Public access computing grows, but libraries need more funding to serve as the first refuge and last resort for e-government support, public computing, and Internet access
Public access to the Internet and computers is transforming public libraries into de facto e-government access points, for such disparate services as disaster relief, Medicare drug plans, and even benefits for children and families. This new role for public libraries is not just user-initiated. Government agencies now refer people to public libraries to receive both access to and assistance with online services.
The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), for example, sends the users of its services to public libraries for access to technology and help in completing its benefits applications, which are only available online. While most DCF offices do not offer public access computers and Internet services, the typical DCF benefits recipient has neither a computer nor Internet access.
One Florida librarian reported, “Government agencies are requiring that clients use the Internet to apply for benefits, set appointments, or file complaints online. [Clients] are all told to go to the library if they do not have Internet access at home. The library is the safety net so that people do not get left behind in this information age.”
Libraries under pressure
Yet public libraries are increasingly challenged, even as they have stepped up to meet the increasing demand for Internet access and services, as our 2006 biennial Public Libraries and the Internet study shows (www.ii.fsu/edu/plinternet). In the decade between 1994 and 2004, Internet connectivity in U.S. public libraries jumped from 20.9 percent to 99.6 percent, and nearly all offer public access. In 1998, only 3.4 percent of public libraries had ten or more public Internet workstations; now the national average is 10.7 workstations.
In 1998, nearly two-thirds of public libraries offered dial-up or direct connections of 56 Kbps (kilobits per second) or slower; now, only 2.1 percent of libraries have such slow connectivity. In fact, nearly two-thirds now offer some variant of broadband access, greater than 769 Kbps. Even at this increased speed, however, public libraries are not necessarily offering adequate access to bandwidth-intensive services and resources (e.g., streaming media), given multiple workstations in constant use by the public and staff. Nearly half of respondents said their connection speeds are inadequate to meet user demand.
The increased role for public libraries—often the only place for public Internet access with trained staff—has not been accompanied by additional funding. So, as libraries become valuable community access points to e-government services and resources, especially in post-hurricane emergency relief, their efforts as agents of e-government represent an unfunded mandate. The library community must respond with better training and education. However, government agencies that both fund libraries and rely on them for their public access computing and Internet access also must provide greater support.
Access and beyond
Libraries provide crucial access to those who lack home or work access to the Internet, owing to economic, social, geographic, educational, or other constraints. In our 2006 study, 71.7 percent of respondents identified public access as the single most important impact of the library's Internet provision.
Beyond that, libraries come through for those who generally are not identified as being on the wrong side of the digital divide. Many people who do have home Internet access still go to the library for one-on-one services, training, and support for using government web sites. “The library deals all day long with 'How do I do….?' questions,” reported one survey respondent.
“They have access elsewhere but can't figure out how to use the systems,” another librarian reported. “They come to us for help because they trust us. We even get comments and requests to 'fix the systems' to make them easier to use.”
Online forms multiply
Earlier this year, many people relied on the public library to sign up for the mandatory federal Medicare prescription drug coverage plans. Though enrollment and program information were available offline, seniors were encouraged to seek information and register online.
Many seniors relied on Internet access in public libraries to research the drug plans and sign up for them. Staffers in libraries, particularly those in areas with higher concentrations of seniors, became well versed in the plans and helping seniors understand them.
Processes can be intimidating. Users accessing Florida's DCF application form are told, “Your computer must be using the Internet Explorer browser 5.5 service pack 1 or above…,” the Firefox Browser won't work with this application, and popup blockers must be disabled. A toll-free number is available for assistance, but there is no live assistance at the point-of-application provided by DCF, which is why many users seek help in public libraries.
Patrons also use the library to access online tax forms, as well as to get individual help to research tax information and complete such forms. “Our connection also allows us a lifeline to government documents—we wouldn't be able to provide tax forms this year without it,” one librarian ­reported.
Public Internet access is key to the provision of immigration information as well. A respondent from Nebraska reported that immigrants from “Central/South America, Somalia, and the Sudan” used library workstations and the Internet to communicate with and complete forms for the “government agencies that might be handling their immigration processing.”
In some Western states, public library Internet access has become essential to farmers looking to establish or protect water rights. As a librarian from Oregon explained, the Internet access “helps local farmers who need to establish electronic registration with the federal government for water rights payments.”
Several sizable hurricanes, most notably Katrina, hit the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico during 2004 and 2005. Public libraries that were not destroyed or severely damaged served as critical access points for hurricane response and recovery in many locations.
Libraries in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Florida reported that post-hurricane Internet access was vital for the following reasons:
- Finding and communicating with dispersed and displaced family members and friends
- Completing FEMA forms, which are online only, and insurance claims
- Searching for news about conditions in the area from which they had evacuated
- Trying to find information about the condition of their homes or places of work, including checking news sites and satellite maps
- Helping emergency service providers find information and connect to the Internet.
Florida suffered eight hurricanes and two tropical storms in a period of 13 months, and hurricane victims often sought connectivity at libraries. After the past two hurricane seasons, the State Library of Florida asked library systems to describe their roles. The responses, which the state library shared with the authors, showed that libraries supported critical communications operations; assisted in the staffing and support of community emergency, rebuilding, and relief services; provided expanded Internet access to emergency service providers and their communities; provided physical shelter; and maintained traditional library services.
The increased reliance on public libraries for access to e-government services places new pressure on the public library's technology and personnel infrastructures. While some libraries try to augment the numbers of public computers and bandwidth, even by offering wireless access, they simply cannot keep up with demand. To control their own costs, federal and state agencies are shifting the burden of e-government to public libraries, with little regard for the impact on these front-line service providers.
Funding for public access computing and Internet access in public libraries comes mainly from local government (roughly 90 percent). A significant boost has come from foundations, namely the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave nearly 50,000 computers and accompanying training, valued at more than $250 million, to 10,000 public libraries and has since provided an additional $51 million to public libraries and state library agencies to support upgrades, connectivity, technical support, and training. State funding varies but is generally small. The federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) provides only one percent of overall public library operating budgets. It is difficult to gauge the technology budget impact of the E-rate discounts for Internet connectivity, telecommunications costs, and internal wiring on public libraries' technology budgets, but it remains small. (Note that while the E-rate is a federally mandated program, it is actually funded by telecommunications carriers.)
These disparate funding sources are insufficient in both amount and coordination to support public libraries, which now serve as first refuge, first choice, and last resort for e-government support, public computing, and Internet access points. While it may be convenient for local, state, and federal government agencies to take advantage of the public library's investment in technology and expertise, the library's infrastructure is not built to meet the increased demand of e-government services. Public libraries have largely built their public access computing and Internet access without explicit acknowledgement or anticipation of this emerging e-government responsibility.
Changes in education needed
If public libraries remain a staple conduit to e-government, knowledge of government information, and government services, future librarians must be educated (and current librarians trained) to understand e-government web sites and services better. Librarians responding to the study said they become ad hoc experts on various e-government programs and materials—FEMA forms, student loan forms, tax documents, Medicare applications, immigration forms—simply by working with many patrons on the materials.
Some librarians, however, said it was a strain to familiarize themselves with these items and that they wanted a better understanding of e-government. Thus, educators in library and information science (LIS) programs must shift the ­curriculum.
Toward new information policy
Federal information policy establishes conflicting expectations for public libraries regarding support of e-government. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 provides for E-rate discounts, and the LSTA provides funds for disbursement by state agencies. While the E-government Act of 2002 mentions public libraries as a participant in the larger context of federal e-government services and resources, it offers no funding or specific roles.
Based on our study, we suggest a range of changes to policy, practice, and librarian education:
- Recognize public libraries as outlets for e-government services in legislation, policy initiatives, and program literature
- Provide training for state library and public library staff regarding e-government service provision in a public library context
- Provide direct support from federal, state, and local agencies (e.g., FEMA and the state equivalent) to public libraries for the services that libraries offer on behalf of the agencies
- Educate government officials regarding the roles public libraries play in relation to e-government, the effect of agency referrals to public libraries, and the need to support the public library
- Coordinate and update federal, state, and local information policies to support better the role of public libraries as agents of e-government
- Expand the responsibilities and funding of state library agencies to assist and support public libraries in their e-government role
- Develop, through a collaborative process that includes key library professional associations, public librarians, policymakers, and LIS researchers, a set of “best practices” and practical guides that provide public libraries with insight into how to serve as providers of e-government services, issues associated with serving as e-government providers, and ways in which libraries can develop e-government services and resources.
The provision of public access computing, Internet access, and one-on-one assistance makes public libraries one of the very few community-based public access points to support e-government. If the government—especially the federal government—wants people to participate in e-government, it will be essential to provide new support for libraries and foster an understanding of the critical contributions libraries can and do make in an e-government context.
A good start would be an amendment of the E-government Act of 2002 enumerating how public libraries fit into the fabric of federal e-government and the introduction/revision of state and local directives on e-government.
Internet and Public Access Computing
|20.7%||have enough workstations|
|16.6%||plan to add workstations|
|72.8%||plan to replace workstations|
|John Carlo Bertot is Professor and Associate Director of the Information Institute at Florida State University (FSU), Tallahassee, and serves as editor of Government Information Quarterly. Paul T. Jaeger is an Assistant Professor at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Lesley A. Langa is a Research Associate at FSU's Information Institute. Charles R. McClure is Frances Eppes Professor and Director of the Information Institute|