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Information is Power in Rural Librarianship Program

By Nichole Stevens

A community of informatics-supported and empowered library professionals and their rural constituencies is what many information and communication specialists like Bharat Mehra are working towards. Mehra, an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences, says “information is power and our profession focuses on how to manage and disseminate that information to make the world a better place for all.”

In 2009, Mehra, and his colleagues Kimberly Black and Vandana Singh applied for and received the school’s first grant for the Information Technology Rural Librarian Master’s Scholarship Program (ITRL) from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program. In 2012, the school received a second round of funding for the program to expand and promote rural librarianship in southern and central Appalachia, engaging student paraprofessionals from across multiple states.

Bharat Mehra and the ITRL "Fairwell" rocking chair

Bharat Mehra and the ITRL “Fairwell” rocking chair

“We recognize that these areas traditionally were getting left behind in terms of access to resources, information, and digital technology,” said Mehra.

Mehra said it was ongoing efforts for him and others to develop partnerships and connections with rural library networks, but it was important in the long run to first show the value of and variety of work that information science students could do in rural settings, while also learning from these communities.

He said the rural communities and students “are unique and need to be looked at in a positive way. They have the will and drive but just need the opportunities and skills to take it further.”

About 70 percent of the population in Mehra’s native India lives in rural areas and are traditionally and geographically distanced from valuable information resources. This is why, he says, “working with rural libraries is my passion. Each person is different. Each community is; each library is too…how do we nurture that uniqueness to tell their story and help them thrive in the process?”

When looking at specific circumstances and understanding how regions have become marginalized, librarians-in-training can learn different approaches on how to professionally connect and respond to their clients to meet those needs.

Appalachian history shows unique political, economic and social challenges people in the area face. Some of these include lower literacy rates due to regional conditions not faced elsewhere. Libraries encountering and experiencing those challenges in interacting with clients in that region have limited resources and information technology skills, management skills, etc. In order to bring about changes, the ITRL grants developed staff skills within the rural public libraries and also helped to collect user feedback in order to better meet the needs of the larger community environment.

The Information Specialist for the Lumpkin County Public Library, Angela Cortellino Glowcheski, said the greatest piece of advice she got from the program was “to analyze my library from the perspective of a patron, to wear a different hat when doing assessment. Doing this has helped me see the library from a new perspective.”

By fall of this year, Mehra’s third new grant with colleague Bradley Wade Bishop involves planning for a Public Library Small Business Toolkit, that will continue building relationships and further connections to provide future information resources and technology support to strengthen community networks and economic development in rural Tennessee.

“They are all interconnected,” Mehra said of libraries in the community. “They are connected to information, education, economy, and cultural influences of that environment. That’s why we want to strategize our efforts into focus. It’s part of a journey and different pieces come together to make a difference at a bigger level.”


The Rural Libraries Professional Program was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.