Libraries Can Connect the Public to Open Government

In recent years, government has increasingly embraced the proactive disclosure of information and created online tools to increase transparency. But how do Americans discover that information? Who helps them learn how to use complex government databases and tools? The answer may be a surprisingly familiar one: libraries.

Libraries have traditionally played a leading role in helping the public discover and use government information. However, the rapid expansion of e-government creates new opportunities and challenges for empowering the public with such information. The Government Printing Office (GPO) is now considering a proposal that could help libraries around the country to modernize and expand their government information services, supporting equitable public access to information and amplifying the impact of open government initiatives.

Government information services in libraries

Even as government information is increasingly available online, libraries continue to play an important role in supporting public access. One in four American adults does not have Internet access at home, and in almost two-thirds of communities, libraries are the only source of free Internet access. Moreover, libraries are well practiced at assisting the public in discovering and using government information, through reference services, information literacy training, and curation.

However, government services in libraries have typically focused on providing assistance with government programs, such as applying for unemployment benefits or filing taxes, or traditional information sources, such as statutes and congressional records. These limitations have been kept in place by libraries' resource constraints: public library budgets in particular have suffered throughout the most recent economic downturn, even as demand for library services has grown.

Many Americans might be interested in exploring information from new government websites, such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission's complaints database or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's MyEnvironment tool. It's unclear, though, to what extent libraries are helping connect their patrons to such tools.

Federal Depository Library Program

A proposal under consideration at GPO could change that. The proposal arises from a review of the agency's Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP). FDLP distributes free copies of government publications to participating libraries that agree to provide public access to and preservation of those documents, helping to ensure equitable access to government information.

GPO commissioned a study to explore and recommend reforms to the program, which was completed by consulting firm Ithaka S+R in May 2011. GPO rejected the Ithaka report, but nevertheless released it for public consideration, stating, "The models proposed by Ithaka are not practical and sustainable to meet the mission, goals, and principles of the FDLP. Nonetheless, GPO believes that the final report has some value." In addition, GPO solicited comments responding to the Ithaka report and will host a day-long public meeting to discuss potential reforms on Oct. 20.

The report paints a picture of a program that is struggling to fulfill its core responsibility of ensuring equitable public access to government information in the light of technological changes. The number of participating libraries in FDLP has declined in recent years – more than 1,200 today, down from about 1,400 in 1992 – as libraries question the relevance of the traditional FDLP collection and preservation activities in today's digital environment. Libraries' formal responsibilities under the program do not include the user services and outreach needed to support the public's use of government information, and the program has lagged in its inclusion of new e-government tools.

Supporting a new generation of government information services

In its comments on the Ithaka report, OMB Watch argued that a change in strategy is necessary to fulfill the FDLP's core mission in a digital age, echoing many of the report's recommendations. In addition to modernizing the program's collection and preservation activities, OMB Watch recommended three priority reforms:

  • Create a services role. The new role would identify key opportunities for libraries to connect patrons with federal government information. For instance, the program would promote resources available to help libraries train patrons on the use of information tools, such as the training resources under development for GPO's FDsys. In addition, the program could promote innovative outreach strategies that libraries could use to increase patron awareness of government information tools, thus extending their reach.
  • Broaden the information sources supported. The program should seek to modernize the materials supported by library services, adding new databases and online tools. GPO should leverage its vantage point as the government's publisher to keep abreast of agencies' newest online information services. The need for coordination between agency e-government services and libraries was recognized in the Federal Communications Commission's 2009 National Broadband Plan. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is currently funding a pilot project to develop partnerships between libraries and federal agencies in delivering e-government, which could inform these collaborations.
  • Expand the libraries participating. More than 1,200 libraries currently participate in the FDLP, many of which are academic libraries. By comparison, there are more than 9,000 public libraries in the U.S., many of which have multiple branches. By expanding the number of libraries participating in the new services role, FDLP could make it easier for many Americans to access expert assistance with using government information. A marketing campaign could make more Americans aware of the services available to them.

Although many of these changes could be implemented administratively, the reforms would be more effective if enacted through legislation. In particular, Congress could require agencies to coordinate with the program, ensuring that new information tools would be supported.

In addition, Congress would need to provide adequate resources in order to ensure the program's success. Increased funding will be difficult to find amidst the deep federal budget cuts that Congress is pursuing. Tight budgets at the state and local level already have libraries across the country limiting hours, cutting staff, and closing branches, so Congress would likely also need to allocate additional resources to IMLS to support libraries in implementing these new services. However, even modest investments in these areas could pay big dividends in expanding the use of open government tools, thus strengthening the relationship between citizens and their government and supporting a flourishing of civic imagination.

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