COOKEVILLE — Thanks to a joint effort between the Office of the Secretary of State, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, computer technology resources and training will soon be coming to as many as 76 libraries in 61 rural Tennessee counties.
The initiative is the culmination of more than a year’s effort by ECD and the Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) division of the Office of the Secretary of State. ECD and TSLA recently attracted the attention and support of USDA Rural Development, resulting in the formation of a critical state-federal initiative that will have a significant impact on citizens in rural Tennessee.
The initiative will increase the capacity of rural libraries to provide workforce training and increase educational opportunities for the communities they serve. This will be accomplished by providing libraries with funds to set up computer training centers and hire instructors to teach basic computing skills for job-seekers. Economically disadvantaged rural counties with little or no access to high-speed Internet are being targeted. The announcement was made today by ECD Commissioner Matt Kisber, Secretary of State Tre Hargett and USDA Rural Development State Director Bobby Goode during the opening session of the Fifteenth Annual Rural Development Conference hosted by Tennessee Technological University.
"This partnership is one of the many ways ECD and the Office of the Secretary of State are working with USDA Rural Development to strengthen our rural communities," said Kisber. “Solid community development is the foundation for economic growth and is at the center of our economic development strategy.”
Approximately 76 rural public libraries across the state will be eligible to apply for a grant through their respective county to create or upgrade broadband-enabled computer labs, which will range from an estimated $13,000 to almost $20,000 depending on the local need and availability of existing resources. Funding will pay for seven to 12 new computers, all necessary peripheral equipment, a high-speed Internet router for each participating library and instructors to conduct training classes for the community.
“In committing USDA’s support,” Goode said, "the disproportionate economic hardship rural Tennesseans continue to endure as a result of the recession is no secret. Unfortunately, these same people are less likely to have access to the training and other resources available with high speed Internet at home.
"Public libraries are a natural place to bridge this gap," Goode said. "More adult workers turn to them every day; to search and apply for jobs online, access training to expand their skills, apply for assistance and seek answers to health, legal and other issues aggravated by unemployment."
Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who was represented at the announcement by State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill, sent a prepared statement in support of the joint effort, “Public libraries have always been important institutions in rural communities, but as the Internet opens the world and expands the marketplace, they have become an even more important resource. In Tennessee, 80 percent of rural public libraries now provide the only free, public access to the Internet in communities with some of the lowest rates of Internet access. This program seeks to address this disparity and I am delighted to be in partnership with ECD and USDA to help rural Tennesseans through our libraries.”
Funding for the initiative includes $1,030,000 from ECD, $350,000 from USDA and $70,000 from the Office of the Secretary of State. Additionally, Secretary Hargett has directed the TSLA to provide the management support necessary to implement the program with existing staff and other resources through TSLA’s extensive network of relationships the division maintains with the rural libraries in the state.