Bringing hi-tech teaching to rural areas - a new role for libraries

While satellite transmissions slice the big western sky and cable networks loop across the country, young Jason Hardman suggests he'd be content with just a good book.

This 12-year-old's desire for information, which led him to found and run the library in the rural outpost of Elsinore, Utah (population 600), characterizes the educational, informational, and technological isolation of rural areas.

With nearly one-half of all Americans scattered in rural areas and largely bypassed by the communications revolution taking root in urban areas, Jason's grass-root effort, which he described to Congress this week, underscored rural communities' growing information needs.

The potential role of libraries as a technological and communications hub in rural areas was the focus of a joint congressional hearing as a part of the World Future Society's convention on the future of communication.

The seventh-grader's appetite for reading material - especially Alfred Hitchcock mysteries - outpaced what his school and the nearest library could offer.

''I was only allowed to take out three books a week and I could read them in three days,'' said Jason, who biked six miles to the Monroe library. ''Carrying three books on a 10-speed (bicycle) is not easy,'' he added.

After some heavy lobbying (''I called the mayor every night,'' he said), Jason was permitted to take over the basement of the town hall, with the agreement that the city would not have to pay a penny for the enterprise. Within months, Jason's door-to-door solicitation had built his collection to 4,000 volumes that are now pursued by 15 people a week (Jason operates the library for two hours, two days a week).

Jason's situation is compounded on a larger scale, explained other witnesses who seek a national commitment to support rural libraries as more than just recreational reading outlets, but as centers for information and learning.

Wyoming, for example, has less than a half-million residents spread over 98, 000 square miles served by only one four-year university - the University of Wyoming. The university is a pinpoint in the southeastern corner of the state in Laramie, more than 100 miles away from most of the state's junior colleges. On the other hand, the state has a 23-member county library system with 62 branches across the state.

It is clear from these statistics, said Betsy R. Peters, of the University of Wyoming's School of Extended Studies and Public Service, that libraries are the ''human link'' in the communications wilderness.

A exhibit at the World Future Society conference sponsored by Peters' colleagues on the Intermountain Rural Community Learning and Information Services Project illustrated how libraries can offer telecommunications technologies to help put students, governments, and businesses in the ''urban metropolis'' on an even footing with their counterparts in urban centers.

For example, an ''electronic blackboard'' could be set up in local libraries so that a single instructor in one town can teach a class to students across the state.

''You might have a class and only two students sign up in one town, and one in another town - in other words not enough to warrant a full class in each town ,'' explained Ms. Peters. But, she added, any number of students can enroll in classes that use video tapes or the electronic black board, which is wired to remote video screens and shows everything written on the board.

Libraries can supplement their resources by using computers to plug into those at libraries or businesses elsewhere that have computerized journals, books and magazines. Other computerized information could help isolated farmers and businessmen call up information from universities, government agencies and other services on subjects as diverse as the weather, pesticides, and the stock market.

Peters said it would take $15,000 to outfit a library with the telecommunications and computer equipment needed to link one rural area with another or with with urban information centers. The concept, however, would require charging a ''small'' user fee, she added.

But she also noted that many small libraries haven't added to their inventories since the 1950s, and their shelves simply need to be restocked.

Aside from the initial hesitancy to use new technologies, there are indications that rural communities could benefit from a program like the one promoted by the Intermountain Rural Community Learning and Information Services Project. A survey by the group of one rural region showed that more than 60 percent of the population had sought some form of information during a one-year period and that more than half of them had to send for it (via mail or long distance telephone calls).

And, testified a North Dakota State University official, ''the idea of a North Dakota farmer being able to run a computer in Lincoln, Neb., from the county agent's office in Killdeer, N.D., was unthinkable a decade ago. And now they do it every day.''

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