“The Role of Rural Public Libraries in Small Business Economic Development in the Appalachian Region: A Case Study of Tennessee” (PLSB-TN) at the University of Tennessee’s School of Information Sciences is a one-year planning grant that has recently received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ National Leadership Grants for Libraries – FY 2014 Guidelines (Research category). The project goal is to research the role rural public libraries play in the economic development and economic growth of local businesses by focusing on the state of Tennessee. PLSB-TN involves collecting quantitative and qualitative feedback based on the needs, expectations, and experiences of small businesses and rural public libraries in the state. Research experiences in Tennessee during this planning grant involve preliminary planning activities, analyzing existing needs and feasibility, solidifying community partnerships, and developing initial work plans, blueprint, and strategic action plan prototype of a Public Library Small Business Toolkit that strengthens collaborations between various stakeholders involved. It serves as a pilot experience to expand using similar strategies for the entire Appalachian region and other rural environments based on availability of additional funding in the future.

The Appalachian region has traditionally faced challenging economic, social, and cultural conditions that have adversely affected the population living in these areas. Rural residents in the Appalachian region additionally face limited financial opportunities, extreme information poverty and unemployment, low information literacy levels and educational attainment, a lack of access to information technology resources, and other unique debilitating environmental circumstances. Rural public libraries have a strong potential role to play in the economic development and sustainable economic viability of the Appalachian region.

The overall project includes the following phases over the one-year period: Phase 1: Collecting quantitative and qualitative data about the roles of rural public libraries in Tennessee from the small business community and librarian staff stakeholder groups; Phase 2: Developing a blueprint of a Public Library Small Business Toolkit and a strategic action plan for its operationalization and implementation based on feedback of key partners. This will serve as a pilot case experience and assessment test-bed for implementation at a national level in all rural communities. The intended project audience is small businesses, rural library staff and managers/directors, library and information science (LIS) educators and students, rural economic council and chambers of commerce members, and small business entrepreneurs.

The benefits of this research planning grant help translate collected data from small businesses and rural librarians towards development of a blueprint and strategic action plan of the Public Library Small Business Toolkit. It will consist of valuable information, strategies, and best practices that provide a strategic mechanism towards economic development and economic growth by strengthening ties between small businesses and public libraries in ways that could benefit all 5,648 rural public libraries and their communities.

UT SIS’ Dr. Bharat Mehra will administer the project with Dr. Bradley Wade Bishop. Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), PLSB-TN is a partnership between the University of Tennessee’s School of Information SciencesBlount County Public LibraryClinch River Regional LibraryHolston River Regional Library, and the Sevier County Public Library System. Agency representatives will form a PLSB-TN Advisory Board to assist in developing data collection protocols, distributing the surveys to small businesses and public libraries in their regions, and identifying interview participants. They will also provide feedback from small businesses via their community affiliations and librarian groups to develop drafts of the blueprint of the Public Library Small Business Toolkit into a strategic action plan. These partners have been selected for their existing experiences with small businesses in their respective regions.

Expected outcomes of the PLSB-TN include: (1) Providing generalizable data on how rural public library practice empowers communities; (2) Developing a blueprint and preliminary strategic action plan based on datasets systematically collected from the small business and rural library communities towards economic development and economic growth; (3) Laying the foundation for advancing study of the expanding role of public libraries in economic development.

PLSB-TN began October 1, 2014, and will be completed by September 30, 2015. For more information about the program, please contact Dr. Bharat Mehra at bmehra@utk.edu

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