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“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 and Dr. Vandana Singh, is a one-year planning proposal (Continuing Education Project Type) that meets the requirements specified in the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ 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, 2019.

Project personnel is partnering 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, the team is developing a Community Engagement Framework & Strategic Action Plan in collaboration with an advisory board of library professionals who are providing feedback in project planning, design, and implementation.

CA2CA​@SCA-RL serves as a pilot experience and assessment test-bed to expand using similar strategies for rural environments nationwide based on an 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 assesses and analyzes 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 is helping 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 is examining 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.