with regard to both meanings.

The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a Unites States federal-state partnership, demarcates Appalachia to include 420 counties in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia (ARC, 1974). ARC identifies Central Appalachia to include: West Virginia's nine southernmost counties, eastern Kentucky, Virginia's southwestern tip, and the northwestern portion of Tennessee's Appalachian area (Bush, 2003), while southern Appalachia includes: most of Appalachian Virginia and Tennessee, the western Carolinas and the northern parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. This article focuses on East Tennessee as embedded in the larger Southern and Central Appalachian (SCA) region.

In recent years, rural communities in the SCA region have experienced harsh living conditions compounded by severe economic challenges, a lack of adequate education among the lay population, and extreme conditions of information poverty (Crowther, Lykins, & Spohn, 1992; Kusmin, 2008). In 1998, Central Appalachian labor force participation rate was 61.6%, compared to 67.7% nationally, and 27% of Appalachian counties were economically distressed (exceeding by 50% national unemployment rates) compared to 13% nationally (Appalachian Regional Commission, 2002). Historically, the rural persistent poverty (RPP) counties in the nation have included extraction-based economies in Appalachia and slave and sharecropper-based economies in the rural South (Pudup, Billings, & Waller, 1995). RPP is defined by the Economic Research Service ( 1 997) at the U. S. Department of Agriculture as a county where the poverty rate has exceeded 20% continuously since 1960 as measured by four consecutive decennial censuses. Today, the counties in the rural SCA belt still show low levels of educational attainment, a lack of information access and use of information technology (IT), and are economically disadvantaged having low income and high-poverty and unemployment rates. Based on Census 2000 data and subsequent research (Gibbs, 2001; Lichter & Campbell, 2005): (1) gaps in high school completion and educational attainment between the SCA region and the United States as a whole grew from 6. …