Monday, January 14, 2008

Distance, and the promise of the digital era for rural Americans

A couple of stories in today's Sacramento Bee, coincidentally side-by-side in the Metro section, reminded me of the obstacle of physical distance in the lives of rural residents. One of them is also a reminder of the continuing promise of technology for bridging some of those distances.

One of the stories was the obituary of Jerry Marr, a long-time UC Davis professor who grew up on the Osage Indian reservation in rural Oklahoma. His obit tells of the mobile lending library sponsored by the Works Progress Administration that stopped every other week at the farm where he lived as a child. Marr called the lending library his "introduction to the world of ideas." We are implicitly invited to imagine what Marr might have made of his life had it not been for that bookmobile and the opportunities it represented and created for him.

The other story is also about the significance of libraries and features one right here in Northern California. It tells of the Kim Yerton branch of the Humboldt County Library on the Hoopa Indian Reservation, which is receiving a 2007 National Medal for Museum and Library Services. Situated "60 miles from the nearest stoplight," the branch library serves a community with a 30 percent poverty rate and 27 percent unemployment. Yet in the month of December alone, 11,000 people used the library's services, "not just to check out books, but to sit and do homework, read newspapers, apply to college, do their taxes, or apply for unemployment insurance, medical or financial assistance though federal agencies." For those of us now so accustomed to high-speed internet in our offices and homes, this story is a important reminder that for some, such ready access to online information and services is a luxury.

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