“Assessment of Rural Library Professionals’ Role in Community Engagement in the Southern and Central Appalachian Region: Mobilization from Change Agents to Community Anchors" (CA2CA​@SCA-RL) at the University of Tennessee’s (UT) School of Information Sciences (SIS), led by Dr. Bharat Mehra, PI, Dr. Vandana Singh, co-PI, and Scott Sikes, Graduate Research Assistant, is a one-year planning proposal (Continuing Education Project Type) that meets the requirements specified in the IMLS’ Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian– FY 2017 Guidelines (Community Anchors Project Category). The project began on July 1, 2017 and will end on June 30, 2018.

Project personnel will partner with state, county, university, and other types of libraries in the Southern and Central Appalachian (SCA) region to research community engagement efforts and create a strategic action plan for rural libraries to further community-centered activities and processes. Based on quantitative and qualitative feedback collected from rural library staff about their perspectives and experiences in community engagement processes, project personnel will develop a Community Engagement Framework & Strategic Action Plan in collaboration with an advisory board of library professionals who will provide feedback in project planning, design, and implementation. Participating partners represented in the advisory board (amongst others) include: 1) Blount County Public Library, Maryville, Tennessee; 2) Clinch River Regional Library, Clinton, Tennessee; 3) Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia; 4) Sevier County Public Library System, Sevierville, Tennessee; and 5) Wiggins Memorial Library, Buies Creek, North Carolina.

CA2CA​@SCA-RL will serve as a pilot experience and assessment test-bed to expand using similar strategies for rural environments nationwide based on availability of additional funding in the future. The SCA region is an ideal location to conduct this preliminary research on community engagement needs because the Appalachian region as a whole has traditionally faced challenging economic, social, and cultural conditions that have adversely affected the population living in these areas. Very little research has focused on how the library can play a central role in community engagement and building sustainable economic viability of communities in this region.

Proposal activities build on insights developed during previous IMLS grants to UT-SIS that involved 1) training rural library paraprofessionals in the SCA region to become change agents while completing an online master’s degree with a specially-tailored curriculum focusing on information technology and rural management and 2) exploring the role played by rural public libraries in small business economic development and revitalization in Tennessee. This grant will assess and analyze in a bigger conceptual and geographical context SCA rural libraries’ community engagement in various spheres of activities (e.g., agriculture support, diversity, education, environment, health, law and justice, manufacturing, information technology, youth and other groups), including the economy.

This planning grant will help the research team continue to support rural Appalachian librarians and others as they extend their roles to make a difference in the economic, social, and cultural fabric of the region in various community-centered domains. By focusing on the case environment of the SCA region, the research team will examine how to develop valuable resources and share best practices for a systematic and strategic approach to reach out to communities and mobilize rural librarians as community anchors.

The overall project includes the following phases: Phase 1: Collect quantitative and qualitative feedback from rural librarians in the SCA region about their perspectives and experiences in community engagement and what past/current role rural libraries have played in these community-centered processes; and Phase 2: Develop a Community Engagement Framework & Strategic Action Plan for rural libraries in its conceptualization/operationalization based on results of the research above and feedback collected during a CA2CA​@SCA-RL summit with at least 20 rural librarians/key SCA partners.