Libraries to study government information digital divide

A new federally funded Internet access study comes too late for a couple of computer technology center programs that could have applied its findings.

Required by the E-Government Act of 2002, a General Services Administration study, released in January, recommended that the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) further explore government information access. Based on suggestions in the report, “Improving Access to the Internet -- A Report to Congress," IMLS started a two year-study, "User satisfaction with access to government information and services at public libraries and public access computing centers.”

The government wants to know how citizens with limited access to the Internet use government services and whether those users are happy with the access they find at public libraries, Boys & Girls Clubs and other community organizations that provide Internet access. As part of the E-Government Act, government officials seek to find information about the government information digital divide and then eliminate it.

A solicitation for a cooperative agreement to study Internet user satisfaction appeared in the Federal Register May 20. Proposals are due July 20, and IMLS estimates it will award the $500,000 project Sept. 30. Officials expect to release a report on the findings in October 2007. Eligible libraries include public, academic, not-for-profit, archives and library consortia.

Community technology center advocates are excited about the study. But budget cuts prevent some of their programs that bring digital networks to communities from benefiting from the results. Two programs slated to be cut include the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Technology Opportunities Program and the Education Department 's Community Technology Centers Program, both of which brought renewed attention to the sections of the E-Government Act that apply to the digital information divide.

The NTIA programs ends in fiscal 2005. Meanwhile, the Bush administration's proposed budget recommends eliminating Education's program because it "has limited impact and funding for similar activities available through other federal agencies."

"That there is very little in its place at present to build upon the findings and ideas developed through hard work on the 213 and 215 reports suggests a broader disconnect between the vision for a connected, engaged, society and citizenry; and the reality of sustainable systems, tools, and resources to serve and support them," said Ryan Turner, policy and communications director for the Community Technology Centers' Network, a national nonprofit association that is not affiliated with the federal CTC program run by the Department of Education.

Turner says more analysis is needed on agency-level government services.

"The [first] report goes a long ways to gathering existing data from agency, academic and practitioners around gaps in access,” he said. “Where it comes up short is providing a better baseline, based upon actual agency usage, of the actual government services that are being delivered. We know -- both through client and organizational experience -- that access to information, and tools to facilitate that access, increasingly requires a level of programmatic and technical knowledge, skill and proficiency that is lacking in some agencies."

IMLS is an independent federal grant-making agency, serving the nation’s libraries and museums. Its study will answer questions such as:

* What are user preferences for the means of delivery of federal, state and local government services and information?

* Where does the population with limited access to online resources go to get government information and services?

* What training do public libraries and public access computing centers provide to assist users who want to access government information and services? And what training is available for those library and center officials?

* How effectively do classes, training, tutorials and reference services increase the public’s information and government media awareness?

* To what extent do public libraries and public access computing centers help people who cannot regularly use computers access government information?

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