Expert Commentary

Costs of and benefits resulting from public library e-government services

2013 study in First Monday on how public libraries are increasingly playing a role, largely unfunded, in helping citizens navigate government services.

Book shelves in a library

America has more than 16,000 public libraries, and many have seen significant changes in recent years. In particular, the rise of the Internet has modified demands for their services and expanded their mission, even as their budgets have frequently been slashed. Information is now much more plentifully available on the Web, making libraries potentially less necessary. But it has turned out that the facilities themselves, the computers and information technology that they house, and the basic Internet access that they offer has made them essential service providers in communities. Further, the skills of trained information professionals are much in demand, as Web literacy does not come easily to all citizens.

According to the American Library Association, visits to libraries and use of their computers have continued to increase over the past decade. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found in a 2013 survey that an estimated 54% of all Americans have used a public library in the past year; among those polled, 63% said the closing of their library would have a “major impact” on the community, and 81% agreed that they provide many services that people have a hard time finding elsewhere. Women, African-Americans, Hispanics, adults who live in lower-income households and adults who have lower levels of education are more likely to say the range of public library services are very important to them.

Public libraries not only represent a certain vision of culture and community, but they also are increasingly becoming a fundamental part of the mechanics of democracy. Many have taken on what are called “e-gov” services: Librarians and staff helping citizens navigate government websites, filling out forms and facilitating literacy with the entire “dot-gov” bureaucracy. Pew’s research suggests that 53% of Americans say that getting help applying for government services at public libraries is now “very important” or “somewhat important” to them and their family. But much of this important public service work has not come with extra funding from government.

A December 2013 study in First Monday, “Costs of and Benefits Resulting from Public Library E-Government Services Provision: Findings and Future Directions from an Exploratory Study,” focuses on the library system in Indiana, which has made a significant commitment to providing e-gov services, and looks at the effects of associated “unfunded mandates.” The authors — Lauren H. Mandel of the University of Rhode Island, and Laura I. Spears, Debra Guenther and Charles R. McClure of Florida State University — analyze the costs of services provided to citizens, the benefits to communities and the technology needs. Quantifying this value is a first step toward evaluating funding requests and precisely defining this emerging role for libraries. The researchers used surveys, focus groups and interviews to gather data.

The study’s findings include:

  • The intensity of e-government activity varies widely among libraries in Indiana: “Overall, survey respondents estimated their library staffs spend less than 10% of their time engaging in e-government service transactions but further data indicates that urban library staff members spend about 40% of their time and rural library staff members spend about 15% of their time on e-government transactions.”
  • The time costs of these services are substantial and amount to about half 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.”
  • The technical costs associated with e-government are also large: “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 [Internet Service Provider] costs.”
  • Libraries frequently do not have sufficient broadband speed to fully satisfy the needs of the public: “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.” Each library is paying, on average, $11,000 a year for broadband access, but Internet upload/download speeds are often inadequate.

“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,” the researchers conclude. “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.”

Keywords: local reporting

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