Following its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Georgian public library system underwent a series of massive changes. The system formerly operated based on the centrally-governed Soviet model, wherein Moscow pre-approved library collections and provided resources. When this model was disrupted, Georgian public libraries often became neglected and underfunded. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the number of public libraries in Georgia shrank from 2,200 to around 1,000. Even after a recent ‘mini-revival’ the current state of public libraries in Georgia varies widely from place to place. As one would expect, libraries situated in larger urban centers tend to be better off than libraries in rural villages or smaller municipalities.
This developmental trend is not uncommon in Georgia, nor is it uncommon in other developing countries. Urban centers tend to receive the bulk of resources during the onset of development programs, while rural areas are left behind. As urban centers grow wealthier as a result of these resources, development in rural areas is often stagnant at best. If unchecked, this divide can lead to a vicious cycle. Wealth concentrates in urban areas, attracting talented workers and students and their families, and creating more incentives to invest in urban areas, thus leaving the rural areas further behind.
Challenges and opportunities in rural Georgia
Khidistavi and Nukriani, two areas where the Beyond Access-supported GPSLib project will take place, are representative of the challenges that people living in rural Georgia face on a daily basis. For the few that have access to cars, the municipal center is an hour’s drive one way. The rest must either depend upon a sporadic public transportation system or travel by foot. The journey, including time spent at the government facility, often takes an entire day — a day of lost work and lost wages. If these services are only accessible in Tbilisi, the trip can take even longer. In such instances, accessing public services requires a significant investment of both time and money that many rural Georgians simply cannot afford to make.
In order to make these services more accessible, rural communities in Georgia need community gathering spaces where citizens can access e-government services via public internet connections. However, the benefits of such community gathering spaces are not limited to service provisions. These community hubs can also allow both young people and adults to access the internet, learn new skills, or find opportunities for professional advancement. Moreover, these gathering spaces can strengthen communities by allowing citizens a place to socialize and to share their skills.
Recognizing this need, the government of Georgia has begun to fund the creation of such community spaces through the Public Services Development Agency-run Justice Halls. With 16 such centers throughout Georgia, Georgia’s community centers are on their way to realizing their full potential. However, their overall scope still remains limited.
Where to now?
How can we connect people in rural Georgia with services and facilities that will help bring opportunities to their communities and improve their livelihood? That’s where those public libraries come into play. With the help of enthusiastic librarians and energetic community leaders in Nukriani and Khidistavi, rural Georgian libraries are in a great position to fill this role.
Many of these libraries will need to be modernized. However, this gives these libraries the opportunity to remodel themselves for better public access and to reinvent themselves as cutting-edge public institutions. They will benefit from their status within the community as a public library, but the new look of the library will allow them to present a new face — one that will revitalize rural communities in Georgia.