Want healthier rural communities? Start by virtually visiting your public library for answers. The Pew Research Center reported 38 percent of people using libraries did so to search for health information.
And a good source to guide you into the right digital direction for examining health issues of the rural South is Dr. Shaundra Walker. She’s interim library director at Georgia College & State University’s Russell Library in Milledgeville. Walker works with campus and community members to make pertinent information accessible in order to find solutions to today’s community challenges.
And with COVID-19 ripping through the nation and devastating areas of rural America, her work at the liberal arts institution is timely. “Since COVID-19, I’ve had to kick into overdrive a bit,” said Walker. The library expert and her team have spent a lot of time working with vendors to make additional resources available to students, faculty and the local community.
“We’ve worked to gain access to a video library of lab experiments to support faculty in biology, environmental science and chemistry,” she said. “We’ve also expanded the remote assistance we provide to students, faculty and community members, making ourselves available for research consultations and meetings via WebEx.”
Walker champions open access to information. To her, public information — not paywalls — has power. And in order to understand the disparities faced by rural communities, it helps to look at issues such as inadequate education, health care and technological advancements for small towns through a historical lens.
Public libraries provide an opportunity to do that. Like most Southern residents, Walker was shocked and grieved to learn from The New York Times of the devastating impact COVID-19 had in Albany, Georgia.
The “flu on steroids” rampaged the rural city, which now totals 1,556 positive cases and up to 127 deaths to date. Outside New York City, Albany had the most COVID-19 deaths per capita. It lacks the health care infrastructure to keep up with the spread of the disease.
“Like many, I know the issues of Albany are complex and multifaceted,” said Walker. “They’re the same educational and economical inequalities famed sociologist and historian W.E.B. DuBois talked about in his 1903 book ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ when he visited Albany. I was able to take that present-day article of what’s happening in Dougherty County and put it into context through DuBois’ work.”
Walker’s research often speaks to the digital divide that exists in rural areas. She incessantly seeks to close this gap through open-access initiatives. A digital project she’s collaborating on summer 2020 is with Georgia College’s brand-new Rural Studies Institute (RSI), a national leader on rural issues. Through online platform Digital Commons Network (DCN), Walker will help RSI house symposiums, publications and white papers that address modern-day obstacles of rural communities.
DCN is an open-access database providing freely, discoverable scholarship for consumers, researchers and policymakers around the globe. In addition to DCN and since Georgia College is a selective government documents repository, Russell Library boards government information in print and online formats. It features more than 300 library databases, spanning subjects from health care and business to sociology and education.
Russell Library also offers the Digital Library of Georgia and Vanishing Georgia Collection through online portal GALILEO. “Both Digital Library of Georgia and Vanishing Georgia Collection are assets that document the Black Belt Region and Southern experiences,” said Walker.
Contrary to public perceptions of traditional libraries, many of Russell’s resources and services have already been accessible remotely. Offering more than just bricks, mortar and books. Despite easy access to the Internet and social media to find life’s answers to any and everything, Walker doesn’t see libraries withering into extinction any time soon.
“There will always be a need for the services the library provides,” she said. “Those services are critical, especially for those who find themselves on the margins of society.” Libraries are essential to the functioning of a democratic society, too. Walker believes people need free and unfettered access to information to participate in our democracy and make informed decisions about everyday issues such as elections and health care.
“When access to quality information is restricted to a few or only those who can afford it,” she said, “our society is headed for trouble.” To piggyback on this point, Walker is now working on a course called “Information Has Power,” to dig deeper into these issues. One of Russell Library’s goal is to help students think of themselves of not only being information consumers but producers, using their information products to solve real-world problems.
Walker invests in rural history and information because of her strong Southern roots. The Macon native’s grandparents resided in Hancock, Twiggs and Jones counties — parts of America’s Black Belt Region known for its high population of African-Americans and low-ranking resources to cultivate Black wealth. “My great-grandmother raised me,” Walker said. “She was a native of Hancock County. She spoke about Sparta as a magical place full of community pride.”
Walker thinks the only reason her family relocated to Macon was because of the decline of farming in the area. Before the move, Walker mentally downloaded a lot of her family’s oral history from her great-grandmother. Her appreciation for rural living from a historical slant only strengthened with age.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in history with a concentration in United States and African-American history at Spelman College in Atlanta and a master’s degree in library and information studies at Clark Atlanta University. Walker concluded her educational journey back at home, earning a doctorate of philosophy in educational leadership with a concentration in higher education administration at Mercer University.
Before her current post, Walker worked at Fort Valley State University, an 1890 land-grant institution. She served as head of information services at the H.A. Hunt Memorial Library. “That experience gave me an invaluable education in understanding rural community issues and the power of educational institutions to address those issues,” she said.
She also chairs the marketing and public relations committee of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. According to the association, there are currently an estimated 116,867 libraries in the nation. Of those, 3,094 academic, 98,460 school, 5,150 special, 239 Armed Forces, 867 government and 9,057 are public.
Working ahead, Russell Library is publicly positioning itself to stay in the forefront of technology. Right now, the library is home to more than 720,000 electronic books (nearly twice as many the library holds in print format) and institutional repository Knowledge Box. Knowledge Box includes digital articles, presentations, theses, dissertations and posters accessed more than 43,000 times.
“We’re in the process of acquiring virtual reality equipment,” said Walker. “We envision working with different majors to simulate real-world experiences. It’s another way for our campus and local community to explore, connect and create something new.”