Public access computing and Internet access in public libraries
First Monday

Public access computing and Internet access in public libraries by John Carlo Bertot, Paul T. Jaeger, Lesley A. Langa, and Charles R. McClure



Abstract
This article presents findings from the 2006 Public Libraries and the Internet study and other research that demonstrate the impact of public Internet access in public libraries on the communities and individuals that the libraries serve. This article focuses on the importance of public library Internet access in times of emergencies and for a range of electronic government (e–government) services at the individual and community–wide levels. Public access computing and Internet access in public libraries function as a first choice, first refuge, and last resort in a range of emergency and e–government circumstances, allowing individuals to engage successfully in essential e–government services such as registering for Medicare or other benefits and filing tax information. With this key centrality as agents of government services, public libraries increasingly play significant roles in times of emergencies, like the aftermath of a hurricane, in which communities rely on the public library Internet access to request aid, try to find missing family and friends, file Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and insurance claims, and begin rebuilding their lives. This article also discusses the need to revise government policy related to the role of public libraries in their support of e–government as public libraries increasingly serve as agents of e–government.

Contents

Introduction
The Public Libraries and the Internet Studies
Public Libraries and E–Government
Policy Considerations and Implications
Conclusions

 


 

Introduction

Public libraries in the United States have embraced the importance of the Internet since the early 1990s. As the public increased its use of the Internet over the last ten years, public libraries increased their public access computing and Internet connectivity, resources, and services. In the decade between 1994 and 2004, Internet connectivity in U.S. public libraries jumped from 20.9 percent to 99.6 percent (Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger, 2005a). Nearly all connected public libraries — 98.9 percent — offer public access Internet services (Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger, 2005a, 2005b). Moreover, as public libraries continued to increase their public Internet access services, they also continued to enhance and augment their information technology infrastructure in key areas of public access computers, bandwidth, digital library resources, and a range of other network–based efforts. In 1998, for example, only 3.4 percent of public libraries had 10 or more public Internet graphical workstations; in 2006, the average number of public Internet graphical workstations is 10.7 (Bertot and McClure, 1998; Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger, 2006). In 1998, 65.6 percent of public libraries had a connection speed of 56kbps or less; in 2006, only 2.1 percent of libraries have a connection speed below 56kbps (Bertot and McClure, 1998; Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger, 2006). The majority of public library outlets in 2006 — 63.3 percent — have a connection speed of greater than 769kbps (Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger, 2006). As public demand and network–based applications resource requirements have increased, public libraries have kept pace with increased access and services.

By meeting the information needs of their patrons, there is an evolving role for public libraries as the central public Internet and computing access point within their communities for a wide range of government services and resources. As the 2006 Public Libraries and the Internet study shows, public libraries are often the only public access Internet and computer point within their communities. In addition, as federal, state, and local government agencies migrate their services and resources to e–government applications, they do so without offering any community–based access points to these services. Increasingly, government agencies refer individuals to their local public libraries for assistance and technology to complete their interactions and meet their government services needs. The significance to this development is that public libraries, in the eyes of federal, state, and local government agencies, are seen as part of the larger governmental fabric that deliver a range of services — including emergency services — to its citizens. This newfound role for public libraries, however, has come without additional funding from the federal, state, or local governments. Thus, while public libraries are increasingly valuable community access points to e–government services and resources in general and during times of emergency in particular, their efforts as agents of e–government represent essentially an unfunded mandate.

Thus, while public libraries are increasingly valuable community access points to e–government services and resources in general and during times of emergency in particular, their efforts as agents of e–government represent essentially an unfunded mandate.

There are a number of implications and consequences for public libraries as agents of e–government. This article explores the roles that public libraries play as public access points to e–government and offers a discussion of the policy implications for such roles. A key theme that emerged from the 2006 study and additional interviews was that by meeting user information needs through public access computing and Internet services, public libraries were able to serve a larger community need for access to e–government services and resources, both for everyday matters and in times of catastrophe. A second key theme in this paper is the need to review and revise government policies to better reflect the roles public libraries play in times of emergency and in support of e–government. In particular, there is a need to reevaluate the role of public libraries as access points of e–government in the communities that they serve; the financial support that public libraries receive in providing e–government services; and the training and education that public librarians receive as front–line providers of e–government services. These issues are not new, however, as previous studies identified these roles and implications some time ago (Bertot and McClure, 1997; National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1992; Library Council of New South Wales, 2005). It is only now, after several recent high profile incidents — the 2004–2005 hurricane disasters in the Gulf States and the 2006 Medicare prescription drug benefit application process — that public libraries emerged prominently as agents of e–government.

 

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The Public Libraries and the Internet Studies

The first Public Libraries and the Internet study was conducted in 1994, just as the Internet was beginning to enter public awareness. This first study found 20.9 percent of public libraries had an Internet connection (McClure, Bertot, and Zweizig, 1994). Subsequent biennial Public Libraries and the Internet studies documented the rise of public Internet access in public libraries in the United States. Information about the project and studies from 1994 through 2006 is available at the Web site of the Information Use Management and Policy Institute (Information Institute) at Florida State University: http://www.ii.fsu.edu/plinternet.

In 2004, the scope of the study expanded from technological issues of the type and levels of access available to also encompass social issues related to the provision of Internet access (Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger, 2005a, 2005b). The recently completed 2006 study further expanded the investigations into the impacts of the Internet access on library patrons and on the communities served by the libraries through both quantitative and qualitative data collection efforts (Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger, 2006).

The 2006 Public Libraries and the Internet survey sampled 6,979 public libraries based on three library demographics — metropolitan status (roughly equating to their designation of urban, suburban, or rural libraries), poverty level of their service population (as derived through census data), and state in which they resided. The survey received a total of 4,818 responses for a response rate of 69 percent. Of the libraries which completed the survey, 3,887 also answered the following qualitative question: “In the space below, please identify the single most important impact on the community as a result of the library branch’s public access to the Internet.” All responding libraries had the opportunity to answer the question, and respondents were able to write as long a response as they desired. Answers ranged from fewer than five words to more than 100 words. Unless otherwise noted, quotes in this paper are from the qualitative responses to the survey. No alterations were made to the quotes to correct for minor problems with spelling or grammar, and any such errors in the content are not noted to preserve the original affect of the quotations.

In addition to the data from the 2006 survey, the authors conducted a number of interviews with public librarians regarding their e–government–related activities, roles, and services. In all, the authors spoke to 43 librarians individually or in small groups serving a wide range of communities. The interviews served three primary functions: 1) confirmation of survey findings; 2) additional in–depth information regarding e–government and public libraries; and, 3) the context regarding the library’s communities and the perceptions of the library in the larger e–government context.

The 2006 study provided substantial detail regarding the impacts of Internet access in the library on the surrounding community. The impacts of Internet access on the community included providing Internet access to persons who would not otherwise have access, facilitating educational purposes, assisting in employment searches, and many other benefits (Bertot, McClure, and Jaeger, 2006). In fact, 19.4 percent of libraries felt the Internet access had so many impacts that connectivity in itself had to be viewed as a significant benefit to the entire community. The responses about the benefit of the Internet access to the entire community were frequently impassioned, and described the library as having been transformed into “a resource center for the community” or “an important community asset” or “the gathering place for the entire community” or “the most significant tool for our community to have access to the world of information.” These responses also often linked this role to a positive economic effect the library had on the community, as well as an increased respect accorded to the library by customers, elected officials, and business leaders.

Thus, a key theme that emerged from the study and additional interviews was that by meeting user information needs through public access computing and Internet services, public libraries were also able to serve a larger community need for access to e–government services and resources — both as a matter of course and in times of catastrophe. This article focuses on the role of public library computing and Internet access in an e–government context — from overall availability of Internet access to major life events for a single patron or for the entire community that a library serves. It is possible to characterize these situations by three scenarios:

  • First refuge, in which public access computing and Internet access is a lifeline in times of community–wide crisis.
  • Ready access point, in which public access computing and Internet access is vital to personal government–related tasks that need to be accomplished online (i.e., enrolling in a Medicare prescription program, filling out student loan forms, submitting immigration information, etc.) for people who (a) have no other means of accessing online content, or (b) need assistance in understanding the application/information exchange process.
  • First choice, in which the library is a trusted community–based entity to which individuals turn for help in their online activities — even if they have computers and Internet access at home or elsewhere.

All three scenarios have significant implications for public libraries. As ready access points and places of first choice access, public libraries are in a continuous mode of e–government service provision for the communities that they serve. As places of first refuge, public libraries take on additional and substantial roles in helping their communities get through and rebuild after emergencies, as demonstrated in the experiences of Gulf Coast libraries through the devastating 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.

 

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Public Libraries and E-Government

While initial forays into public access computing and Internet by public libraries were experimental in nature (Bertot and McClure 1996; Bertot, McClure, and Ryan, 1999; McClure and Bertot, 1998), public libraries soon came to realize the benefits accrued to their communities through a technology infrastructure that supported network–based public access services. While public librarians may not have anticipated the centrality of Internet–based services and resources accessed through public access computers, they came to realize the significance of such an infrastructure in extending the library’s ability to meet customer information needs beyond traditional materials and services. As libraries continued to build upon their Internet infrastructure throughout the 1990s, governments began exploring the use of the Internet for the delivery of government services (Fletcher, Bretschneider, and Marchand, 1992; U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, 1993). This simultaneous development of e–government and public access computing and Internet meant that, as public libraries matured in their technology adoption and services, so too did e–government initiatives and implementations. Though weaved separately, the two strands now form a whole cloth as various constituencies rely on public access computing and Internet in public libraries to engage e–government services.

Indeed, public access computing and Internet use in public libraries play a major role in addressing access issues related to a number of important life events for many users, particularly regarding online interactions with the government. As governments at the local, state, and federal levels continue their march towards e–government, some services are now available primarily or exclusively online (i.e., FEMA forms). As this trend continues, electronic interactions are an integral means — in some cases only means — of citizen–government interaction (Chadwick, 2006; Chadwick and May, 2003; Jaeger, 2005; Snellen, 2002).

Indeed, public access computing and Internet use in public libraries play a major role in addressing access issues related to a number of important life events for many users, particularly regarding online interactions with the government.

In an e–government context, public libraries generally play three critical roles by serving as bridges between 1) those who otherwise do not have access to computing and Internet technologies; 2) the actual e–government service and the citizen; and, 3) citizens and government in disaster situations.

A. Bridge between those who otherwise do not have access to computing and Internet technologies or who choose to use public library access

For people who lack home or work access to the Internet — due to economic, social, geographic, educational, or other constraints — using e–government can be inconvenient or impossible (Bertot, 2003; Jaeger and Thompson, 2003, 2004). In the 2006 Public Libraries and the Internet study, 71.7 percent of libraries asserted that providing access to patrons who would not otherwise have access was a major impact on the community. Thousands of the responses in the data echo the sentiment expressed by one library in Georgia:

“The public library is the only place that offers public access to the Internet to the community. Many community members would not be able to access the Internet without the library.”

Providing access for library customers who have no other means of accessing the Internet is only part of the story. Customers at many libraries who have home Internet access are still turning to the public library for access in many situations. For many patrons with access, the public library provides not only access but one–on–one services and support as well — “the presence of available training to use it to the best advantage.” One library succinctly framed the training issue as, “the library deals all day long with ‘How do I do...?’ questions.”

As an Alabama library explained, “The single most important impact on the community is the fact that the library serves as the ‘at–the–point–of–need’ training service.” A California library echoed these sentiments, where patrons who otherwise have access “are finding that they need additional training to use and understand the computers.” In one New Jersey library, the focus is on patrons “who need additional assistance in their searches.” The effects of offering these training and support services can have numerous impacts on the community, as evidenced by the comments of a Maryland library:

“This library has a Computer Lab which has been an extraordinary asset to provide training for all ages and local agencies and organizations have used it to give classes ... the library is much more appreciated as a workforce development and education force in the county.”

People also choose to use public library Internet access when the library access is faster and more efficient than their home or work access. One North Dakota library identified this population as “people who have access at home or work but at a slower connection speed.” An Indiana library described the situation in detail as:

“Because we have such a high speed connection, often people who have computers at home use ours when they have to download large documents. The impact of this being that people with and without computers have the option of using high speed computers at the library and at no cost to themselves.”

B. Bridge between the actual e–government service and the citizen

The public library has become a key means of “access to Federal, State or County government” for many library patrons, as “it provides a service where some business can only be conducted via the Internet.” Many libraries recognize that the Internet access they provide is the only way that some patrons can interact with e–government services. One Texas library explained, “As government entities increasingly turn to Web–based applications to service clients, a large proportion of the community is relying upon the Library for access to and instruction/assistance on using the Internet.”

In early 2006, many people relied on the public library for an important interaction with e–government — signing up for the mandatory Medicare prescription drug coverage plans. Though enrollment for these programs was not limited to online forms, the government encouraged seniors to register online, and much of the information about the program was primarily available online. As a result, many seniors relied on Internet access in libraries to research the drug plans and to sign up for them. A number of libraries, particularly those in areas with higher concentrations of seniors, indicated that they had become well–versed in the plans by helping seniors. A South Dakota library spoke for many by writing, “During the last few months this library has been able to help many older citizens sign up for the Part D medicare drug program.”

The reliance on the public library’s public access computing and Internet access to research tax information and complete online tax forms has also become commonplace. As one library explained, “Our connection also allows us a lifeline to government documents — we wouldn’t be able to provide tax forms this year without it.” The ability of patrons to complete taxes online at the library is important in many communities around the country. An Idaho library lauded the Internet for its “efficiency for the staff in providing help with tax forms.” An Iowa library noted, “We have countless people who obtain their tax forms and even do their taxes in our library.” In Maine, a library asserted, “our biggest demand is for tax information for our adult patrons.”

For many libraries, providing access to online tax forms has served to increase library usage. A Wisconsin library explained:

“Our computers bring in patrons that may not be typical library users. One specific example of this are taxes this year. Many people have come in to use the computer for tax purposes, and it is good exposure for our library.”

Another important area in which public libraries provide e–government access is immigration forms. As an Alaska library explained, the Internet “Provides access to government information, forms and filing for people who cannot afford to have Internet access in their homes. In addition, there is no Immigration Services office within 750 miles (we are located on an island) and we have a relatively large immigrant population.”

The importance of public computing and Internet access in libraries to immigration was reflected in the comments of many other libraries. A Nebraska library spoke of immigrants from “Central/South America, Somalia, and the Sudan” using library workstations and the Internet to communicate with and complete forms for the “government agencies which might be handling their immigration processing.”

In some Western states, the public library Internet access has become integral to farmers looking to establish or protect water rights. As one Oregon library explained, the Internet access “helps local farmers who need to establish electronic registration with the Federal government for Water Rights payments.”

Public libraries indicate that they increasingly offer services to individuals who need assistance with the actual e–government resource.

It is important to note, however, that it is not just individuals who do not have access to computers or the Internet who rely on public libraries for assistance with e–government services and resources. Public libraries indicate that they increasingly offer services to individuals who need assistance with the actual e–government resource. As one librarian indicated:

“We have people come to us who need help with navigating and understanding the various [government] Web sites and services. They have access elsewhere, but can’t figure out how to use the systems. 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.”

Thus, libraries offer critical services to those who have access to computers and the Internet, but need help with the actual operational factors of e–government.

C. “Interactive participation in local government”: Local and state e–government

Customers do not only rely on public access computing and Internet access in public libraries exclusively for federal e–government. State and local governments around the United States have also been working to develop e–government services and resources. In some states, “Most of our state government’s operations occur online, as the population is widely dispersed and extremely rural. ” In many libraries, the Internet “provides access to many governmental/legal forms that our patrons need.” The state and local e–government information and services that customers use involve a wide range of areas, from finding state court proceedings to submitting local zoning board information to registering students in school. Some patrons even use Internet access in libraries to “conduct driver’s education programs to reduce points on their driver’s license and waive fees on traffic tickets.”

The comments of an Alaska library elaborate on how extensive the relationships between public libraries and local e–government can become:

“Greater access to local and state government information and more interactive participation in local government. The library maintains the Web page for the city and we track public use of documents and information sources by government department. Many government functions are searchable online (assessor database) and fully interactive (planning permits). Citizens expect to see the latest reports and surveys online and let us know if they are missing.”

D. The government’s reliance on public access in public libraries

It is significant to note that e–government in public libraries is not just citizen–initiated. Government agencies are now referring their service recipients to public libraries as places in which to receive both access to online services and assistance. In this light, public access to the Internet and computers is transforming public libraries into the unofficial access point for e–government. And since there are many significant reasons for which customers need to use e–government — signing up for Medicare, submitting taxes, applying for citizenship, claiming water rights, registering children for school, and countless others — the public computing and Internet access in public libraries is an invaluable service to patrons in their roles as citizens of local, state, and federal governments. One library summarized the situation as:

“Government agencies are requiring that clients use the Internet to apply for benefits, set appointments or file complaints online. They 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.”

In Florida, for example, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DFC) sends the users of its services to public libraries for access to technology and help completing its benefits applications. Most DCF offices do not have public access computers and Internet services. And yet, the typical DCF benefits recipient has neither a computer nor Internet access.

E. Bridge between citizens and government in emergency situations

The Gulf States were hit with numerous sizeable hurricanes during 2004 and 2005, the largest of which was Katrina in terms of damage and destruction. Even under these extreme circumstances, public libraries that were not destroyed or severely damaged served as critical access points to government services. The storms turned public libraries, and the vital public access computing and Internet access they provide, into outlets for hurricane response and recovery in many locations.

A number of libraries in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, and Florida, asserted that the impacts of Internet access in their libraries were most pronounced in the aftermath of one or more of the recent major hurricanes as community members have sought assistance and tried to rebuild their lives. These libraries indicated four major roles for the public library public access computing and Internet access in communities after a hurricane:

  1. Finding and communicating with family members and friends who had been displaced, evacuated to other cities, or were missing;
  2. Completing FEMA forms and insurance claims online. The FEMA forms can only be completed online and require certain types of software to download;
  3. Searching for news about conditions in the area from which they had evacuated; and,
  4. Trying to find information about the condition of their homes or places of work, including checking news sites and satellite maps.

These roles demonstrate the tremendous importance of public access computing and Internet access in public libraries in event of natural disaster or other type of crisis.

i. “In times of crisis (hurricane aftermath)”: The Florida experience

The tone of the comments differed in relation to the effect of the storms. In Florida — which suffered eight hurricanes and two tropical storms in a period of 13 months — the comments were very matter of fact, indicating that Florida libraries are firmly established as outlets for hurricane recovery and response. One library wrote, “During hurricane season, we have found that hurricane victims used libraries to get in touch with family and friends.” Another Florida library wrote, “In times of crisis (hurricane aftermath) we were there to provide connectivity to the outside world; reaching out to such entities as FEMA, Insurance companies and loved ones, etc.”

The tone of the responses from Florida libraries reflected a familiarity with hurricanes not evident in responses from other states. This is likely due to the fact that Florida libraries have become all too familiar with hurricanes and their aftermath. According to Judith Ring, the Florida State Librarian, “there isn’t a single county that wasn’t affected” by hurricanes in the 2004 hurricane season (quoted Rogers, 2004), and the 2005 season severely affected many parts of the state, as well.

Following the experiences of the past two hurricane seasons, the State Library of Florida asked library systems to describe their roles in the past two hurricane seasons. The responses, which the State Library shared with the authors in relation to this research effort, included the public librarians of the state before, during, and after the hurricanes. Table 1 identifies the key roles that Florida public libraries played during catastrophe situations. These include critical communications operations; assisting in the staffing and supporting of community emergency, rebuilding, and relief services; physical shelter; and continuing library services to the extent possible.

Table 1: Roles of Florida public libraries in times of disaster
Emergency roles
  • Staffing emergency operations centers by working phone lines, answering email questions, manning interactive chat lines, and operations centers;
  • Running and staffing shelters for evacuees both in library buildings and in other buildings;
  • Creating and distributing emergency preparedness guides;
  • Distributing food, water, ice, meals ready to eat, tarps, and bug spray;
  • Assisting relief personnel in their duties;
  • Cooking and distributing meals;
  • Caring for special needs and elderly evacuees;
  • Running day camps for children when schools were closed and for children of city employees who had to work unusual hours;
  • Handling communications in and out of the city;
  • Assisting with FEMA, insurance, and other paperwork;
  • Running volunteer coordination programs;
  • Securing city buildings and checking structures for damages;
  • Cleaning up debris and restoring damaged structures;
  • Providing library materials to evacuees in shelters;
  • Working as translators for evacuees;
  • Conducting disaster information workshops;
  • Sending bookmobiles to devastated areas;
  • Creating community contact centers for community members to re-establish contact;
  • Providing FEMA, Red Cross, National Guard, and Army Corps of Engineers personnel with a place to meet with residents;
  • Providing relief personnel with a place to meet and to use the Internet, email, and telephones;
  • Handling inquiries from other parts of the country and from around the world about the conditions in the area or about particular residents;
  • Housing city command centers for disasters;
  • Providing city employees and relief workers with places to sleep;
  • Registering people with the “blue roof program;”
  • Holding programs in shelters;
  • Unloading truckloads of relief supplies;
  • Giving temporary library cards to relief workers; and,
  • Helping FEMA personnel identify local areas that suffered major damage.

These efforts were spread across libraries throughout the state, employing their Internet access and many other resources to assist their communities in hurricane recovery in uncountable ways. It appears that the extreme number of hurricanes affecting the state of Florida in the past two seasons has created many new important roles for public libraries and public librarians in Florida communities before, during, and after hurricanes.

ii. “The computers were a Godsend”: Katrina and public libraries

In the areas struck by the epic devastation of Hurricane Katrina, however, the comments were much more stark and plaintive, reflecting the ordeal of the storm. One Louisiana library wrote:

“During the immediate aftermath of Katrina, our computers were invaluable in locating missing family, applying for FEMA relief (which could only be done online) and other emergency needs. For that time — the computers were a Godsend. Thank you.”

Comments from Mississippi libraries include:

“Much of the community was damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The public has been using our public access computers to contact insurance companies, Federal Emergency Planning Agency (FEMA). Also for some this is the only means of staying in contact with family members outside of disaster area.”

“Since many people lost connectivity as a result of a direct hit by Hurricane Katrina, our public access computers have been the only source of communicating with insurance carriers, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other sources of aid. Have also used them to stay in touch with family & friends due to lack of telephone service.”

The volume of people relying on the library’s computers for hurricane recovery was extremely high in some of these libraries. The story from a Mississippi library graphically illustrates this point:

“During the period of time directly after the hurricane struck [until] the end of November our staff helped customers file over 45,000 FEMA applications, insurance claims, and searches for missing relatives and pets. We have a large number of displaced people who are coming to rely upon the library in ways many of them never expected. I’ve had so many people tell me that they had never been to a library before they had to find someplace to file a FEMA application or insurance claim. Many of these people knew nothing about computers and would have been totally lost with out the staff’s help.”

iii. “We were the only source of Internet access to FEMA”: Rita, Katrina, and public libraries

The experiences of libraries in Texas and Louisiana after Hurricane Rita parallel the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As one Texas library noted, “After Hurricane Rita, the computers were used to contact insurance companies as well as FEMA.” Many Texas communities absorbed evacuees from both storms and saw the parallels in experience:

“The greatest impact has been access to information such as FEMA forms and job applications that are ONLY available via Internet. This was highly visible during the aftermath of hurricane Rita & Katrina. Overall access to information in this rural community has been outstanding due to use of the Internet.”

“We are the only place in town that provides free access to the Internet for the community. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we were the only source of Internet access to the FEMA and other Web sites needed by those who needed it.”

“The impact has been felt by 1) individuals displaced by the gulf coast hurricanes who have come inland, 2) people who have lost jobs, 3) people who have insufficient access at home.”

iv. “Flooded with patrons needing Internet access”: Public libraries and hurricane evacuees

Libraries in communities that filled with evacuees found Internet access to be of utmost importance to the new residents of the community. For a Mississippi library, “The relocation of people from Hurricane Katrina has had an impact internet access for a wide variety of uses.” Several libraries in northern Alabama and Arkansas also wrote about the volume of usage in terms of the number of evacuees in their communities. As one rural Alabama library described,

“We had about 100 Katrina refugees using our computers to check on family members and friends who had been evacuated to other places. They also used our computers to file FEMA applications and check on their homes. And, of course, they used e–mail to correspond with friends and family.”

For a library in Arkansas that received many evacuees,

“The Internet was the only means for displaced persons after Katrina to get information they needed. We were flooded with patrons needing Internet Access. More and more people come to the public library everyday for e–mail, online services, job searching, etc. Many have asked for wireless connections for their own personal laptops.”

Other libraries noted that hurricane relief workers who came to their communities had no access to the Internet beyond what was available at the public library. In one Mississippi town, “This community has been tremendously impacted by Hurricane Katrina and provides services to many displaced people and relief workers.”

v. Public library Internet access in times of community–wide crisis

The importance of the library through the hurricane aftermath has increased the overall standing of the public library in many communities. One Mississippi library noted, “The library is becoming better known in our small community as a center for information of all types, especially since Hurricane Katrina.” Another asserted, “It has brought in a new group of library patrons who had never used the library before. This has been especially true since Hurricane Katrina destroyed the MS coast.”

The findings in this study are supported by reports from a number of sources that have collected and documented the roles of public libraries after the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes. Stories relayed in professional literature and other outlets parallel the qualitative data in this study, with public Internet access in libraries playing an essential part in communication and recovery for individuals and communities (Block and Kim, 2006; Choate, 2005; Eberhart, 2005; Fialkoff, 2005; LJ News, 2005; McCoy, 2005; Meraz, 2005; O’Connell, 2004).

The value of online communities and organizations in facilitating relief in times of natural disasters has been recognized (Jones and Mitnick, 2006). While some research has raised questions about the ability of public libraries in various locations to provide vital assistance in a crisis (Harris, Wathen, and Chan, 2005; Matthews, 2005), it is clear that the public libraries along the Gulf Coast provided invaluable information and support to communities and individuals affected by the recent seasons of major hurricanes.

Public libraries and the public access computing and Internet access they provide clearly can be a vital part of dealing with emergencies, as evidenced by their roles in helping individuals and communities deal with hurricanes and their aftermath. In a crisis situation, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when help was slow in coming from the federal government in many areas, public libraries were places of first refuge for communities, survivors, and evacuees. For countless Gulf Coast residents and communities, the process of finding loved ones, seeking aid, recovering, and rebuilding occurred in the public library and its computing and Internet access.

 

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Policy Considerations and Implications

The findings discussed above indicate three general areas of consideration about public policy and Internet access in public libraries: funding for public library Internet access and funding for public library e–government support, education and training of public librarians and government officials, and developing information policies related to Internet access in public libraries.

A. Funding

A number of sources fund the growth of Internet access in public libraries. Much of the funding comes from state governments, local governments, and private sources. The most notable private funding source has been the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Library Program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has become the largest contributor to public libraries since Andrew Carnegie (Gordon, Gordon, and Moore, 2001; Gordon, Gordon, Moore, and Heuertz, 2003). In its first round of gifts, the Gates Foundation gave nearly 50,000 computers and accompanying training to 10,000 public libraries in all 50 states, with the value of these contributions exceeding US$250 million (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2005; Gordon, Gordon, and Moore, 2001; Gordon, Gordon, Moore, and Heuertz, 2003). Since 2003, the Gates Foundation has provided a further US$17 million to public libraries and state library agencies to support upgrades, connectivity, technical support, and training as part of its “Staying Connected” program (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 2005; Rogers, 2005).

The federal government provides small, but significant, funding for U.S. public libraries. Through the Library Services Technology Act (LSTA) (P.L. 104–208), the federal government provides roughly one percent of overall annual library operating budgets. The funds pass through to state library agencies based on a population density formula, and the state library agencies then distribute the funds to public libraries — usually through competitive grants. The other source of federal funds is through the Education Rate (E–rate) program established by the Telecommunications Act (47 U.S.C. ß225). The E–rate provides large amounts of discounts for library Internet connectivity, telecommunications services, and internal connections. For example, the E–rate program provided public libraries with over US$250 million in funds related to Internet access between 2000 and 2003 (Jaeger, McClure, and Bertot, 2005). It is important to note, however, that while the E–rate is a federally mandated program, it is actually funded by telecommunications carriers, who pass along the costs to their customers, and does not involve any government funds. In short, the federal government actually offers little to no direct support for public library Internet connectivity and public access computing.

In short, the federal government actually offers little to no direct support for public library Internet connectivity and public access computing.

Moreover, these disparate funding sources are insufficient in both amount and coordination to meet the demands of public libraries serving as first refuge, first choice, and last resort for public computing and Internet access points – especially in terms of the e–government services the library supports. Individuals, communities, and government agencies rely on public libraries to provide public computing and Internet access and yet many libraries are uncertain of the sources of funding for information technology on a year–to–year basis. In 2004, the temporary suspension of the E–rate funding program forced many libraries into budget crises (Jaeger, McClure, and Bertot, 2005; Jaeger, McClure, Bertot, and Langa, 2005).

Further, local and state government budgets related to funding library information technology can fluctuate from year to year, while private organizations generally provide one–time support rather than annual funding. Surprisingly, some public libraries, particularly those in rural areas, indicated in their responses to the 2006 Public Libraries and Internet study that they were unaware of many of the funding programs. Beyond these constraints and uncertainties many libraries face in funding Internet access is the Telecommunications Act and its language related to the E–rate will soon be up for renewal by Congress. Given the suspension of the E–rate program in 2004 due to Congress’ concerns about its management, it is a possibility that the program may be modified, limited, or ended altogether.

If public access computing and Internet access in public libraries is to continue functioning as the first refuge for the community in a crisis, the first choice for assistance in navigating e–government services, and the last resort for persons with no other means of accessing e–government, then ensuring a stable, ongoing means for funding is essential. If local, state, and federal governments are to continue relying on the availability of public access computing and Internet access in public libraries, then steady, coordinated support of that access should be a top government priority. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, public libraries were hugely important to their communities and can be viewed as the one manifestation of government that unquestionably succeeded in providing immediate and ongoing help to survivors, refugees, whole communities, and even aid workers. This fact alone presents a compelling case for ensuring that all public libraries are financially able to provide sufficient public Internet access.

Agencies are simply shifting the burden of e–government to public libraries as they reduce their own costs and consider their own bottom lines with little regard for the impacts on the front line service providers — in this case, public libraries.

As agencies increasingly rely on public libraries to provide access to their e-government services, there is increased pressure on the public library’s technology and personnel infrastructures. On the technology side, libraries are supporting more and more customers with the same amount of technology. While some are trying to augment the numbers of public computers and bandwidth — even by offering wireless access — they simply cannot keep up with demand. One negative way to view these developments is that public libraries are in the midst of classic burden shifting. Agencies are simply shifting the burden of e–government to public libraries as they reduce their own costs and consider their own bottom lines with little regard for the impacts on the front line service providers — in this case, public libraries. Thus, one additional source of revenue for public libraries could be from those agencies that send individuals to public libraries for assistance.

B. Education and training

The findings from this study also present important implications for the education and training of public librarians. If computing and Internet access in public libraries is to be a main link between people who have no other access — or who seek out the library even when they do have alternative access means — and local, state,and federal e–government, then knowledge of government information, government services, and e–government Web sites should be a key part of the education of current and future librarians.

The federal government increasingly relies on the public library as an access point by which all citizens can reach electronic government Web sites. This reliance is based on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the E–government Act of 2002 (P.L. 107–347), and other policy instruments that view public libraries as a place where all citizens are able to access e–government if they have no other means of access at home, work, or school (Jaeger, Bertot, McClure, and Langa, 2006).

As a result, many responses in the study indicated that the librarians answering the questions felt they had become ad hoc experts in relation to 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 of these comments also revealed the strain of having to learn these materials as customers needed to work with them and a desire to have a better understanding of e–government. Some professional organizations for librarians have come to emphasize professional development in terms of e–government. The summer 2006 issue of the journal of the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies, Interface, explored efforts in public libraries around the country to create programs and services related to e–government, but such efforts are not yet commonplace.

The findings discussed in this paper strongly suggest that degree programs in Library and Information Science (LIS) need to make a better effort to educate students in issues of government information and e–government. With both government agencies and many patrons relying on libraries to make sure people will always have a means of accessing e–government, librarians must be educated in light of this reality to be able to efficiently and effectively assist patrons in working with required government forms in the online environment. The U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (http://www.imls.gov) has a number of grant programs that fund special LIS programs and research about LIS education. As such, funding opportunities are available for LIS schools and researchers to find ways to improve the education of librarians in terms of government information and e–government.

While it may be convenient for local, state, and federal government agencies to take advantage of the library’s investments in technology and expertise, the library’s infrastructure is not built to meet the increased demand of e–government services. Libraries have responded admirably regardless, acting to meet the needs of their communities.

But equally important, there is a need to educate government officials and those referring individuals to public libraries for e–government assistance on the impact that such referrals place on public library staffing and technology infrastructure. Public libraries have largely built their public access computing and Internet access — and the services which such infrastructure enables — on their own and with community support over the years. While it may be convenient for local, state, and federal government agencies to take advantage of the library’s investments in technology and expertise, the library’s infrastructure is not built to meet the increased demand of e–government services. Libraries have responded admirably regardless, acting to meet the needs of their communities. But, there is a cost to this service response, and public officials need to be aware of this cost. In May 2006, the Governor of Florida vetoed an additional US$2.2 million in state aid to public libraries — at a time of record budget surpluses in the state — for which libraries lobbied largely based on their services as e–government and disaster relief providers (Tallahassee Democrat, 2006). Clearly, there is a need for more government official education on the strain that such e–government and emergency services place on public library services and resources.

C. Information policy

The reliance of individuals and communities on the public access computing and Internet access in public libraries and the government expectations that such access will be available for e–government are not necessarily being facilitated by information policy at the federal level. In fact, a number of federal information policies seem to be counter–productive in terms of public library public access computing and Internet access serving as first refuge, first choice, and last resort. Along with the inconsistencies in funding for public library Internet access, several other policies have the potential to hamper public Internet access in public libraries.

In fact, a number of federal information policies seem to be counter–productive in terms of public library public access computing and Internet access serving as first refuge, first choice, and last resort.

There are a series of disparate policies that impact on the ability of public libraries to function efficiently in an e–government context. These include the:

  • Telecommunications Act of 1996, which provides for the E–rate discounts that libraries receive on their Internet access and telecommunications services;
  • Library Services and Technology Act, which provides pass through funds to be distributed by the state government to libraries;
  • E–government Act of 2002, which mentions public libraries as a participant in the larger context of federal government e–government services and resources, but offers no funding or specific roles;
  • Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA, P.L. 106–554), which requires the filtering of public library Internet access if the libraries wish to receive federal funding (E–rate, LSTA) for library services; and,
  • USA PATRIOT Act (P.L. 107–56) and the Homeland Security Act (P.L. 107–295), which provide law enforcement agencies with access to library records, including public library computer and Internet use logs.

These, and other, disparate information policies create conflicting roles for public access computing and Internet access in public libraries and for support of public libraries’ role in e–government. While some of these policies work to encourage the use of public access computing and Internet access in public libraries, other policies limit the information available through that access or discourage people from using the access at all. To better fulfill the roles of first refuge, first choice, and last resort, public libraries and the public access services they provide require encouragement and support by the information policy environment. A key element in policy considerations needs to be developing policies that support increases in library capacity to be able to meet these important demands for access.

 

++++++++++

Conclusions

As public libraries continued to embrace public access computing and Internet access since the early 1990s, an essential part of the services that public libraries provide to the communities that they serve are e–government related. Public access computing and Internet access in public libraries has created specific ways in which individuals, communities, and government agencies rely on the public library as a facilitator of and conduit for e–government. As the findings discussed in this paper demonstrate, public libraries serve three significant roles in meeting the e–government needs of their communities through their public access technology infrastructure: (1) individuals and communities in a crisis rely on public access computing and Internet access in public libraries as the first refuge for seeking assistance and beginning to rebuild; (2) individuals with no other means to access local, state, and federal e–government information and services rely on public access computing and Internet access in public libraries as the access point of last resort, the safety net for e–government access; and, (3) individuals with access to computing technology and the Internet rely on the public library as a preferred place of access due to the capacity and support available.

These important roles remain mostly unexplored in LIS literature and in wider considerations of the place of public libraries in a public policy and e–government context. Thus, a number of key research questions that require additional work include:

  • What specific financial and personnel resources are the nation’s public libraries currently allocating to emergency and e–government services?
  • What is the extent to which federal, state, and local government agencies expect public libraries to provide access to e–government services?
  • What are the specific roles and responsibilities that public libraries currently provide in support of various e–government programs and services?
  • How can public libraries become better informed as to how best to provide these e–government services?
  • How can public libraries better use their role in support of emergency services and e–government to advocate for increased funding?
  • What is the current federal information policy related to the role of public libraries in emergencies and e-government and how should these policies evolve in the future?

These are but a sample of possible areas for additional research.

As future research explores these and other questions related to public libraries and e–government, there are a number of recommendations that the study’s findings provide for policymakers, practitioners, and those developing e–government services:

  • Recognize specifically public libraries as outlets for e–government services in legislation, policy initiatives, and program literature in partnership with public libraries;
  • 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 at federal, state, and local levels 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’s ability to engage in e–government services;
  • Expand the responsibilities and funding of state library agencies to assist and support public libraries in their e–government role; and,
  • Develop a set of “best practices” and practical guides which provide public libraries with guidance on 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.

Through more than 12 years of steady investment and the development of new content and services, public libraries are a key provider of e–government access and services in the United States. Government agencies rely on the fact that public libraries provide access, people with alternative means of access rely on the public library for assistance with e–government interaction, people with no other means of access rely on the public library for access to e–government, and entire communities rely on the public library for access to e–government in times of crisis. Ultimately, this provision of public access computing and Internet access makes public libraries one of the very few community–based public access points for e–government, but this effort needs recognition and support.

While the issues raised in this paper are part of a long–term research effort on the part of the authors, the topics are significant enough to merit consideration by other researchers in LIS, governance, public affairs, information technology, management of information systems, and other scholarly areas. The issues raised in this paper also point to a need for LIS to focus much more research on better understanding the impacts of Internet access on the meaning, roles, and place of the public library in contemporary society. Such research then needs to be translated into the classroom, so that graduates of LIS programs will be prepared to serve effectively in facilitating patron access to e–government. Public library Internet access has unmistakably affected the expectations of individuals, communities, and government agencies for the public library. The roles of public library Internet access as ready access point, first choice, first refuge, and last resort clearly are socially significant. As a result, it is necessary to have a better understanding of these expectations and to modify information policy and LIS education based on these understandings. End of article

 

About the authors

Dr. John Carlo Bertot is a Professor and Associate Director of the Information Institute at Florida State University and serves as editor of Government Information Quarterly. Dr. Paul T. Jaeger is an Assistant Professor at the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. Lesley A. Langa is a Research Associate at the Information Institute at Florida State University. Dr. Charles R. McClure is Frances Eppes Professor and Director of the Information Institute at Florida State University.
Comments to jbertot [at] fsu [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

The American Library Association and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the 2004 and 2006 Public Libraries and the Internet studies. The authors would like to recognize the significant efforts of the state librarians, the state data coordinators, and other state library agency staff members in supporting the studies. We also extend the sincerest debt of gratitude to the thousands of public librarians who completed the survey. The authors are also grateful to the State Library of Florida for providing information on the roles of public libraries in Florida communities in the aftermath of hurricanes.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 6 June 2006; accepted 18 July 2006.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday.

Copyright ©2006, John Carlo Bertot, Paul T. Jaeger, Lesley A. Langa, Charles R. McClure.

Public access computing and Internet access in public libraries: The role of public libraries in e–government and emergency situations by John Carlo Bertot, Paul T. Jaeger, Lesley A. Langa, and Charles R. McClure
First Monday, volume 11, number 9 (September 2006),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_9/bertot/index.html





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