Magazine article American Libraries

Far from the Library A Special Set of Challenges

Magazine article American Libraries

Far from the Library A Special Set of Challenges

Article excerpt


Urban and rural poverty have been usually approached as separate and distinct problems in America, although as Earl Shorris points out in New American Blues: A Journey through Poverty to Democracy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), much of the displacement of workers on farms and in factories springs from, a common root: the introduction of new technologies Conversely, the public library uses technology to provide access to information-bearing materials, a mission that applies equally to the rural and urban poor. The public library has always looked on the provision of lifelong learning, particularly in the humanities, as its goal, without the expectation of providing, as Shorris believes, a path out of poverty. The focus has only been on the filling of its mission of universal service.

However, library service to the poor is shaped by the resources available in rural and urban areas. In population centers, poor people can seek library services at fixed places, and the library can focus on providing services that will bring those with limited means to these places. As we pointed out in our article in Library Trends (vol. 44[1], 1995, p. 112-128), when it comes to rural outreach, libraries often are trying to serve a population so dispersed as to make major use of a central facility difficult.

Nor does the new technology help much when it' comes to reaching the rural poor. While the Internet generally has tremendous potential for overcoming limitations of distance and time, the rural poor are often disadvantaged electronically as well as economically. Americans living in rural areas are less likely to be connected by personal computers or the Internet, and low-income households in rural areas are the least connected of all, with connectivity rates in single digits, according to a 1999 report from the Department of Commerce.

Internet access is becoming a very important information resource--nearly one-third of Americans use it, and public libraries are significant providers. Unemployed people who access the Internet outside their homes are nearly three times as likely to use public libraries as the national average (21.9% versus 8.2%), the Department of Commerce reports; and those who are "not in the labor force," such as retirees or homemakers, are twice as likely (16.1%).

Libraries seeking to serve the rural poor must understand that transportation is a major problem, telephone service is limited, and Internet connection is unlikely. The rural poor may he unfamiliar with available services, might not read even a local newspaper, and are often ignorant of local events. They may live far from any central service point. Traditional rural outreach activities--such as small local libraries or branches, bookmobiles, depository collections, and books-by-mail programs--continue to serve the rural poor, but there are new and more varied approaches that concentrate particularly on expanding outreach services to the disadvantaged portion of the rural population. We'll mention some programs with which we have some personal familiarity and offer some generalizations based on successful approaches.

A focus for outreach: youth

Outreach activities in rural areas often focus on serving youth, from Head Start programs to day-care centers and nursery schools to elementary and middle schools. Most children in poor rural areas are ex posed to hooks and reading only through the story times presented at preschools by library outreach staff. To encourage pre-school staff to read to children, some libraries are developing special collections or kits that staff use to present their own story time programs and workshops to train them in story time presentation. For example, the JOY Boxes created by the Knoxubee County Library in Mawn, Mississippi, and the reading bags of the Rapides Parish Library in Alexandria, Louisiana, provide rural child caregivers, who are often limited in their knowledge of children's literature, with resources that can be used daily to present appropriate story times to the children in their care. …

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