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Thursday, August 4th, 2011

KNOXVILLE – From online classes to medical research, many residents of rural Appalachia depend upon their public libraries for Internet access.

That’s what got Bharat Mehra interested in training librarians to better help their patrons.

Mehra, who is an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee, received a $567,660 grant from the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program to offer an online master’s degree in Information Technology to rural librarians.

Residents of rural Appalachia have consistently lower levels of computer ownership, education and access to information than the rest of the nation, Mehra told the Knoxville News Sentinel, and the quickest way to get those resources to the people who need them is through local libraries.

Now librarians in East Tennessee and the surrounding area are learning skills like how to conduct research and create databases as well as how to market their libraries’ programs and write grant applications.

Christine Smith, the branch manager at C. Bascom Slemp Memorial Library in Big Stone Gap, Va., said older residents often come to the library to research legal and medical questions.

“It seems like we have a lot of people seeking medical information, and I’ve learned a lot about distinguishing and making sure I am giving information that is accurate,” she said. “I have more confidence in my skills and sharing my skills, and I’ve learned to be more vocal in seeking community partners.”

Soon, she said, a local lawyer will offer sessions at the library on estate planning and other legal questions.

Richard Haynes, director of the Harlan County Public Libraries system in eastern Kentucky, said Internet service in his area is very “splotchy” and people are very dependent on the library for broadband access.

“People come in here just for email, but we have a lot of businessmen moving through the area and (they) need reliable broadband, and students taking (online) classes,” he said. “That is something – bridging that digital divide with our Internet – that we can provide.”

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