Costs of and benefits resulting from public library e-government service provision: Findings and future directions from an exploratory study
First Monday

Costs of and benefits resulting from public library e-government service provision: Findings and future directions from an exploratory study by Lauren H. Mandel, Laura I. Spears, Debra Guenther, and Charles R. McClure



Abstract
As the public trusts the library to provide access and support to use computers and the Internet, much of the burden of e–government service provision has shifted from government agencies to public libraries. This unfunded mandate contributes to libraries’ financial burdens in a time of radical public library funding cuts. Public libraries need to be able to identify the precise costs of this service provision, as well as its benefits, in order to justify additional financial or other resources to support these services, especially high–speed broadband connections to facilitate access to and use of e–government services. This paper present the findings of an exploratory study designed to identify the range of costs Indiana public libraries incur in their provision of e–government services, as well as the benefits of that service provision. The multi–method research design employed in this study offers one possible approach by which other states might develop a comprehensive perspective, including costs, of their public libraries’ e–government service provision.

Contents

Introduction
Theoretical background
Method
Findings
Issues and future research
Future importance of e–government services

 


 

Introduction

Public libraries are called upon to provide a wide range of services in support of other government agencies. Some agencies have relied on libraries to distribute forms for many years, such as tax forms and voter registration cards. The E–Government Act of 2002 propelled electronic government services forward with broad mandates for increased digital government services and processes offered by U.S. agencies, but no provisions were made to assist the American public with e–government services (44 U.S.C. § 101). This legislation also contained language that continues to regulate privacy considerations and citizen access to public information. As the public trusts the library to provide access and support to use computers and the Internet, much of this burden has fallen on public libraries — and e–government service provision has gone beyond libraries housing forms to libraries providing hands on, one–on–one assistance to users accessing e–government services and forms, dramatically increasing the time and financial resources required to fulfill this role. However, this burden constitutes an unfunded mandate, as governments have not provided public libraries with additional financial or other resources to support these services, especially the broadband connections necessary to efficiently utilize e–government services.

The cost of providing these services by libraries is largely unknown, so it is not clear how large a burden is caused by this unfunded mandate, nor have the benefits been articulated in such a way as to justify the value of public library e–government service provision to government agencies. This paper presents the findings of an exploratory study designed to assist the Indiana State Library to identify the range of costs public libraries incur and the benefits resulting from their provision of e–government services. The goal is to provide a beginning estimate for U.S. libraries’ financial contribution to e–government service provision and a descriptive typology of the benefits stemming from that service provision. The researchers employed a multi–method research design in order to ensure reliable data and a thorough representation of the diversity of Indiana public libraries’ e–government service provision. It is hoped that this study will offer a model by which other states may investigate the comprehensive picture and costs of their public libraries’ e–government service provision.

Previous studies have taken a less holistic approach to investigating public library e–government services such that a method did not exist to develop a comprehensive picture that includes both costs of and benefits from state–wide public library e–government service provision. While this study was exploratory, it presents an opportunity for Indiana to serve as a national model and leader in the provision of public library e–government services. A significant amount of work has been completed to better understand Indiana public library e–government service provision, but this study represents only a starting point for future research, collaboration, and the continuation of state–wide e–government research and activities. The results, methods, findings, and recommendations are likely to have significant applicability for and transferability to other state library agencies, other state agencies, public libraries, and researchers studying e–government.

 

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Theoretical background

Context of e–government service provision in Indiana public libraries

Indiana is a state with considerable e–government services. Since its redesign in 2006, the IN.gov portal (http://in.gov/, the state e–government Web portal) has provided public access to more than 100 Web sites and more than 180 Web and mobile applications representing all three branches of government (Arrowood, 2011). The IN.gov portal is visited over 75 million times annually and ranked third in 2011 in the Best of the Web Awards for State Portal by the Center for Digital Government. The IN.gov portal’s success suggests that integrated government and private sector networks can work together to build digital relationships between Indiana citizens and the state government. This Web portal revision moved the administration of e–government services from the private to the public sector, offering even greater benefits to Indiana residents by saving users from having to pay access fees and bridging the technology divide by promoting free use of libraries’ public access computers (PACs).

The FY 2011 Public Library Funding and Technology Access Study (PLFTAS), a multi–year study of computer and Internet access in U.S. public libraries, communicates the challenges that affect the ability of public libraries nationwide to help patrons with e–government needs. Supported by both the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations and the American Library Association, PLFTAS is the most comprehensive and long–running analysis of public library technology access and computer connectivity in the U.S. The top three leading causes of insufficient service are not having enough staff, not having the necessary expertise, and not having enough PACs available for patrons (Bertot, et al., 2011). While Indiana excels in providing trained library staff who know how to access the Internet and assist patrons with e–government needs (91.9 percent), inadequate quantities of PACs and insufficient Internet connection speeds do challenge Indiana public libraries (Information Policy and Access Center, 2011). In Indiana, the average number of PACs per public library outlet (n=19) is higher than the national average (n=16), yet only 34.3 percent of Indiana public libraries report that there are “always sufficient” computers available. For Internet access, only 67.8 percent of public libraries report that their connection speed is “always adequate.” Since only 14.5 percent report that their connection speed is already at the maximum available level, the majority of outlets have faster speeds available to them. This implies that Indiana public libraries have the potential to be providing even more assistance for e–government related tasks if they were to have additional staff, equipment, and bandwidth, all of which require additional financial resources.

In its Library Services and Technology Access (LSTA) Five–Year Plan, 2008–2012 (Brooker, 2007), the Indiana State Library identifies several goals related to increasing e–government service provision in public libraries. These initiatives support Indiana public libraries’ e–government service provision by creating additional programs and resources for library staff and patrons and adding technological equipment and support to meet the needs of Indiana residents. Specific programs and measures planned for the LSTA Five–Year Plan, 2008–2012 include expanding services and available formats for library resources, developing networks that connect residents to local, state, and national records, providing train–the–trainer workshops for staff so that they will be able to offer more assistance with Internet resources, and meeting minimum technology guidelines such as minimum standards for public libraries per the Indiana Public Library Standards (590 IAC 6.1.4). The LSTA strategic plan is required of all states who receive the federal funds that LSTA distributes through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). These funds require a state matching amount and are a key source of funding for the implementation of technology that supports e–government services.

Costs of library services vs. valuation or return on investment (ROI)

There are three main categories of literature that relate to evaluating the costs of library services: return on investment (ROI), valuation, and costing. ROI literature focuses on the value in dollars that is received for every dollar expended on a service (Pooley, et al., 2013). Valuation literature also focuses on perceived value of services, but without regard to dollars expended (Aabø and Strand, 2004; Imholz and Arns, 2007; Indiana Business Research Center, 2007; Lee and Chung, 2012), instead looking at benefits “or value in use, pros, return, etc.” [1]. However, those studies do not estimate actual costs to the library in providing e–government service.

There are a variety of library costing models and methods to keep in mind while collecting data for cost estimations, such as input/output model (Sayre and Thielen, 1990), functional cost analysis (Abels and Kantor, 1996), equivalent valuation approach (Ryan and McClure, 2003), cost minimization (Hegenbart, 1998), library costing model (Hayes, 1996), incremental budgeting method (Ellis–Newman and Robinson, 1998), and zero–based budgeting (ZBB) (Stueart and Moran, 2007). Many of these approaches focus on valuation and ROI over costing or are appropriate only for costing materials and expenditures to determine a yearly budget and not to assess the transaction costs of individual activities and services. Others lack flexibility in their methodology and budget assessments. When considering e–government service provision in public libraries, there is a wealth of information available about potential funding sources, but very little about costing. One methodology mentioned in any detail that incorporates data reports and/or tracking technology is activity based costing (ABC) to measure the costs of providing services for individual e–government programs (Hadzilias, 2005). ABC focuses on activities at the organizational level, allowing a library to evaluate the cost of e–government services in the context of other library services (Abels, 1997).

With more advanced technology to track the amount of time library patrons use PACs to access individual e–government Web sites (such as Internet protocol (IP) and event logs) and detailed data reports for services rendered (from staff logs and other surveys), the ABC technique has potential as an approach for costing library e–government services. ABC strategies provide an alternative to traditional cost accounting by assigning resources to specific work activities (e.g., programs and services), providing more accurate estimates for the cost of the work performed by accounting for both direct and indirect costs, and producing a working budget for program products and services. In general, the ABC employs a four–step process: (1) analysis of activities, (2) cost collection, (3) costs to activities assignment, and, (4) definition of output measures and cost calculation. This basic approach can be expanded and or otherwise modified in a number of ways in light of project time and resources constraints.

After ABC enjoyed an initial but brief period of popularity, critics complained that ABC was inaccurate for large public sector institutions due to a higher likelihood of multi–tasking, resource sharing, and incomplete data collection practices (Cooper and Kaplan, 1988). However, since 1999, when the U.S. Marine Corps began using ABC accounting to successfully trim its budgets, economists and information specialists have been discussing the return of the technique to better allocate funds during times of financial duress (Katz, 2002). With more advanced technology to track the amount of time library patrons use PACs to access individual e–government Web sites (such as IP and event logs) and detailed data reports for services rendered from staff logs and other surveys, the ABC technique has potential as an approach for costing library e–government services. ABC strategies provide an alternative to traditional cost accounting by (1) assigning resources to specific work activities (e.g., programs and services); (2) providing more accurate estimates for the cost of the work performed by accounting for both direct and indirect costs; and, (3) producing a working budget for program products and services.

Broadband and e–government

As e–government services rely on the electronic transmission of documents and services and many patrons utilize PACs and Internet to engage in e–government transactions, a discussion of broadband is relevant to understanding e–government service provision in libraries. A study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project reports that while 66 percent of American adults have high–speed broadband connections at home, some areas still struggle to connect (Smith, 2010). Others have indicated that the increasing reliance of government agencies on e–government services is possible only where public libraries support the technology needs of the underserved (Jaeger, et al., 2012). When the public’s ability to access Internet–enabled services depends on public libraries, inadequate Internet bandwidth and connection speeds become even more problematic. For libraries providing e–government services, ubiquitous broadband is particularly important as the majority of e–government service transactions involve downloading or uploading forms, permits, licenses, or other documents, as well as account management services, all actions that are expedited by high–speed broadband Internet. Studies that examine the effectiveness of e–government services based on user perceptions of the services in comparison to user perceptions of e–commerce services normally include connection speed among the variables considered (Steyaert, 2004). Lower connection speeds almost always equate to lower user satisfaction levels.

Results of two studies of broadband connectivity and use at rural Florida anchor institutions support the Pew Research Center’s survey findings (McClure, et al., 2011a, 2011b). These studies find that many anchor institutions, including libraries, do struggle with adequate broadband to meet service needs and that multiple situational factors affect broadband adoption, including administrative support, funding, broadband availability, and understanding the importance of broadband. The National Broadband Plan, which directs the implementation of the US$7.2 billion deployment of broadband infrastructure earmarked by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, states “ultimately, the value of broadband is realized when it delivers useful applications and content to end–users” [2]. For libraries, this is particularly true as broadband services are required to support e–government service provision, and provision of these services may be successful only if the libraries take maximum advantage of broadband availability.

 

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Method

This study was guided by five research questions:

RQ1. Which costs do Indiana public libraries incur in their provision of e–government services?

RQ2. Which e–government services do public libraries currently provide to Indiana residents?

RQ3. What are the benefits that result from public library provision of e–government services?
    a. What are the benefits to Indiana residents?
    b. What are the benefits to Indiana state government?
    c. What are the benefits to Indiana public libraries?

RQ4. To what extent do Indiana public libraries have, or are planning to have in the future, adequate high–speed broadband to access and deliver a range of e–government resources and services?

RQ5. How can public libraries in Indiana better leverage their knowledge of e–government to improve e–government services and better manage e–government costs in the state?

This project employed a multi–method research design comprised of five methods: Web–based survey, activity log case studies, government agency interviews, focus groups with library staff, and phone interviews with library directors. Data collection began with the activity logs, which libraries then used to complete the Web–based survey. Analysis of these first two methods ran concurrent to the research team conducting the agency interviews and focus groups with library staff. Subsequent to analysis of the data collected from all four methods, the team realized additional information was needed (and some data required confirmation, particularly given discrepancies between data reported on the activity logs and the surveys), so the team conducted phone interviews with library directors. Methods are discussed below in the same order that data were collected for the study.

The method built on previous work done on e–government (McClure, et al., 2009). The goal of the multi–method approach was to gather data from a variety of sources and to allow the strengths of some methods to overcome the weaknesses of others. For example, a survey only allows researchers to ask what questions, not why questions, but interview methods can provide data on the why, thereby strengthening the overall research (Babbie, 2012). Due to space constraints, this paper provides brief descriptions of the methods; additional details are available in Appendices A–F in the final project report (McClure, et al., 2012).

This study was exploratory in nature, meaning that it was designed solely to explore the topic of e–government service provision by Indiana libraries. The research team employed efforts, such as multiple contacts to each library outlet, to ensure the collection of valid and reliable data. Supplemental phone interviews were used in locations in which activity logs, designed to capture use data at the point and time of the transaction, were not experiencing an adequate response rate. The Indiana State library also provided a liaison to work with the study team to coordinate data collection and support the communication needs of the libraries and the study team. The team also ensured representativeness of Indiana public libraries, surveying rural and urban libraries across the state and making sure that all methods included representation from all types of Indiana public libraries.

As a first effort, the study team and library liaison agreed that pursuing the more extensive review of PAC usage in sample libraries lay beyond the scope and budget of this study but is certainly a method worth consideration for future research. This study provides a first step at evaluating public library e–government service provision in Indiana and suggests numerous areas for future research (discussed below).

Activity log case studies

The study team originally intended for Indiana public library professionals and paraprofessionals who regularly engage in e–government service provision to use the activity logs in conjunction with the self–reported survey data to report on e–government transactions conducted during a sample week. This method was designed to support ABC exercises by providing information on staff and equipment being used in the provision of e–government services in Indiana public libraries. The study team asked each library outlet to have one professional and one paraprofessional staff member complete the activity log (for a copy of the activity log worksheet, please see McClure, et al., 2012), recording the frequency, length, location, and equipment used for each e–government transaction, as well as the percentage of overall daily time they spent on local, state, and federal e–government transactions.

Due to the low response rate for the activity logs and the number of incomplete logs that were submitted, the team chose to use the activity logs instead as case studies of e–government service provision in Indiana public libraries. The activity logs that were completed do contain valuable data as they demonstrate how e–government services manifest in Indiana public libraries and the number of e–government transactions that libraries complete during an average five–day period. From the completed activity logs, the study team chose 10 to present as case studies in the final report (McClure, et al., 2012); five each from urban and rural libraries.

Web–based survey

The goals of the survey were to identify e–government service initiatives in Indiana public libraries and gather data in support of exercises to estimate the cost of these activities. While the study team initially requested that the survey be sent to a stratified sample of Indiana libraries (stratified by rurality [3]), ultimately the Indiana State Library requested that the survey be made available to all Indiana library systems resulting in a census. The study team determined that the most efficient way to conduct the survey would be to use an online survey format (in this case, using SurveyMonkey Professional software) because an online survey is more easily accessible to respondents, reliable, and cost–effective to produce than a paper–based survey (Babbie, 2012).

The survey was made available on 30 January 2012 and remained open until 23 April 2012. Ultimately, the study team sent the survey to all 238 library outlets in Indiana, and 115 libraries responded (response rate: 48.3 percent). The survey population included 126 rural and 112 urban libraries, of which 63 rural and 52 urban libraries responded, for response rates of 50.0 percent for rural libraries and 46.4 percent for urban libraries (the response rate may have been affected by the fact that libraries were completing multiple surveys for various projects that coincided with this data collection). The team coded quantitative variables for descriptive statistical analysis and reported open–ended answers verbatim.

Agency interviews

The study team conducted structured interviews with selected Indiana government agency officials to determine the extent to which state agencies provide e–government services to state residents and their familiarity with the role public libraries play in the provision of those services. Agencies with significant digital exposure were selected for participation in the interviews. The researchers developed the script for the agency interviews and the Indiana State Library liaison interviewed 10 current government agency officials representing six Indiana agencies that provide online services (for the script, please see McClure, et al., 2012). The agencies have high visibility and their staffs are either knowledgeable about the provision of e–government services to Indiana citizens or they work with public libraries in the provision of e–government services. Some interviews occurred face–to–face and others via the telephone.

Focus groups

The study team, in collaboration with the Indiana State Library liaison, conducted regional focus groups with Indiana public librarians. The purpose of the focus groups was to describe the experience of libraries as they provide e–government services to citizens and to gather details of the role that public libraries play in the provision of e–government services. The public librarian focus groups describe e–government service provision at the library reference desk, the impact of this activity upon traditional library operations, and possible areas for collaboration between libraries and government agencies to improve services to state residents.

The researchers developed both the script for the focus group conversation and the questionnaires for the participants to take prior to and immediately following the focus groups, and the Indiana State Library liaison conducted the focus groups on 30 April, 1 May, and 3 May 2012 (six total focus groups; for the script, please see McClure, et al., 2012). A total of 17 library staff attended the six sessions, which were held in different regions around the state. Each session resulted in an audio recording (one session did not result in a recording due to technical difficulties), moderator notes, and completed pre– and post–group questionnaires. A study team member compared the audio recordings to the moderator notes and found acceptable reliability between the two sets of data.

Phone interviews

The original research design did not include phone interviews with library staff. Low response rates for the activity logs and survey and incomplete data from the activity logs suggested a need for follow–up telephone interviews with library directors to gather supplemental information to flesh out the data collected in the activity logs and survey in support of the ABC efforts. Interviews were structured and followed a set interview schedule (for the script, please see McClure, et al., 2012). The study team conducted 17 follow–up telephone interviews with Indiana public library directors. The original plan was to conduct 20–25 interviews, but after 15 interviews, the study team felt that the saturation point had been reached. The study team then conducted two additional interviews to verify that saturation had occurred, and analysis revealed that respondents provided the same answers to the majority of the questions.

Data analyses

The study team analyzed data from each method individually, producing individual reports of findings. Then the team integrated the findings according to emergent key themes. The team used quantitative analyses for the majority of survey questions, pre– and post–focus group questionnaires, and some of the phone interview questions. All other data analyses were qualitative, employing thematic content analysis of interview transcripts, focus group moderator notes, and open–ended survey questions. Integration of the data also employed thematic analysis, with the team identifying emergent themes across the method–specific findings.

 

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Findings

Findings related to public library e–government service provision

This project identified eight broad themes related to public library e–government service provision in Indiana:

  • E–government service provision is situational;
  • Library staff and patrons need additional training;
  • Libraries and state agencies are tentative about communicating with each other;
  • Benefits of public library provision of e–government services are recognized;
  • Usability improvements could be made to the IN.gov site;
  • Many libraries do not see insufficient broadband and connectivity issues as barriers to quality e–government service provision;
  • Limited funding for technology resources may contribute to less than ideal service; and,
  • Costing of e–government services is a complicated process.

Detailed findings by method are available in the final report (McClure, et al., 2012).

The study findings indicate that the situational nature of e–government service provisions varies library by library across the state and that estimates of the frequency of e–government transactions vary among different staff members in the same library system. Overall, survey respondents estimated their library staffs spend less than 10 percent of their time engaging in e–government service transactions but further data indicates that urban library staff members spend about 40 percent of their time and rural library staff members spend about 15 percent of their time on e–government transactions. Activity logs also show wide variation in estimates of time spent on e–government service provision across staff members. This discrepancy could be the result of several different factors such as a disconnect between the library administration and staff regarding the frequency of e–government services, an uneven distribution of work among certain positions when dealing with patrons with e–government inquiries, or errors with the self–reported data.

Study participants across the state agree that there is a definite need for additional training of both library staff and patrons about the range of issues involved with the provision of e–government services and resources, including access, legality, security, and general computer literacy. Inadequately trained e–government staff was the most frequently reported issue that libraries must address to provide high quality e–government service (reported by 63.0 percent percent of survey respondents and frequently mentioned in interviews and focus groups).

Additionally, the study finds that both participating libraries and participating state agency representatives recognize that there are benefits from public library e–government service provision, such as free Internet access for patrons, increased visibility for libraries, and reduced staff and printing costs for agencies (a typology of benefits identified from this study is available in Table 1). Both libraries and state agencies would be willing to communicate more in order to improve the accessibility, usability, and quality of e–government services offered in Indiana, but neither side is comfortable initiating the process to build stronger partnerships.

 

Table 1: Descriptive typology of benefits of public library e–government service provision.
CategoryAgenciesLibraries
Reduced costs
  • from providing paper–based forms, applications, and licenses
  • for technology through referral to library PACs
  • from closing local offices
  • from increased revenue
  • through partnerships with government agencies providing additional resources/equipment to library
Increased efficiency
  • from reduced agency staff time
  • in delivery of services
  • from better organization of e–government resources for public access
  • through better communication with public about government projects
  • due to a greater ability for government agencies to respond to problems and comments
  • because library staff have increased knowledge of government programs to assist patrons
  • because public has better knowledge of state, federal, and local government services
  • through development of working partnerships with government agencies
Increased use
  • of e–government services by the public
  • due to improved public understanding of government programs/goals/objectives
  • of government programs
  • of the library
  • due to increased library visibility
Increased satisfaction
  • as a result of having more information about the issues and problems local residents face
  • because it provides an avenue for patrons to complain about poor government programs/services
  • patrons are more likely to value/support library
  • patrons are more satisfied with their use of the library

 

The study also finds that many libraries fail to recognize that insufficient broadband connectivity is a barrier to providing adequate e–government services and they are unaware of existing discrepancies and connectivity issues identified through this research. While 93.0 percent of libraries responding to the survey rated their information technology services to be good, very good, or excellent, there is a discrepancy between advertised speeds and actual speeds measured on PACs and staff workstations. Most libraries experience speeds slower than advertised (See Figure 1 for speeds at PACs and Figure 2 for speeds at staff workstations). For example, where only 6.1 percent of libraries reported advertised speeds below 1.5 Mbps, more than 20 percent reported experiencing speeds below 1.5 Mbps downstream, significantly more than the 6.1 percent who think this is their maximum speed). In fact, over 93 percent of libraries report advertised downstream speeds of greater than 1.5 Mbps but less than 80 percent are receiving this speed of service.

This indicates that librarians may not be aware of the actual quality of their Internet connections, instead assuming that the speeds advertised by their Internet service providers (ISPs) are the speeds actually experienced at the workstation.

 

Comparison of advertised speeds to actual upstream and downstream speeds on public computers
 
Figure 1: Comparison of advertised speeds to actual upstream and downstream speeds on public computers.

 

 

Comparison of advertised speeds to actual upstream and downstream speeds on staff computers
 
Figure 2: Comparison of advertised speeds to actual upstream and downstream speeds on staff computers.

 

Despite evidence that a large percentage of libraries are not experiencing the speeds their Internet service providers (ISPs) advertise at the workstation level, very few libraries (16.4 percent of survey respondents) identified broadband connectivity as an obstacle to providing good e–government service. Poor connectivity may be causing these libraries to offer less than ideal services for e–government activities due to inadequate and underperforming broadband connections, particularly since library Internet connections must support simultaneous use by multiple users on multiple workstations. Mandel, et al. (2012) note “The ability of U.S. public libraries to provide free public Internet access and Internet–enabled services to American communities is impacted by the speed and bandwidth of the libraries’ Internet connections.” Indiana public librarians do not perceive this to be an issue, although libraries are paying annually, on average, over US$11,000 for each location, for Internet connections that are not delivering the speeds as advertised.

Costing e–government services was complicated by variations in reporting among libraries on the survey, self–reported data (also from the survey), and a set of assumptions (e.g., that all professional staff work 40 hours per week). Survey data were analyzed to provide estimates of time and assignment of resources to e–government service provision. Cost exercises for resources included costs for salaries (2010 Indiana Public Library statistics), as well as equipment, materials, and computing costs (reported on the surveys). The following calculations are estimates only and are provided here to offer a beginning calculation of the state–wide cost of public library e–government service provision.

Statewide salary costs attributed to e–government services were extracted from 2010 Indiana Public Library statistics for all salaries and wages and multiplied by total time spent on e–government transactions, as reported on the survey. The total of US$70,423,374.30 assumed that every library staff member is an e–government support staff member. Thus, the cost of salaries for e–government services amounts to 50 percent of all salaries and wages in Indiana public libraries. On a per staff member basis, average costs were computed for urban and rural professional and paraprofessional staff: US$15,556.06 for urban professionals, US$11,704.52 for urban paraprofessionals, US$4,358.10 for rural professionals, and US$4,419.85 for rural paraprofessionals.

Libraries reported computer and ISP costs for FY 2011 on the survey; these costs comprise the largest portion of libraries’ equipment, materials, and computing costs. Computer costs (estimated annual, state–wide total: US$2,975,013.07) are 46.5 percent of the average total resource costs for all libraries, and ISP costs (estimated annual, state–wide total: US$2,819,839.23) are 44.9 percent of the estimated total resource costs for all libraries. Together these costs equal over 90 percent of the total annual resource costs for all libraries in Indiana (US$6,348,358.16). On a per library basis, total resource costs for e–government service provision are estimated at US$26,419.60 annually, including an average of US$12,273.17 for computers and US$11,858.96 for ISP costs.

Findings related to the methodology

The study team had high hopes for the efficacy of the activity log data collection, as this approach offered a way to gather accurate data regarding what actually occurs during e–government transactions in public libraries and support the ABC efforts. The activity logs were designed to provide valid information about the time dedicated to and equipment used during e–government transactions in public libraries. However, the low response rate for the activity logs and the number of incomplete logs that were submitted resulted in the exercise failing to provide sufficient data to support this purpose.

The study team believes that the activity logs that were submitted incomplete resulted from participants misunderstanding the instructions. Pre–testing, however, did not reveal any problems with the instructions. Both the researchers and the Indiana State Library liaison pre–tested the activity logs and did not find pre–testers struggling to understand the instructions. Therefore, the activity logs were sent out with the original instructions, and by the time incomplete logs were submitted, it was too late in the data collection process to alter the instructions or log sheets.

In light of the low participation rate for the activity logs and the incomplete logs that were submitted, the study team suggests the following modifications for future implementation of this exercise in order to procure a more usable data pool for ABC exercises:

  • Choose a smaller, sample group for participation instead of sending out packets to each and every outlet, allowing for a more targeted recruitment strategy and more opportunities for follow up with participants;
  • Require participants to record exact times of transactions instead of ranges in order to have more specific times to use in calculating costs;
  • For the recruited sample group, personalize the activity log forms so that all desirable identification information is included (e.g., library outlet name, professional title, etc.), minimizing opportunities for incomplete or “mystery logs” that cannot be attributed to any particular outlet; and,
  • Average the results of individual outlet–level logs into system–level estimates for further use with other Indiana State Library statistics such as the 2010 Public Library Annual Report.

Other revisions also could be made to pre–identify the types of transactions, websites visited, number of government Web sites visited in a single transaction, or use of Ask–a–Librarian services for e–government inquiries. This would allow further customization of the log sheets, potentially gathering richer and more useful data for costing exercises.

Beyond the challenges in administering the activity logs, determining the cost of staffing support for e–government services in Indiana public libraries is challenging due to the unique classification system for professional and paraprofessional status established by Indiana public libraries, the challenges associated with system–level analysis, and the unexpected difficulties with procuring data that worked within the parameters of the project. Likewise, determining the cost of equipment, materials, computers, and ISP services used to support e–government service provision in Indiana public libraries is challenging due to the great variety of amounts that were reported on the survey. Every state has its own definitions and situational factors that can make developing a one–size–fits–all model for costing public library e–government services unfeasible.

 

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Issues and future research

Issues

The study resulted in identifying a number of issues that the Indiana State Library and the public library community could address. One issue area is training and specific actions that could be taken include:

  • Develop a state–wide training program related to the provision of e–government services for selected state agencies that can be offered through various media and via assorted methods.
  • To facilitate development of that program, hold a state–wide conference to discuss measures for identifying and addressing problems of communication between government agencies and public libraries.
  • Based on input from state agency representatives, develop agency–specific training modules for librarians with best practices for providing state–level e–government services.

These activities are derived from interviews with state agency representatives and library directors. Both groups indicated that training is a critical component to quality provision of e–government services. Such training can increase library staff members’ awareness of e–government services and issues, comfort with and capability in providing e–government services, and overall user satisfaction with e–government service provision in Indiana.

A second key issue has to do with collaborations among Indiana state agency officials, the Indiana State Library, and the broader public library community. Some specific strategies to consider regarding this issue include:

  • Determine a target group of state agencies with which the Indiana State Library and public libraries could collaborate, based on factors such as the agencies’ level of desire to work with libraries, degree to which libraries engage in the provision of services for the agencies, and degree of difficulty of providing services for the agencies.
  • Develop a strategy for soliciting agencies’ input, such as holding a state–wide conference to discuss measures for identifying and addressing problems of communication between government agencies and public libraries, and actively recruit agency participation in this conference.
  • Establish a set channel through which agencies can communicate changes in government policy to public library staff quickly and easily. A possible mechanism to do this is the establishment of a library e–government council or working group that collaborates and communicates with a group of agencies that are interested in working closely with public libraries in the provision of e–government services. Another possible mechanism is for the Indiana State Library to serve as the liaison/collaborator with other state agencies, with the Indiana State Library then pushing information out to individual libraries.
  • Develop an outreach campaign, in collaboration with IN.gov, to inform the public about which e–government services are available at public libraries, potentially including a public library e–government service portal that includes resources for librarians and the public.

Forging better working relationships between agencies and libraries (as a group or individually) would position Indiana as a model of e–government service provision, as well as improving libraries’ and agencies’ abilities to provide high quality e–government services to Indiana residents.

Future research

As stated earlier in this paper, the study was an exploratory effort; thus, one of the products from such a study is identification of areas for additional research. In fact, the study identified numerous possible areas for future research, of which only a selection are identified here:

  • User satisfaction research: Efforts here include identifying whether (or to what degree) users are satisfied with public library e–government service provision and if increasing resources to public libraries could improve users’ satisfaction with public library e–government service provision;
  • Pre– and post–training evaluation: This effort could evaluate the degree to which training programs are effective (either training for librarians or training for the public), the degree to which they meet user information needs, and if training can be linked directly or indirectly to improved quality of e–government services;
  • Onsite service observations: Observations of e–government transactions at select libraries during sample time periods could determine more precisely the amount of time libraries are spending on e–government service provision, better understand the types of transactions that occur and the interactions between library staff and patrons, and assess the e–government information needs of users;
  • Costing of services: Investigate further into costing of e–government services, such as how much does each transaction cost in the traditional paper format, online directly through an agency Web site, and online with help from a public library, with the resulting numbers compared to determine cost savings of e–government versus paper government transactions in general and of e–government transactions through a public library versus e–government transactions directly through an agency Web site;
  • Awareness: Although it is clear that patrons are aware of some of the e–government services they can access in libraries, they likely are not aware of the full extent of these services and it is clear that agencies are not aware of the extent of public libraries’ involvement in e–government service provision, so it would be useful to investigate how best to market public library e–government services to patrons and agencies, and use the results of that market research to develop a marketing plan.

Within each of these areas a number of possible research questions and data collection strategies are possible. The degree to which state library agencies, public libraries, various researchers, and funding agencies are interested in continuing this research effort, however, remains to be seen.

 

++++++++++

Future importance of e–government services

State library agencies and the nation’s public libraries increasingly recognize the importance of e–government services and the likelihood that more — not less — commitment to the provision of these services will be necessary in the future. Federal, state, and local governments find that the electronic distribution of government information is an efficient means for them to inform their citizens and residents. In addition, the increased availability of broadband speeds and capacity for both libraries and individual households will further drive the dependence on e–government service provision at public libraries where users have free access to high–speed broadband Internet and computers. Statewide planning for the provision of e–government, such as that being developed in Indiana, will be needed to insure both access to and use of e–government resources.

At the same time that individual state library agencies and public libraries continue to promote access to and use of e–government, a number of current initiatives (as of this writing) are underway. One example is an e–government interactive Web site developed by Pasco County (Fla.) public library (http://www.pascolibraries.org/egovt.shtml); a second initiative is a University of Maryland project Libraries & E–government: New Partnerships in Public Service (http://ipac.umd.edu/our-work/egovernment-partnerships); and there is continued development and expansion of the federal portal at http://www.usa.gov/. These are but a few of the initiatives that bode well for improved access to and use of e–government services in the U.S. In these and other examples there is a need for continued research and assessment to better meet user needs for e–government services and resources.

Continued maintenance of these initiatives will be very difficult without financial support for these services. Public library budgets are being cut in the face of an economic recession, making it more and more challenging for libraries to update computers, support faster broadband speeds, and educate staff to be proficient users of computers who can train users on how to use computers and e–government services. The concept of value is not new to libraries, and it has increased importance in an economic climate where government agencies compete against each for scarce funding. Libraries need to be able to identify the specific costs they incur while providing e–government services and show how those services benefit their users, communities, and other government agencies. It is hoped that this research will serve as a catalyst for other such efforts toward costing and valuating public library e–government service provision. End of article

 

About the authors

Lauren H. Mandel (Ph.D., Florida State University; M.S. in LIS, Simmons College) is an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Library and Information Studies. She previously worked as the Research Coordinator at the Information Institute. Her research interests include public library facility design, wayfinding, and geographic information studies.
E–mail: lauren_mandel [at] uri [dot] edu

Charles R. McClure (Ph.D., Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; M.L.S., University of Oklahoma; M.A., Oklahoma State University) is Francis Eppes Professor of Information Studies and Director, Florida State University, Information Institute (http://www.ii.fsu.edu/). He has published extensively on topics related to planning and evaluation of library services, information policy, and digital libraries. His most recent co–authored books are Public libraries and Internet service roles: Measuring and maximizing Internet services (American Library Association, 2009) and Public libraries and the Internet: Roles, perspectives, and implications (Libraries Unlimited, 2011).
Direct comments to: cmmclure [at] lis [dot] fsu [dot] edu

Debra Guenther is a full–time graduate student pursuing a Master of Science degree in Information Studies and an additional Museum Studies certificate from Florida State University. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in History from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. and has previously worked for both the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt University and the Vanderbilt Television News Archives. She has avid interests in museum education, museum informatics, information policy, e–government, and information outreach projects.
E–mail: cdmg11b [at] my [dot] fsu [dot] edu

Laura I. Spears came to the Information Institute in June 2011 as a recipient of the 2011 Information Institute Fellowship award, was recently name Research Coordinator for the Institute, and is a doctoral student at the Florida State University School of Library and Information Studies. Her professional interests are in library leadership and advocacy, ICT technician and intermediary education and the creation and intermediation of personal information management. Before working at the Institute, she worked as the Director of the Society of the Four Arts King Library in Palm Beach, Fla. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Science in Library and Information Studies from Florida State University.
E–mail: lib03 [at] my [dot] fsu [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Kim, 2011, p. 113.

2. U.S. Federal Communications Commission, 2010, p. 15.

3. Determination of rurality was complicated by the various definitions of urban, rural, and suburban in use by different agencies in Indiana and the U.S. After revaluating the available information on rurality designation and discussing the desired outcomes of the project with the Library project liaison, the study team determined that the most appropriate way to designate Indiana public library systems as urban or rural would be following the county’s rating in the index of relative rurality (IRR), a robust locality designation system. For more detail on this decision, please see the final report (McClure, et al., 2012).

 

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Editorial history

Received 16 July 2013; revised 29 October 2013; accepted 30 October 2013.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Costs of and benefits resulting from public library e–government service provision: Findings and future directions from an exploratory study
by Lauren H. Mandel, Laura I. Spears, Debra Guenther, and Charles R. McClure.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 12 - 2 December 2013
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4805/3803
doi:10.5210/fm.v18i12.4805





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