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INFORMATION HAS BECOME A CRITICAL part of successful economic development for individuals, businesses, and communities. Lack of access to information was at least partially responsible for rural America's inability to keep up with urban increases in population, high-wage occupations, income, and education levels during the 1980s. Among rural areas, growth in farming-dependent counties and persistent poverty counties was hindered by their remoteness from major metro areas. At the other end of the spectrum, rural high-amenity and retirement-destination counties had the advantage of attractive amenities, and rural counties adjacent to large metro areas benefited from their ties to the major centers of information. Nearly all rural counties contain public libraries, some of which are already telecommunications linked. With funding for infrastructure and human capital improvements, more rural libraries could serve as links in improving rural access to the information highway and the knowledge transported on that highway.
Access to information and its effective use as knowledge are critical elements of successfully living in today's world. Moreover, this fact is increasingly recognized as equally true for people, businesses, and communities. The much touted Information Age is very real. In an article in the Atlantic Monthly, Peter Drucker ( 1994) writes about the world transformation into a knowledge society: "Increasingly, an educated person will be somebody who has learned how to learn, and who continues learning, especially by formal education, throughout his or her lifetime [and] ...how well an individual, an organization, an industry, a country, does in acquiring and applying knowledge will become the key competitive factor" (pp. 66-67).
Information is just as critical a resource for people, businesses, and communities in rural areas as it is for those in urban areas. In the past, being removed from the daily hustle and bustle of urban society was not particularly important in the economic and social life in rural America. Now, instant access to information on financial markets, new technological innovations, developments in medical research, and changing conditions in global markets are critical to the economic viability of rural businesses and communities. But the characteristics of being rural--especially small population bases and relative remoteness from large metro areas which are the centers of information flows--make it hard for rural communities, residents, governments, and businesses to access information and to translate that information into useful knowledge. This intersection of the importance of information with rural areas, difficulty in effectively accessing it is a central challenge for rural areas in the Information Age.
How well rural areas are able to respond to this information challenge will play a major role in determining the future well-being of rural people and their communities. Access to, and use of, information will not guarantee a prosperous future, but its absence will almost certainly sentence rural areas to an even more secondary role in the life of the nation than they have today.
Rural libraries, in facilitating access to, and use of, information, can and are playing a critical role in responding to the challenges of the Information Age. Several articles in this issue and last year's Library Trends article by Senkevitch and Wolfram (1994) provide a wealth of information on current telecommunications efforts by rural libraries and suggestions for establishing more rural libraries as integral players in the dissemination of knowledge about, and information from, network sources.
Given the diversity found across rural America, rural libraries, participation almost certainly does and will vary from place to place. Even similar places will have to tailor their responses to unique local circumstances. An understanding of broader national trends in the evolution of rural America and its economy will help inform the many decisions that will need to be made by libraries, local governments, and other …