Public libraries need more funding as they are increasingly becoming de facto e-government sites for everything from disaster relief to medical drug plans, according to a new Florida State University study.
Government agencies are now referring people to public libraries for access and assistance with online services, a trend that is perceived by many librarians as both an opportunity and an unfunded mandate, said FSU College of Information Professor John Carlo Bertot
who, along with FSU Francis Eppes Professor Charles R. McClure, research associate Lesley Langa and Paul T. Jaeger of the University of Maryland, conducted the 2006 national "Public Libraries and the Internet Survey." The final report on the study will be posted Oct. 1 at http://www.ii.fsu.edu/plinternet/.
"The increased reliance on public libraries for access to e-government services places new pressure on the public library’s technology and personnel nfrastructures," Bertot said. "Libraries are struggling to keep up with the demand. To control their own costs, federal and state agencies are shifting the burden of e-government to public libraries with little regard for the impact on these front-line service providers."
About 64 percent of the 4,818 library personnel who responded to the survey indicated that their information technology budgets were not increased over the previous year, and 5 percent said the technology budgets were actually cut, Bertot said. While 45 percent of the respondents said their library did receive an increase in operating funds, nearly all of those funds went to salaries and benefits.
"Libraries are clearly not receiving additional support for e-government and disaster services," Bertot said. "Even a stagnant budget is actually a cut in funding when service costs and inflation are taken into consideration."
About 90 percent of funding for Internet and computer access in public libraries comes from local government sources, Bertot said. State funding varies but is generally very small, and the federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) provides roughly 1
percent of overall public library operating budgets.
Knowing some clients do not have Internet access, many government agencies send them to public libraries to apply for benefits and complete forms that are available only online. Even when they don’t need a computer, many people are going to public libraries for help
in understanding government services, as the survey respondents said was the case last year with the new mandatory Medicare prescription drug coverage plans.
Many librarians said they have become ad hoc experts on everything from student loan applications to tax documents, but others indicated they need more training if they are going to help members of the community with these types of government services.
Libraries also are increasingly being called upon to provide disaster relief, a function that is causing additional strain on resources, Bertot said. The survey found that almost all libraries provide expanded Internet access to emergency service providers and the public during disasters, such as hurricanes. In addition, many libraries are being used as shelters, and one library in Florida actually runs the emergency call center during disasters.
Some libraries have tried to respond to the increased demand by adding more public computers and wireless access for those who can bring their own laptops, but the lack of money, space and technology support has hindered their efforts, Bertot said. Still, the survey indicated that more than 36 percent of libraries now have wireless access.
To respond to the changes in the role of public libraries and help meet the funding challenges that accompany these new demands, Bertot and his colleagues offered several recommendations. Among them: Recognize libraries as outlets for e-government services in
legislation, policy initiatives and program literature; provide training for library staff regarding e-government service; and provide direct support from federal, state and local agencies to public libraries for the services they offer on behalf of the agencies.
The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association.