Libraries as Linchpins of #Gov20 and #OpenGov

When I was a kid, I spent hours at the local library – especially during the summer when we were off from school.

I’d grab a bunch of books and bring them home, often staying up late reading them with a flashlight in bed under the covers. I’d knock ’em all out, then go back the next day for more.

Those experiences at the library are some of my favorite childhood memories.

As I moved on to college, the library remained a special place for me. I’d often find a couch or cozy chair in a quiet corner, oscillating between study and sleep.

Sometimes I’d get lost in a section, searching for one book that led me down a rabbit hole to reams and reams of previously undiscovered knowledge. It never felt like wasted time (or procrastination!). 🙂

I also spent a couple college summers working in a homeless shelter. We didn’t allow the men to hang out at the house during the day, so where did they go?

You guessed it: the library.

Since I was an undergrad in the mid-90’s, the Internet had really just begun to become influential at our institution, so we weren’t spending massive amounts of time surfing the Web. Computers were limited and connections were awfully slow (and noisy).

As an adult, I haven’t been spending as much time at the library, but my newborn baby boy is making me think about it again. I’d like to instill in him a love for learning and for places like the library.

At the same time, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “So what?” behind what we’re calling “Gov 2.0” or “Open Government.” We can plaster the Web with public information, open datasets and crowd-sourcing tools. Blogs and wikis and webinars offer more access to more people.

But what if they don’t have a way of connecting to the Web? What if they don’t work in a job where they’re sitting in front of a monitor all day and they don’t have the money to buy a PC and high-speed Internet at home? What if some people feel a bit intimidated by the Internet due to limited access and/or lack of knowledge about it?

According to the National Broadband Plan, 14 million people in the US do not have access to high speed broadband infrastructure. Only 40% of adults making less than $20,000 have broadband at home and rates of adoption are under 10% for our Tribal lands. The Plan states explicitly: “Hardware and software are too expensive for some. Others lack the skills to use broadband.”

So let me suggest that the library is the linchpin – the indispensable hub of access and education.

I am not the first or only person advocating for this idea. In fact, Justin Grimes inspired me at last year’s Open Government and Innovations Conference during an incredible lunch conversation and I’ve heard Sandra Fernandez of the Houston Public Library describe her institution as a primary point of access for citizens in her community.

What are your ideas or examples of libraries as the linchpins for connecting citizens to government information and engagement?

I’d love to get lost in a virtual library of ideas that we generate here.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

From – “A central cohesive element”

I’d say blogs have more commentary…forums tend to get right more to the question. You can learn more about the differences between blogs, forums, etc. on GovLoop here.

Megan Price

Great post Andy!

I often find myself thinking about the same issues…there are people (apparently millions of them) who can not access the internet or the wealth of knowledge currently found on it. As government becomes open and more accessible it is important to make the same knowledge available to those who are unable to tap into the “world wide web”.

Library’s are a wonderful place to get lost in. I agree they are the entities that house knowledge for all people (with or without internet access) and should not be ignored or forgotten about as the internet continues to exponentially grow. Because libraries are free and full of information they will hold together all citizens as a common place for people to access.

Patrick Quinn

I’m torn.

Right now, this minute, it’s undeniably the case that libraries serve as essential net portals for a great many people. Given that government on all levels is moving data to the web at an astounding rate, then libraries are indeed vital elements in connecting the government and the governed. I’m OK w/ that; it’s a digital iteration of something libraries have been doing for a long time.

What gives me pause is the thought that libraries will eventually become nothing more than web portals. (Disclosure: I am convinced that the printed book will be around for a long, long, long time, and do not know a single serious reader of any age who feels differently.) All the wonderful characteristics of the library you describe, all the wonderful experiences you had, all that goes out the window when we turn libraries into collections of self-service internet kiosks.

So I vacillate. Yes, we need to democratize information, and as quickly as possible, but I hate the thought of my favorite libraries turning into Kinkos. Like every other instance of creative disruption, we need to ensure that we maintain the best of the old as we embrace the new.

Faye Newsham


I recall the first time I was allowed to walk to the public library (1/2 block from my house on the same side of the street) all by myself when I was about 6 (I think mom hid behind trees, but the 70s were a different time!). I have the great fortune to have been raised by a librarian and a computer geek when computers were something of Science Fiction and movies. When I was in High School my mother was getting her first masters and worked as a cataloger in the college library, we had a microfiche reader in the house (auctioned by the university that summer). My first job was in that same college library where I was helping convert from the card catalog to the computer the humanities collection. I have had a hard time getting my kids into a library because we have such good access to information and a large collection of reference works (ok, born geek, I collect dictionaries and print encyclopedias). They are more likely to visit McDonalds for internet access then they are our local library… with that said, the importance of the public library cannot be touted enough, I think our public access to internet and information is critical to successful transition through this tough elitist period we’re currently experiencing. We’re currently segregated by access to information and should be fighting tooth and nail to ensure our local public libraries have the resources to accommodate everyone. I would actually love to see more, smaller, localized libraries in every neighborhood… as ubiquitous as a Starbucks… a linchpin of access to information.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Megan – Libraries can definitely serve as a central place for gathering citizens, especially in rural area of our country…places like Colo, IA where I grew up!

@Patrick – What if something else happened when libraries become a hub? What if people go there looking for links and are lured to the shelves where wonderful books await them?

@Faye – Love the idea of little “libraries” on every corner. What if Starbucks and McDonald’s leveraged their land grabs and locations to be just that? Also, say more about “tough elitist period we’re going through” – got stats and stories to back up that idea? Are you talking about a digital divide? Just in the US or on a global scale?

Caryn Wesner-Early

I’ve been saying this since 1989, when I finished my Master’s in Library Science:
As information grows, keeping track of it is becoming a full-time job. And who has that full-time job? Librarians!

The Internet is, fortunately, available at most public and university libraries, and (a crippled version of it) at most schools as well. However, it’s a full-time job to figure out the right places to go for the information people want, as Google et al. add more and more bells and whistles, and more and more of the “invisible web” is accessible by search engines. If people don’t want to waste their time rummaging through a thousand results (which is what Google gives you, no matter how many millions they claim as the number of results), they still need someone who knows how to cut to the chase, and a place (or Web site, or blog, or Twitstream…) to get hold of this person.

Libraries, and librarians, will continue into the foreseeable future to be the gateways, linchpins, or whatever else you want to call them, into government and non-government information.

Caryn Wesner-Early

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Caryn – I actually have been talking about these people as “aggregators” or “data miners” – I like the term “Virtual Librarians” much better. Librarians as Linchpins a la Seth Godin’s latest book!

Henry Brown

Our Library system in Huntsville AL is MUCH more than a repository of books, They provide free meeting space for such groups as Toastmasters, German Genealogy club, PC users group, and I am absolutely certain others as well. At the main branch there are 2 rooms dedicated to computer use, and they just recently started to allow people to bring their own computers to connect to ?????. And the library staff is on the front edge of the effort by the city administration to get “google fiber” to select this city as their test bed.
Oh and they have books, videos, cassettes, CD’s (both music and instructional) for check out from the main library and the 10 branches and this in a “city” with a population of ~180,000.

Deborah York

I have worked in libraries for over 20 years and I think that for many years libraries were perhaps the best connection citizens had to government information. Government documents were a mystery when I started doing research but it opened a whole world of information. Now people can use the internet to access lots of government resources but if they are not savvy searchers or don’t have access to the internet libraries are still the place they go to get help. You could say libraries provided transparency to government information before it was fashionable.

Public libraries are currently having records demands on resources at the same time that budgets are shrinking. The idea that everyone has access at home and everything is “free” gives policymakers a reason for cutting the budgets. Libraries are not only linchpins for access and transparency but they are also linchpins for our democratic ideal of an educated populace.

Sheryl Grant

Here’s a recent study that has some interesting up-to-date info about public use of libraries and gov info access:

Opportunity for All: How the American Benefits from Internet Access at Public Libraries.

I have a masters in library & info science, and did my research on libraries and the “participation gap” between what we think people can do online, and what they can actually do.

Our focus was mainly on people who may or may not have access to computers at home or work, but who felt overwhelmed and wanted instruction and a live person to walk them through the basics. So not digital divide in the sense most people think about it.

Talk about an eye opening experience. It taught me how completely mind-boggling and disorienting the Internet is for a lot of people. This article, Web Illiteracy: How Much Is Your Fault? confirms something we noticed in our program: that it requires skill to use social media. As in yes, it is a form of literacy. There’s a good example in the section on text boxes. “The vast majority of people alive today were never taught to read a webpage in school, the way they were taught to read the title, author information and pages of a book.”

Faye Newsham

Andy – I do mean the digital divide but also the tough economy by “tough elitist period we’re going through” – I see it at my sons’ schools (one HS one in college) as well as online school (my boyfriend attends DeVry exclusively online). We live just outside the Washington D.C. beltway in Montgomery County (top 3% of the nation for public schools)… despite the high affluence of our community at large our high school leans heavily to FARMS (kids who get free lunch or reduced lunch due to low income) and although the school library has quite a few computers, computer labs, Macintosh lab, music technology lab (computers specific for a special set of classes – no internet access), teachers struggle with making assignments that do not require access or that can be done in school. Just this week a student in my boyfriend’s DeVry class had to take a “0” grade on a big presentation because she was not able to connect to the live class session because her only connection was from a McDonalds (her library closed too early to use their web). The firewall at McDonalds could not deal with the special requirements of the iConnect software. Our local library has been inundated with job seekers and recent Washington Post articles have talked about how contentious users have become trying to gain access to computers in the libraries “I’m more important than that kid over there, I’m looking for a job!” The “elitist” part comes from how often I hear “everyone has access” when discussing all of these kinds of activities. Those of us with have very little connection to those who don’t unless we are really open to making those connections! I think about volunteering as a computer or internet coach in my area and have no idea how to start. I should likely talk to my local library!

Srinidhi Boray

Digital Signage based systems is becoming very affordable and people do not need much sophisticated skills to use them. Creating e-Learnng is also now very intuitive and not cost prohibitive. The Digital signage network can help create Information Kiosks connected to broadband both physically and wire-less.

As phone have become ubiquitous, PDA’s like iPhone and iPAD will too when the cost becomes much much lesser. Devices like these are very useful for accessing the virtual libraries.

There are many virtual low cost access to technical information, such as

Very useful resource for contractors who work with least resources available to them. This combined with iPAD is awesome.

In the past before the Internet era, there did exist virtual libraries such as

National Technical Information Service.

In India during 1980 – 1990, all the technical Libraries in the Indian Government Agencies would access virtual Library by x.25 dialup. The Indian Government under the aegis of “National Informatics Center” had envisaged LibNet, I don’t think this materialized since Internet and then Google changed the way information was to be sought. Anyway, the idea of LibNet was to create information kiosks all over the country including the rural areas where people have lesser education and no access to information at all. The growth of low cost mobile phones have changed this landscape. Now poor farmers have better access to information and are able to better stock, price and sell their agriculture products.

In USA, a wide reaching Government information dissemination network is vital to provide impetus to those engaged in the grass-root level economy. The next economic transformation is in the small business sector. Here is where like always most jobs have been created. Unfortunately statistics provides a very disheartening picture of what stops the marginalized grass root society from gaining opportunities for growth.

My own plan is like depicted below

Libraries or organized and validated information will be the “linchpins” to provide correct direction at least cost. In fact healthy communities organize around libraries as it was in Alexandria (Egypt) and they find constant intellectual insight to apply and flourish.


I love libraries. Personally, I think they will become curators and guides to help us navigate online. I also think libraries should be virtual as well – I would love to log in via home to resources library has and have them help me.

I actually think the digitial divide will end this decade. It will become like cable. There is no “cable divide” – penetration is like 90%+ rate and actually it is the highly educated that are among the no cable folks these days.

Sheryl Grant

@GovLoop That’s why participation gap is a better term to describe what’s happening. Digital divide is based on the NTIA model of measuring telephone access, not ability. Skills were not originally included in those assessments, and we’re only now understanding what skills are required, how people learn these skills, who they learn them from, etc. I think the digital divide will go away about the same time every web site can pass a baseline usability test 😉

Web Access Alone Won’t Bridge the Digital Divide:

“Spending billions of ‘stimulus’ dollars to wire the nation with high-speed Internet access alone will not ensure that all Americans have meaningful access to the Web,” says Eszter Hargittai, associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.”

Even with similar levels of Internet access, Internet know-how is not randomly distributed among members of the so-called Net Generation, Hargittai says.“To provide meaningful access, the program will have to also focus on Internet education and training,” she adds. “Providing infrastructure without offering training is a bit like giving people cars without providing driver’s education.”

“Scholarly research on the Internet originally focused on the so-called ‘digital divide,’” says Hargittai. “The assumption is that once everyone has access to the Internet, issues of inequality are solved.”

Sheryl Grant

I am clearly on a huge nerd roll today. But this is a very relevant report from the Knight Foundation and good to include in this discussion:

@Andrew, this is a great document (including a poll/checklist to gauge whether your community is a “healthy information community”) to help think about the government — library — information trifecta.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Henry – That’s another great point – libraries not just as points of access, but as action-oriented instigators! I wonder how many libraries across the country were the leaders behind a community’s Google Fiber pitch?

@Sheryl – Can I just say that you are fast becoming one of my favorite people on GovLoop…and I like a lot of folks here! 🙂 The information you are providing is incredible. Thank you. Nerd on, my sister.

@Deborah – It’s true. Libraries were “OpenGov” hubs before being “OpenGov” was cool. Another definition of linchpin that fits with what you’re saying: “something that holds the various elements of a complicated structure together” Would America fall apart without libraries? Not necessarily. But I wouldn’t know 30% of what I know without them!

@Faye – Great testimonial. First person witness to a broken system. I used to live in Prince George’s County, Maryland and the situation there is far more dire, I’ll bet…not to mention the District itself and potential education/access gaps.

@Srinidhi – India’s a great example of where mobile has leaped past terrestrial broadband access to empower citizens and consumers. Did LibNet actually take off?

@Steve – I hope you’re right!

Faye Newsham

@Sheryl – I like the term “participation gap” it is new to me. I think our youth is getting better training through school, but again, only where the school/district is affluent enough and insturctors have been trained to train them! The problem will be in those who are already of working age but do not have the online literacy we would like them to have.

Srinidhi Boray

@Andrew – The LibNet did not happen. But because of several charters which included LibNet, Indian Govt did create infrastructure connecting central, state and district level offices.

Interestingly because many languages and dialects are spoken in India, Govt planned and designed language translition (not translation) so information from one language could be translited and read in another while making them available on Kiosks. Several exciting things were happening then, like exploring “NLP” for transilition and translation of language. Richard Feynman who was associated with “Thinking Machines” were assisting Indian govt funded projects.

Peggy Garvin

Great comments from @Sheryl and @Caryn.

I look forward to the day when we have universal, affordable, and barrier-free access to all of the information we need to participate in our democracy. Lots of people, including librarians, technologists, and good government advocates, are working toward this goal. In the meantime, librarians work to make information in multiple formats and under multiple licensing schemes accessible to their communities and, when possible, preserved for future generations. Visit a Federal Depository Library [] to learn how much of our documentary history has not been digitized or is online but only available for a fee.

I’d also like to give a shout-out to the civics teachers! Good public schools and teachers, like good public libraries and librarians, are not free. We all support them with our tax dollars. They are an investment that a democracy is wise to make.

Obligatory Jefferson quote:
“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Happy National Library Week!

Sheryl Grant

@Andrew, you just validated my entire life. I’m going to put “Nerd on, my sister” on a t-shirt and attribute the quote to you.

@Faye, I agree, working age adults need those skills, too. The Goodwill Community Foundation has free Internet and work literacy classes. Probably decent enough for people who have enough skill to get into the tutorials on their own.

I’m curious what you all think about telecenters — in many countries, they have Internet cafes provided by private vendors or nonprofits. And there appear to be lots of different arrangements: sometimes they operate out of nonprofit centers or publicly funded libraries. Or they’re more like the kiosks @Srinidhi referred to. The nonprofit community technology centers in the US struggle for funds as much, if not more so, than libraries. has interesting programs (I suspect Gates Foundation was involved at some point), and there are others around the country.

It’s interesting to compare Gates and Carnegie, both industry barons making information free to the public, one with computers and one with books. And both are difficult models to fund.

Peggy Garvin

Hat tip to a great tweep, @gordonbelt, for passing this on:
It is yesterday’s program from the Marketplace radio show. “The American Library Association says overall library use during the recession has risen as much as 23 percent.” Lots of basic Web training going on to help people find and apply for jobs online.

Keith Moore

Andrew. I think that the best testament of the OGD community’s demonstration of support for your concern for those who may not have access to the internet is the Open Government Directive Workshop hosted at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in November 2009, the Charles Sumner Library both in Washington DC, and our panel interview with Thomas Reed Director of small and minority owned business for the FCC and the broadband plan. Each of these events and location represent a history and current effort to advocate for access and parity.

I think like most of our challenges and opportunities facing society today, there is not enough support yet for authentic media that wants to promote for example how the Gov 2.0 and the OGD can help build bridges to access to information. OGD, web 2.0, Gov 2.0 are foreign to most who are not considered tech savvy, and that was not the design of transparency and collaboration.

So amen to your walk back down memory lane, and know that we at Open Government TV have put our passion, our purse, and our purpose on the line to help support people like you who want to make a difference. Make a difference, Now, so that we can have a tomorrow!

U.S. statesman of the American Civil War period dedicated to human equality and to the abolition of slavery.
A graduate of Harvard Law School (1833), Sumner crusaded for many causes, including prison reform, world peace, and Horace Mann’s educational reforms. It was in his long service as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts (1852–74), however, that he exercised his major influence on history. He bitterly attacked the Compromise of 1850, which attempted to balance the demands of North against South. On May 19/20, 1856, he denounced … (100 of 478 words)

kristin wolff

Check out this Gates Foundation Report It’s the first comprehensive documentation of computer use in libraries. Education and workforce (services government provides) feature prominently. If we took these findings seriously, we could imagine really embedding a range of services and building community capacity at the same time (maybe saving $ too).
There’s also this awesome report that looks at the role of the library in cultivating 21st C skills. I wish we’d survey all of our public infrastructure this way and see how we could redesign to meet community need (maybe I’ll write a blog post on this).

Srinidhi Boray

A bit off-track about Prezi

“Prezi” is a cool thing that uses unbounded space to make presentation (arrangement of information) defeating linearization of ideas that powerpoint and such are riddled with. In a way it tends to address the temporal limitations by using more seemingly boundary-less spatial medium in which randomly placed ideas find context to form relationships. I liked Prezi, but need many more features.

Cynthia Burke

Interesting article – YEAAH Libraries! The great thing is that people who don’t have access to the Internet at home can go to the public libraries and get access. There are waiting lists for the PCs at public libraries! Students use them to do homework, people job hunt, even play online games. The public library has always connected citizens to government information. Books, magazines, newspapers and journals, videos, directories, tax forms, tax assistance, live programs, community association meetings and newsletters – on and on. YEAAH Libraries!

Faye Newsham

OK – so I’m listening to the radio this morning and hear the following. I’ve looked it up and the only reference I can find to “green” for this library was its proposed interior at one point. What do you make of the quotes in particular…

“New Anacostia Library Reflects Changing Neighborhood
April 27, 2010 – By Peter Granitz

The D.C. Public Libraries has opened its newest branch, in Anacostia. How will the library fit into a changing neighborhood?

The new library is about a mile from downtown Anacostia, which now boasts a new coffee shop and a couple of art galleries. Bill Hanna, a professor of urban planning at the University of Maryland, says these new amenities actually may not be what residents want.

“A lot of times when you’re redeveloping, you’re redeveloping with gentrification and displacement,” says Hanna.

As for the new library, it’s clear the neighborhood wants it. And Hanna says investments in community spaces like libraries always add to lower-income neighborhoods. But he isn’t so sure about the building itself.

“I would guess there are a fair number of people who are in the gentry who would say what a nice thing to have a green library in our neighborhood. And I would also guess a lot of working class people couldn’t care less,” he says.

Hanna wonders whether the new library is being built for the people who live there, or for the people the city hopes to attract there.”

I can’t decide if he is putting down “the people who live there” or libraries in general… am I reading too much into this?

Caryn Wesner-Early

@Faye – I don’t think he’s really putting anyone down. I think he’s recognizing that current residents and people drawn in by rising property values may want different things from a public library. For gentrifying a neighborhood, a “green” library is a big selling point, but current residents are more likely to care about a lot of computers available, a good job-advice section, and so on.

Faye Newsham

Actually, the interior was slated to be painted a green hue… no information on the library being environmental… I’m glad for your interpretation though, I’m not convinced but it isn’t a great piece of reporting, is it?!