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The future of libraries in rural areas of the United States is tied to the future of the communities which they serve. As the telecommunications landscape continues to shift, these communities have opportunities to decrease their isolation, increase their connectedness, and affect the overall health of small towns and even whole regions through the innovative use of new technologies and new regulatory structures. By understanding the options, the changes in technologies, and the funding sources to help start and sustain some of these projects, those librarians who help serve rural communities will also strengthen their own position in the community and in the profession.
Because it is more expensive to build infrastructure in rural areas than in towns, rural libraries have usually lagged behind urban and suburban libraries in their ability to adopt computer and networking technologies. This was true for something even more basic: electricity.
Most librarians assume that electricity is a given, something not to worry about (except the bills), but this basic technology reached some rural areas of the United States less that forty years ago, many decades after the urban areas were using it. Nye (1990), the Danish historian who wrote about the social effects of the spread of electricity in the United States, observed that America treated electricity as a commodity in the marketplace, whereas in Europe it was treated as a service that was frequently subsidized and supported through government intervention. In the United States, the municipal power companies stayed isolated and were unable to grow in the same way that the private companies did-across counties and state lines. While this did make the United States a leader in world electrical production (we bragged about consuming over half of the world's electricity), Nye notes that power was concentrated in the hands of a few powerful firms and individuals, there was little rural service, and rates favored big customers.
While much of Europe and New Zealand had near universal electrical service, the map of the United States in 1935 shows many states with less than 5 percent coverage for rural electrical subscribers, and any figure above 45 percent was at the top of the scale. There were pockets of innovation around the country, usually in the form of cooperatives to provide electricity where the big companies would not go (see Figure 1).
Although people were leaving the farm in large numbers, there was still a strong ideal of the independent home farm, and the depression of the 1930s led the federal government to try to lessen the growing gap in electrical service on the farm and in the city. Farmers had been exposed to the wonders of electric lights, water pumps, milking machines, irons, and even butter churns for decades of county and state fairs. The labor-saving aspects were well known to the men and women in rural areas, but it still took years and government programs to bring electricity to rural areas.
In 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created and, in 1935, the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was established. The TVA was the more controversial of the two, and we are not likely to see any parallel effort to establish telecommunications projects in an area of the United States in the 1990s. The REA's goal to bring electricity to farms also boosted local economies by creating jobs and stimulating sales of electrical appliances. However, the power companies responded by dragging their feet and installing "snake" or "spite" lines in their service areas. These were electrical lines targeted at small pockets of customers that bypassed more isolated ones, and this tactic tended to inhibit the formation of cooperatives. By 1941, 12,000 schools received electricity. By 1946, about 50 percent of the farms had been wired.
At the local level, enthusiastic novices had a great impact. Clark Woody, a schoolteacher turned farmer, could not afford the fee to hook up his property, so he hopped in a car with some friends, drove from Indiana to Washington, met with REA officials, returned home, organized a cooperative, and got one of the first REA loans. In 1936, the Lebanon Reporter put out a thirty-two page supplement that contained all the basic information farmers needed to make decisions about electricity. This "electricity FAQ" was so popular with readers, that the copies printed were more than twice the average circulation of the paper.
The REA involved politicians in project ceremonies, and even Franklin Roosevelt dedicated a cooperative in Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1938. The saying that "all politics are local" was borne out because Roosevelt was shocked to see the high electrical rates when he first came to Warm Springs in the 1920s. He wrote: "That started my long study of proper public-utility charges for electrical current and the whole subject of getting electricity into farm homes" (Nye, 1990, p. 324).
The history of the rural development of electricity is important because it parallels much of what is happening with the spread (or lack thereof) of telecommunications in urban and rural areas in our own time. There are some important differences, too. The futurists and utility companies tended to exaggerate the benefits of electricity more than has been done with telecommunications and the Internet in this decade, aside from some writers such as George Gilder. Thomas Edison thought electricity would eliminate sleep, and magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science extrapolated from reports about …