No longer is a library’s sole function to lend books to patrons. But despite their mission morphing and adapting to changing technology (hello, e-books!), public libraries continue to play a central role in people’s lives.
Case in point: A 2013 survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 63% of people said that closing a library would have a big impact on their community. Additionally, women, low-income people, African-Americans, and people with lower levels of education were especially likely to say that libraries offered essential services to them.
One such important service? Access to e-government, which consists of all the information and forms that the government makes available online to its citizens. A study First Monday published last December sought to determine the extent to which people rely on libraries to access e-government services — everything from filling out tax forms to registering for FEMA assistance to learning about government programs. The study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Rhode Island and Florida State, found that librarians are spending a significant amount of their time and resources helping patrons access and interact with e-government services.
The researchers examined libraries in Indiana and found a big variance in how much each one is used for e-government, with urban library staffs spending up to 40% of their time helping people with such tasks, while rural librarians spend 15% of their time doing so. The study estimated that it costs each library about $26,000 a year to provide the computers and internet access necessary for e-government — but even at that somewhat reasonable cost, libraries are finding it difficult to fund the broadband necessary for smooth access. The authors of the study write, “Public library budgets are being cut in the face of economic recession, making it more and more challenging for libraries to update computers, support faster broadband speeds, and educate staff.” Perhaps spreading the word about just how much Americans rely on libraries will help rally support to make their funding a priority.