Rural libraries: political and economic change: Interview with Dr. Bharat Mehra, Professor

The author of a growing number of noteworthy articles and two books on rural libraries, social justice, diversity, and needs of minority populations, Dr. Mehra is Associate Professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee (UT). He applies action research towards community building and community development while collaborating with racial/ethnic groups, international diaspora, sexual minorities, rural communities, low-income families, small businesses, and others, to represent their experiences/perspectives in the development of community-based information systems and services. Dr. Mehra (as principal investigator) has recently been awarded multiple grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services totaling more than a million dollars to help train and educate rural librarians in the Appalachian region. Dr. Mehra holds an MLA in Landscape Architecture (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1997), M.A. in South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (UIUC, 1999), and a PhD. in Library and Information Science (UIUC, 2004). Since the publication of this interview Dr. Bharat accepted an offer at  the University of Alabama after years of teaching and research at the University of TN. He is Professor, EBSCO Endowed Chair in Social Justice.



NP:  Rural libraries worldwide have experienced dynamic changes over the past decade. How is rural defined today in light of the global impact of the Internet and social-media?

Mehra: There are two noteworthy points to consider with regard to the misperception that rural America and their libraries experience the technological revolution on par with urban centers and other parts of the country. First, there is the issue of gaps in rural access to technology, computers, and the Internet and the rural digital divides that still very much exist at multiple levels even today in the 21st century in large rural tracts across the length and breadth of the country. Hard to imagine this, but there has been a growing sense of rural isolation for many years now, that has disadvantaged people living in rural areas and left them lagging in terms of technological access compared to regional and national trends. Until recently, the politicians, popular media and press, and the self-proclaimed pundits did not care about these widespread rural communities till they were woken up from their deep slumber of ignoring them (or underestimating their “voice”) as witnessed in the recent unexpected results of the 2016 Presidential Election.

We shouldn’t assume rural libraries have the same technological access as urban centers. The populations in the United States, whether it is in areas up and down the Appalachian Trail, in remote parts of Wyoming and Montana, or in states like Colorado and Ohio, as well as elsewhere all around the country, are dispersed over huge scattered territories of land that are geographically and physically isolated. Telecommunication service providers and corporations like Comcast, XFINITY, ATT, and others have not seen these rural areas as potential markets for making profits and justifying their investments to provide technological advances owing to the low density of people spread over miles and miles of land.

These telecommunication giants have not invested a similar degree of finances and technological infrastructure in rural regions (for example, laying of fiber optic cables providing Broadband connectivity), as compared to other more densely populated urban parts of the country.

The result has been a deliberate marginalization of these rural communities in a “Catch-22-like” fashion where not only have individuals in rural areas not had similar opportunities as their urban counterparts, but, the limited investment and resources have contributed to low economic growth and economic development in these areas because businesses and companies do not see it profitable to move here owing to the lack of available technology infrastructure.

A lack of technological investments and resulting opportunities leads to no economic growth (attracting few people in these areas) that, in turn contributes to the limited invested resources (including technology). This vicious cycle over decades has led to less jobs, greater unemployment and struggles, and people moving away from the rural regions. Additionally, limited technological access has resulted in rural populations receiving no benefits of the modern technologies, leading to no workforce development and support that furthered the inequities in terms of poor salaries, limited wages, limited rural buying power of people living here, and limited resources available for professional and personal growth. The people in rural areas, thus, experienced a double jeopardy in not having the same technological access as well as the resulting benefits and economic opportunities that technology brings with it.

Second, related to the American rural public getting “left behind” in spite of the fast-paced technological developments around the world, is the important point about a “beyond access” understanding of technology adoption, and the need to shift the conversation to focus on the use of the technology, instead of only technological access per se. This concept, defined as information literacy by the American Library Association (1989), is a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”

A poor information literate rural community shapes, and as a cultural consequence, is shaped by the limited technological access and lack of economic resources. This picture is also very closely connected to the gaps in educational levels of people in rural areas resulting from a lack of available economic prospects. Low levels of literacy and poor rates of high school graduation and poor value or priority given to education are the negative collateral cultural damage (determinants and determined by) the denial of opportunities that economic growth and technology bring.

Education can open up the mind and real possibilities for an information literate society, allowing people to effectively use the technology in relation to their lives, and the possible outcomes and impact it can generate to overcome their challenging circumstances, providing them the benefits of changing the haunting situations they experience in their lives. Embroiled in this hegemonic and all-pervasive “quicksand of decay” that rural society of economic and technological deprivation offers, the individual finds a “no-escape” route that is further perpetuated by dependency, especially in the Appalachian region, on drugs, alcoholism, religion, ignorance, lack of exposure to diversity, and other factors.

It’s not surprising that most rural areas in the United States are conservative as they are in the grips and control of religion and religious leaders who espouse a narrow outlook to maintain the status quo of these imbalanced power dynamics. Keeping the rural masses ignorant (or distracted) has been advantageous to the Church and the politicians for centuries all around the world in maintaining a false reality where the individual is manipulated to think/feel that they have no power of escaping life’s harsh realities, and so falling back on the belief system provided by religion in its acceptance of the “Word” represented also in an almighty concept of “God” that cannot be questioned or challenged.

There are many characteristics and life experiences of “rural” that are highly desirable (for example, strength of social ties, closeness of community networks, etc.). These need to be recognized as assets to be built upon towards positive directions and support of individual thought, expression, freedom, creativity, diversity, removal of ignorance, resistance to dependency on the Church’s (or others’) control to subjugate the individual, etc.

NP:  Do you anticipate the concept of rural might be redefined in the future?  What are some of the most significant challenges “rural libraries” face today/future?

Mehra: In the stereotyping of a dismal psychological, social, and cultural picture of “no escape” in rural areas with its limited technological and economic opportunities, a stifling control of religion, and a mindset steeped in conservatism and isolation, the libraries are the only place that can serve as potential havens to resist these forces. As accurate and authoritative information providers, they should provide individuals a direction and concrete opportunities to change their life circumstances. Further, rural libraries in many instances are the only places that offer free access to technology and the Internet, as well as trained professional staff who might be able to help an individual become information literate and find professional and personal opportunities to grow in their thinking and approach to life via tangible and real options.

The challenges for rural libraries to face involve resisting the hegemonic powers that control in rural communities (for example, the “mafia-like” nexus of political, religious, and economic institutions), loosening their clutches of subjugation of the individual that helps them maintain the imbalanced and unhealthy conditions of economic deprivation.

Another hurdle facing libraries in response to the external rural environment is to get the public to question, resist, and change the status quo in a population that sometimes might not see the value of change, manipulated as they are by the forces of power and control. Looking within the institution, the internal challenges rural libraries need to address a critical and reflective self-evaluation and revamping of what they do and how they tell the story of what they do to.

Altering public perceptions in terms of what the rural library offers the community requires strategic efforts in rigorous and systematic marketing to reach, inform, and educate all stakeholders. For a majority of people in many rural (and other) parts of the country, do not consider the library as a place that can assist them in making life-changing decisions to change their harsh economic circumstances. The potential benefits of the rural library are many as a significant information provider since they have the resources, provide services, and offer trained professionals who can assist the public; how many people are aware of a difference that the rural library can make in their lives is highly debatable.

 We live our life through our narrow perceptions built on past experiences. The rural librarian can potentially bridge the gaps presented in the rural “mind challenge” by providing information that can bring opportunities that help overcome a lack of knowledge and financial wherewithal to give the individual the liberty to do something about their harsh circumstances. Moreover, the amount of intolerance, fear of difference, racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, etc. are all directly tied to a lack of “worldly knowledge” that information access and effective use might help mitigate.

However, irrespective of whether one believes that the library (including the public library, academic library, school library, and other memory institutions) can play an important role in the rural environment, the reality speaks for itself. The bottom line is that historically the library institution (even more so in the rural environment) has been a bastion representing white middle-class women in the stereotyped public perception. Also, evidence indicates that currently libraries (or librarians) have no or few seats at the table of authority and power in rural circles where major economic decisions are getting made, laws passed, and policies formulated that shape various aspects of rural public life.

NP: How would you describe the impact of local politics on rural libraries?

Mehra: The control of local politics on libraries has been significant in rural communities. This is often connected to the dictum and authoritative nature of religious power in maintaining the dependency on belief versus logic/rationality discourse to maintain the economic inequities. The rural library has to also address the ineffective bureaucratic system of governance that is currently represented in the passive and or micromanaging library boards and low prioritizing of the library (and education) by public officials, lack of library advocacy at local levels, etc. How the rural library can challenge these entrenched values and outdated practices is by becoming community anchors, reaching out and stepping out of their comfort zones and bastions of privilege into the external world of the rural communities as advocates of change, instead of the inward-looking insular approach they have adopted in the past.

One direction to pursue is to partner and collaborate with local officials and the movers and shakers in rural communities, to develop activities and mechanisms that directly change the status quo of the economic imbalances and cultural realities of control. Another is to educate and empower, taking on an advocacy role as change agents helping others at the individual, community, and societal levels who in turn can change their own circumstances. Questioning the nexus between corporations and politicians and the nexus between politics and religion, is another aspect of reality that rural librarians can shed light on, as well as help remove the ignorance and intolerance that is perceived to exist in rural communities. This will require the rural librarian to aggressively embrace the community activist/advocacy role, a position they have shied away from in the past relying on the limited passive bystander neutral voice rhetoric.

Finally, in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential Election, there is a great urgency for a revamped role of rural libraries (and rural librarians) to become change agents. In the light of the 2016 Presidential Election, an exacerbated and splintered nation offers rural libraries an opportunity and responsibility (maybe as never before) to help heal the fractures, if possible, in their local communities and move forward. They have an opportunity to play a forceful and strategic role in economic and civic recovery. This will mean stepping out of their comfort space to develop new forms of coalitions and partnerships with small businesses and multinational corporations, politicians and religious leaders, educators and community activists, and many others to find real solutions to economic and other cultural problems in a truthful and realistic manner.

In this regard the metaphor of the rebirth of a phoenix arising from the ashes of its predecessor seems apt for the rural library in its greater representation in political and economic circles to revitalize the economy and showcase the role of information (and the library) in economic development and growth.