Public libraries provide an essential link between government and people. As government information, services, and resources move online, public libraries serve as critical community gateways to electronic government (E-government) (see Figure 1). The E-government roles public libraries play are particularly important for those who do not have high speed Internet or computer access in the home; lack the technology skills that E-government websites require; or have difficulty understanding and using E-government services. The 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access survey1 found that:
- 82.4% of public libraries report that providing access to government websites and services is important
- 91.8% of public libraries help people understand and use government websites
- 96.6% of public libraries help people apply for E-government services
- 70.7% of public libraries help people complete E-government forms
E-Government Services in the Public Library
E-government refers to the use of technology, predominantly the Internet, as a means to deliver government services to citizens, businesses, and other entities. Public libraries are a vital link between the government and people, and they serve as the neighborhood-based extension of government agencies for over 26 million library patrons.2 Libraries have traditionally served as community access points to tax information, citizenship and immigration services and resources, social services, health information, emergency and disaster response, and more. Today, as many government agencies increase their online services – often closing physical offices or decreasing staff and hours – the public library becomes an even more essential service point for E-government in the community.
Partnerships Expand Library and Agency E-government Services
Government agencies and public libraries are increasingly collaborating to provide E-government services at the community level.3 The number of public libraries that reported active partnerships with government agencies or nonprofit groups has continued climbing from 13.4% in 2008-2009 to 24.7% 2010-2011 and now 30.9% with the 2011-2012 survey. Library/agency partnerships focus on critical E-government services in areas like public health, social services, and immigration. These collaborations capitalize on the strengths that both librarians and the partnering agencies can bring to the table.
For the agencies and service providers, the public library offers a community access point for public access technologies and the Internet to users who have no other access. Partnerships can also embed e-government services within the public library, a trusted and neutral community organization, potentially creating an integrated service environment that cuts across multiple agency services and benefits.
Perhaps most importantly, agencies that partner with public libraries can tap into the librarian’s ability to serve as an intermediary between e-government services and the public. Many people, especially those who do not own or have access to computing and Internet technologies,4 count on public libraries to provide access to computers and the Internet. But they also rely on librarians to help them use government websites, locate information and resources, and complete applications and other forms – particularly as state and local government agencies cut back on public service staff.
Librarians in public libraries serve as critical liaisons between government agencies and the community residents.5 They provide the basic computer instruction that patrons require to access E-government services and complete web forms. Public libraries are open evenings and weekends, when many government agency offices are closed. Librarians also help people to identify and apply for government services online during times of personal crisis or natural disasters.6 During difficult economic times, librarians help individuals apply for unemployment and other social service benefits.7 Librarians are uniquely positioned in their communities to inspire civic engagement through E-government services, and by using the library as a forum for community discussion.8
Furthermore, partnerships with local government agencies enable public libraries to expand their E-government services. 46.9% of public libraries report they do not have enough staff to effectively assist people with their search for E-government information and services, and 44.9% of public libraries do not feel their staff have the expertise E-government websites and forms demand (see Figure 2). By partnering with local agencies to bring service providers into the public library, librarians can connect individuals with those who are best suited to answer their questions, while the agencies and nonprofit groups are able to use the library as physical extension of their E-government services. Public libraries across the country have embraced the partnership model, and they are publicizing the E-government programs that result from these innovative partnerships on their library websites. Please see the “Resources” box for links to some example E-government partnership websites.
Library E-Government Services: Challenges and Prospects
Public libraries around the country have responded to the needs of their communities without hesitation by providing E-government services. A willingness to provide E-government services, however, does not mean that public libraries can easily meet all these new service demands (see Figure 2). At a time when more and more government services are going digital, library budgets are being cut, service hours reduced, and staff let go.
Moreover, public libraries are being asked to help people solve a range of E-government challenges that go well beyond simply finding government information. Librarians help people understand government agency programs, comprehend and use government websites, and cut through federal, state, and local government bureaucracies. In short, people expect public librarians to be experts in government in general and E-government services in particular. In that way, E-government is a growing service area for public libraries, which can point to newly designed E-government portals on library websites and library lectures and programs offered in conjunction with local government agencies as proof of the library’s relevance to 21st-century community life. However, these new services represent significant new challenges to the local public library.
In order to adequately serve their community’s E-government needs, librarians require additional training in the shifting digital government information landscape. Online government information and services are constantly updated, and public librarians need funding and support for continuing education coursework in E-government resources. Public libraries also need help understanding their role in providing access to E-government services so they can serve people without exposing their institutions to unforeseen liabilities. Librarians need support so they can innovate and develop new service models for E-government requests.
E-government services require substantial public access technology and broadband availability. Increased funding for libraries is required to increase the bandwidth of the library; allow for more staff to be hired; and provide more computer stations to patrons.
E-government’s reliance on public libraries in turn leads to greater needs within the library. These needs include, but are not limited to:
- Financial needs: Increased funding for greater library broadband bandwidth; more staff; new computer hardware; and staff training.
- Service needs: Libraries need to develop new service models for E-government requests, which require significant staff time and computer resources.
- User needs: Librarians need time to educate patrons about government agencies and services, along with computer skills and digital literacy in general.
- Staff needs: Public library staff benefit greatly from ongoing training in such areas as government services, government forms (particularly as these change), and government web pages (as these undergo revisions).
- Building needs: E-government is a technology intensive undertaking that requires public access workstations, Wi-Fi, broadband, printing facilities, and work areas. E-government services place significant demands on a libraries infrastructure, and some libraries need to update or redesign facilities.
- Website design needs: E-government services vary greatly in terms of service, design, and website usability for those with disabilities, among others. Government use of social media technologies (Twitter, Facebook) can be a wonderful way to reach citizens, but they can also present new problems. This creates many challenges not only for people who need to access and use multiple services, but also for the librarians responsible for helping people meet their E-government needs.
Libraries around the country are meeting their community E-government needs, but they cannot do so alone. It is not the case that patrons interact directly with government solely through their own technology. Through collaboration and service integration, government agencies and public libraries can better meet essential community E-government needs. By working together, government agencies can create more successful E-government initiatives, libraries will be able to meet the needs of patrons more effectively, people will find the government services and information they need online, and everyone will benefit.
1 Bertot, J.C., McDermott, A., Lincoln, R., Real, B., & Peterson, K. (2012). 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Survey: Survey Findings & Report. College Park, MD: Information Policy & Access Center, University of Maryland College Park. Available at http://www.plinternetsurvey.org.
2 Becker, S., Crandall, M.D., Fisher, K.E., Kinney, B. Landry, C., & Rocha, A. (2010). Opportunity for all: How the American public benefits from Internet access at U.S. libraries. (IMLS-2010-RES-01). Washington, D.C: Institute of Museum and Library Services. Available: http://cis.washington.edu/usimpact/.
3 Bertot, J.C. (2010). Community-based E-government: Libraries as E-government partners and providers. Electronic government: 9th IFIP WG 8.5 International Conference, EGOV 2010 Lausanne, Switzerland, August/September 2010 Proceedings. Maria A. Wimmer, et al. (Eds.) Germany: IFIP International Federation for Information Processing 2010.
4 Gibson, A.N., Bertot, J.C., & McClure, C.R. (2009). Emerging role of public librarians as E-government providers. Proceedings of the 42nd Hawaii International Conference on System Science. R. H. Sprague, Jr. (Ed.), 1-10. Available: http://mcclure.ii.fsu.edu/publications/2009/; Beker et al. (2010).
5 Gibson et al. (2009).
6 Jaeger, P. T., Langa, L. A., McClure, C. R., & Bertot, J. C. (2007). The 2004 and 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes: Evolving roles and lessons learned for public libraries in disaster preparedness and community services. Public Library Quarterly, 25(3/4), 199-214.
7 Gibson et al. (2009).
8 Shuler, John A. (1996). Civic librarianship: Possible new role for depository libraries in the next century? Journal of Government Information, 23 (4), 415-419.