As e-government grows in scope and complexity, an increasing number of e-government services have surpassed the digital technology access and literacy of many members of the public. The “digitally excluded” often seek information intermediaries — such as public libraries and other community anchor institutions — to bridge their information needs and e-government systems. The purpose of this paper is to examine the phenomenon of user-librarian-agency government interaction within the context of the information worlds framework. In this paper, the authors describe the data — surveys, case studies, interviews, site visits, and usability and accessibility testing — used to analyze the needs of the public, libraries, and government agencies. The paper then describes how the authors, using key concepts from the theory of information worlds, developed an online resource to assist information intermediaries. The study yields findings about libraries as a social institution, as well as expands upon the theory of information worlds so that it better reflects the information behavior and needs of meso level institutions. By examining the development of this resource through the lens of the theory of information worlds and within the context of digital inclusion, this paper offers a new perspective on how libraries can best facilitate information access between government agencies and members of the public. Moreover, the diversity and dispersion of the group of meso level institutions studied revealed the need to consider a new element within this theory: bridges that serve as tangible (physical or digital) mechanisms and channels that facilitate the exchange of information and interaction across boundaries.
Design of LibEGov
Despite the government’s increasing reliance upon e-government to disseminate information to, and otherwise engage with, its citizens, many individuals lack the means to access, understand, and use these services. These barriers to direct interaction between members of the public and government agencies have impeded the flow of vital information. To overcome these barriers, members of the public turn to libraries to help them navigate e-government processes. This situation can be further understood by examining the phenomenon of user-librarian-agency interaction within the context of the information worlds framework. This paper: 1) reviews information behavior in the context of e-government; 2) situates e-government within the theory of information worlds framework as a means of understanding e-government information seeking behavior and promoting digital inclusion in e-government development; 3) details a multi-method approach used in the development of an online resource for librarians to provide e-government services and resources to their users; and, 4) expands the theory of information worlds to incorporate the idea of bridges across boundary spaces and to offer a more nuanced view of the nature of the intermediary in the information lifeworld.
Highlighting the development of one particular resource that seeks to support librarians in their role as e-government intermediaries, this paper describes and analyzes research undertaken to date — including surveys, case studies, interviews, site visits, and usability and accessibility testing — to provide readers with insight into the often divergent needs of members of the public, libraries, and government agencies. Notwithstanding the focus on one e-government resource (developed within the context of the United States), there are also broader implications for this work. By examining the development of this resource through the lens of the theory of information worlds and within the context of digital inclusion, this paper offers a new perspective on how libraries can best facilitate information access between government agencies and members of the public.
A. Information behavior and e-government
As e-government has matured into a dynamic socio-technical system encompassing issues of governance, societal trends, technological change, information management, interaction, and human factors (Dawes, 2009), the delivery of information, communication, and services has become one of the central uses of e-government, raising a number of issues in terms of information behavior. Due to the ongoing evolution of this system, an increasing amount of government information and services is now available exclusively online.
For the average citizen, e-government access stands as the primary means of getting government information and interacting with the government (Bertot, et al., 2009; Ebbers, et al., 2008; Streib and Navarro, 2006; Bertot and Jaeger, 2006). E-government services are now the vehicle through which citizens accomplish many necessary educational, economic, social, and political functions — including immigration and citizenship, social services, voter registration, license application and renewal, tax payments, enrollment of children in school, and other similarly important functions (Bertot, et al., 2008a; Gibson, et al., 2009; Holt and Holt, 2010). Not surprisingly, improving interactions with members of the public are central to both of the primary reasons typically presented in favor of continuing to expand e-government: 1) engaging citizenry in government in a user-centered manner, and 2) developing quality government services and delivery systems that are efficient and effective (Bertot and Jaeger, 2008). Many agencies increasingly use social media platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr — to further these interactions (Bertot, Jaeger, et al., 2012; Bertot, et al., 2010; Jaeger, et al., 2012) leading to sizable benefits in terms of cost-savings and more efficient use of personnel time (Jaeger and Bertot, 2010, 2011).
The focus, however, has often been on making the interactions easier for the agency. As a result, insufficient attention has been paid to citizens and the challenges they face as they attempt to engage in these interactions (Jaeger and Bertot, 2010). As of 2012, 20 percent of adults in the United States are not Internet users, with persons with disabilities, older adults, non-English speakers, those who did not complete high school, and those with low incomes being most likely to not use the Internet (Zickuhr and Smith, 2012). Even among those with Internet access, limited digital literacy (the ability to use the Internet to meet information needs) bars some individuals from gaining entry into the digital environment in which e-government resides. The problem is further compounded by a general lack of familiarity with the structure of government, lack of education about the value of e-government, language barriers, and attitudes toward technology and government among many users (Jaeger and Thompson, 2003, 2004). All of these significant issues of information behavior have virtually escaped consideration in the development and refinement of e-government in the nearly two decades since the launch of the Web. Discussions generally have focused on a technology-based digital divide, and the concept of digital inclusion (i.e., access to the Internet in order to apply digital literacy skills) is largely absent from the e-government literature.
One recent study identified the underlying components necessary for digital inclusion as adequate funding for technology, sufficient physical and technological infrastructure to support the technology, adequate bandwidth, and sufficient training in using the technology (Becker, et al., 2010). In the case of e-government, each of these components can be a challenge for members of the public. Awareness of the current disconnect between the reality of e-government and the aspiration of digital inclusion is beginning to build as part of broader federal government initiatives (Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), 2011; National Telecommunications Infrastructure Agency (NTIA), 2011). The fact remains, however, that certain populations face a range of challenges as they struggle to engage in increasingly digital government services.
In an effort to overcome these challenges, some members of the public rely upon information intermediaries to assist them in their usage of e-government, with the public library serving as the most commonly relied-upon intermediary to facilitate inclusion in e-government (Jaeger, Bertot, et al., 2012). As providers of free public access to the Internet, the public library has served as the primary — or often only available — access point for e-government access, training, and assistance in communities across the country (Bertot, 2009). In a sense, serving as a guarantor of access and training is a natural extension of the established social roles of the public library. “The public library is one place that is culturally ingrained as a trusted source of free and open information access and exchange” . Given the complexities of many services, “even if Americans had all the hardware they needed to access every bit of government information they required, many would still need the help of skilled librarians whose job it is to be familiar with multiple systems of access to government systems” .
Several years ago, it became commonplace for government agencies to direct users with questions about their Web sites to the local public library (Bertot, et al., 2006a, 2006b; Bertot, et al., 2008b). Now, many federal, state, and local government agencies continue to rely upon public libraries to provide residents with access to and guidance in using e-government (Bertot, et al., 2006a, 2006b; Jaeger, 2009; Jaeger and Bertot, 2009). For example, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) reduced the number of case workers and assistance providers by more than 3,000 positions following its implementation of the AccessFlorida online application system, resulting in near complete lack of available agency staff from which users can seek assistance (Gibson, et al., 2009).
Government agencies indicate that relying on libraries for e-government access and assistance allows the agencies to focus on other issues (Bertot, et al., 2006a, 2006b; Fisher, et al., 2010). However, the provision of access assistance by public libraries creates a range of service, funding, technology, and political challenges for the libraries (Bertot and McClure, 2007; Jaeger and Bertot, 2011). While the E-government Act of 2002 included language regarding the need for federal government assessment of the impacts of the law on public libraries and other social institutions, such studies were never funded or conducted. As a result, the advent of e-government has raised enormous issues of information behavior within the context of government information, communication, and services that have yet to be adequately addressed. Yet, as e-government increasingly becomes the primary means of interaction between government and members of the public, digital inclusion in e-government is an issue of significant importance for ensuring equity of civic participation and access to government services and resources.
B. The theory of information worlds and digital inclusion research
In designing the goals and method for this project, the authors employed the theory of information worlds (Jaeger and Burnett, 2010) as the conceptual framework for understanding the roles of information behavior in e-government usage and the many different social contexts within which this behavior exists — from the micro (the localized small worlds of information) to the meso (the intermediate levels of information in society) to the macro (the largest level of information flow in society). Building on the work of Elfreda Chatman and Jürgen Habermas, this theory argues that information behavior is shaped simultaneously by both immediate influences, such as friends, family, co-workers, and trusted information sources at the micro level in which the individual lives, as well as larger meso and macro social influences, including media, technology, entertainment, education, and politics (Burnett and Jaeger, 2008, 2012; Jaeger and Burnett, 2010). These levels, though separate, do not function in isolation, and to ignore any level in examining information behavior results in an incomplete picture of the social contexts of the information. As such, scholarly explorations of information behavior should account for the different levels to fully understand the social drivers of information behavior and the uses of information in society.
The theory of information worlds seeks to expand the perspective brought to studies of information behavior in society and to increase understanding of the myriad ways in which information plays a significant role in social, political, and personal lives. Information worlds exist at the micro, meso, and macro levels, with information constantly flowing between and among them. Information related to a political campaign can serve as an example of the three levels and their interactions. When someone decides who to vote for the president, they will likely receive information about this decision from the micro level (friends, family, co-workers), the meso level (a voter education campaign from the library), and the macro level (national media, political parties).
In examining these social structures, and the ways in which they constantly interact with and reshape one another, the theory of information worlds focuses on five social elements:
- Social norms: a world’s shared sense of the appropriateness of social appearances and observable behaviors;
- Social types: the roles that define actors and how they are perceived within a world;
- Information value: a world’s shared sense of a scale of the importance of information;
- Information behavior: the full range of behaviors and activities related to information available to members of a world; and,
- Boundaries: the places at which information worlds come into contact with each other and across which communication and information exchange can — but may or may not — take place (Jaeger and Burnett, 2010).
In addition to the previously established elements of the theory of information worlds, this study has identified the need for the consideration of an additional element to explain the flow of the information within and between information worlds:
- Bridges: the tangible (physical or digital) mechanisms and channels that facilitate the exchange of information and interaction across boundaries.
All of these elements are interrelated and constantly interact with and influence one another within and between information worlds.
Each small world — a localized information world at the micro level — has its own social norms, social types, information behavior, and understanding of information value. The members of each small world have established ways in which information is accessed, understood, and exchanged within their world and the degree to which it is shared with others outside the small world. A typical person is a part of many small worlds — friends, family, co-workers, people with shared hobbies, and so forth — and there is no real limit to the number of small worlds to which an individual can belong. Only in extreme circumstances of social isolation can an individual exist in only one small world.
Any one of these small worlds may offer many places where its members are able to interact with members of other small worlds. Information moves through the boundaries between worlds via people who are members of two worlds or through interaction between members of two small worlds in a place where members of different small worlds are exposed to other perspectives. Encountering other small worlds can occur through public sphere institutions, such as in a public library, or through new technological avenues of communication and exchange, such as social networks on the Internet. Further, the contact between small worlds and other inputs from the macro level can lead to the creation of new worlds as information passing over the boundaries between worlds either blurs those boundaries or otherwise transforms or changes information behaviors and perceptions of information value. As information moves through boundaries between small worlds, the information is treated, understood, and used differently in each small world in line with the social norms of that world. As a result, the same information may have a different role within each small world.
Together, these small worlds constitute the macro level of information, also known as the lifeworld. The way that, as a group, the small worlds in the lifeworld treat information will shape how the information is treated within the lifeworld as a whole. As the information moves between small worlds, more and more small worlds will decide how to treat this information, generating an overall perception of the information across the lifeworld. The more small worlds that are exposed to information, the more exchange between small worlds there will be, and the better chances there will be for a democratic perception of and approach to the information.
However, beyond the small worlds, there are also influences at play in the lifeworld that shape the way that small worlds perceive information. Some of these influences increase contact between small worlds and promote democratic engagement in the lifeworld. This level — the meso level — is made up of institutions such as libraries, schools, and other public sphere organizations that exist specifically to ensure that information continues to move between the small worlds and members of each small world are exposed to other small worlds. In sharp contrast, other influences — at the macro level — serve to constrain the movement of information between small worlds or constrict the socially acceptable perceptions of information. The most influential information worlds — such as those who possess political power or those who control the media — can use their power to push back against the collective small worlds to enforce a minority perception on the majority, asserting control over the information in the lifeworld.
Some influences on the information flows between information worlds are inherently neutral, but can increase or decrease information access and exchange. Information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as the Internet and online social networks, mechanisms that we have identified as bridges in this study, act as a way for small worlds to connect in new ways and to reach other small worlds that would not otherwise touch their boundaries. Alternatively, however, they can also work to homogenize perspectives or enforce hegemonic perspectives of small but powerful small worlds on the lifeworld. In total, the small worlds are shaped by all of these larger influences, but also have the power collectively to define the parameters of the external influences.
Thus, the theory of information worlds attempts to account for all of these social and structural elements at work in the shaping of information behavior within a society. While there is obviously great benefit in studying the ways in which information behavior is shaped by the micro, the meso, or the macro level, studying them across levels will provide a much richer and more nuanced understanding of the ways in which information is perceived and moves though society. Though the theory of information worlds presents a much more complex approach to the study of information behavior, it is intended to compensate the researcher by providing a more thorough and realistic picture of the issues being studied.
The theory has particular utility with respect to the various socio-political issues raised by digital inclusion, as we consider the extent to which digital technologies ensure participation in economic, employment, education, cultural, and political interactions in society. “If the digital divide and digital illiteracy are the problem, digital inclusion is the proposed solution, representing the ability of individuals and groups to access and use information and communication technologies” . For such inclusion to be possible, however, members of the public need: 1) access to digital resources; 2) the training, services, and opportunities to learn to use these digital resources; and, 3) the social elements of information behavior — including norms, types, and value — that encourage the use of digital resources and services. The problems of promoting digital inclusion in e-government, in particular, are ones that involve many levels of social contexts of information behavior within important political frames, making the theory of information worlds an important tool in researching issues of digital inclusion in e-government.
To better understand the role of public librarians as e-government intermediaries, the project team employed a multi-method approach to collect qualitative and quantitative data about the information behaviors of the public, public librarians and government agencies’ employees. The first step in the data collection was to gather the agencies’ perspectives — what they wanted to accomplish through e-government and how they designed their online presence to account for information behavior exhibited by members of the public. Representatives of five federal agencies were interviewed to ascertain the government perspective on the process of e-government intermediation.
The five agencies were selected using the following two criteria:
- Needs assessment conducted with public librarians and state library agency staff (Bertot, et al., 2008b). Through a survey and interviews conducted with public librarians and state library agency staff, information about the most frequent types of e-government service intermediation was gathered, producing a prioritized list of government agencies and their services.
- Agency role. Though some agencies are direct e-government service providers (e.g., Social Security, Internal Revenue Service), others play primary roles in providing access to a range of government information resources (i.e., Government Printing Office) or supporting a range of agency efforts (e.g., information technology management, procurement, instruction) to offer e-government services (i.e., General Services Administration). Agency selection also included those that provide key support to the larger e-government space.
Thus, agency selection factored in the need as expressed by librarians, as well as the roles that agencies can play — either through direct services or through key support services and resources.
Interview questions with government agency representatives focused on the:
- Philosophy associated with e-government services. Of particular interest was understanding the balance between efficiency versus effectiveness of e-government services as a motivating factor.
- Determination of which services to move to the digital environment.
- Determination of the target audience for their e-government services.
- Process by which user needs were incorporated into e-government service design and delivery.
- Extent to which agencies considered intermediation as a factor — particularly for those individuals within the target audience who might lack English language and digital literacy skills, as well as access to the Internet and other ICTs.
Data from these interviews informed subsequent data collection efforts.
The next data collection method gathered information about the information behavior of members of the public when seeking to interact with e-government through libraries. The 2011–2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Survey (PLFTAS) is the 14th in a series of public library Internet access surveys conducted since 1994 (Bertot, McDermott, et al., 2012). The survey was conducted between September 2011 and November 2011, yielding 7,260 responses, a response rate of 83.1 percent. The survey drew a proportionate-to-size stratified random sample that considered the metropolitan status of the library (i.e., urban, suburban, and rural). More specific methodology issues regarding the survey are available at http://www.plinternetsurvey.org.
Building upon the PLFTAS data, the third stage of date collection sought to enhance the understanding of e-government-related information behavior of members of the public through site visits to seven public libraries in five states (Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Texas). The site visits included interviews with state library staff, government officials, and community organization leaders, all of which occurred between April 2011 and October 2011. For this component of the study, the authors sought to include geographically dispersed public libraries that serve a diverse set of communities (e.g., rural, suburban, and urban; high immigrant concentrations; underserved populations; high poverty). Library characteristics, such as size, number of staff, and known e-government partnerships, also factored into the selection process. In advance of the site visits, the study team engaged in research to identify existing e-government collaborative approaches, leading to a preliminary assessment of “best practices” that guided the development of the online resource. The online resource itself, LibEGov.org, was developed from January 2011 to August 2013 by researchers at the University of Maryland and the American Library Association. Developers received assistance from various government agencies, several state library associations and public librarians, as well as researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Towson University. The project was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library services through a demonstration grant.
Guiding these interrelated data collection efforts were four research questions:
- What e-government service roles do public libraries provide to their communities?
- What partnerships have libraries formed with government agencies in the provision of e-government services?
- What are the success factors and/or barriers to forming partnerships with government agencies?
- What are the challenges that libraries face in serving as e-government providers?
Design of LibEGov
From the outset, the framework for the site design drew upon key concepts from the theory of information worlds. From the data collected, the project team had three main assumptions about the behavior of the different populations in the information lifeworld of the United States. One fundamental assumption was that a meso level of public libraries exists in the United States. Although public libraries serve diverse small worlds, the project team identified certain common concerns and issues in which public librarians are invested. PLFTAS data, for example, highlights how the vast majority of libraries are helping the public locate forms, use e-government Web sites, and otherwise access e-government services (see Table 1).
The site visits provided further insights into how individual libraries are serving in this intermediary role. The authors visited libraries in Alachua County, Fla., Hartford, Conn., and Austin, Tex. that have all developed robust partnerships with community organizations and government agencies to serve their users. Services offered by these libraries include integrated information spaces, the provision of hardware needed to access government Web sites and forms, and classes in subject-specific areas of need, such as language learning. These types of services and partnerships are becoming more common as users recognize their libraries as the central space to receive assistance with e-government and other life needs.
The researchers also developed LibEGov with the understanding that public librarians face common challenges. As reported through PLFTAS, overall, adequate staffing was the greatest challenge faced by libraries in meeting patron e-government needs (44.9 percent). E-government expertise was also cited as a challenge, with 50.5 percent of libraries reporting that library staff does not have the necessary expertise to meet patron e-government needs. This lack of expertise manifests itself in various ways, including the inability of library staff to guide users through e-government transactions governed by often complex legal and regulatory requirements (e.g., citizenship). These challenges demonstrate that, although the meso level of libraries is aware of the information and access needs of the small world of recent immigrants, there are information barriers in place that prevent the necessary information from passing over the boundaries between these information worlds. Interviews with librarians also highlighted problems with funding and a lack of resources as impeding their ability to offer assistance to all users.
Finally, the interviews with government agencies explored the macro level influences and lifeworld behavior that frame the e-government-related behavior at the other levels. The data collected in these interviews led to the third assumption — when developing resources, government agencies operate as if their information will be used directly by users in small worlds, while also acknowledging that the intermediary group of public librarians is essential to the dissemination of this information. This leads to a discrepancy between the type of information sought by intermediaries and that which is provided by agencies.
Operating under these assumptions, the authors saw boundary spaces between the macro level government agencies and the meso level public librarians as well as between the public librarians and the small world users. A bridge, or a tangible (physical or digital) mechanism that facilitates communication and the exchange of information across boundary spaces, was needed to help e-government information, communication, and services available from government agencies pass through the meso level of libraries to each of the small worlds touched by e-government. LibEGov was thus designed as this bridge. The site:
- Provides resources that help librarians think about how best to engage in e-government services in their libraries;
- Provides communication tools to build and deepen relationships between librarians and government agencies;
- Provides communication tools to facilitate the building of a community of practice among and between librarians to share e-government best practices; and,
- Identifies selected and key government agency information, resources and services to assist librarians in meeting patron e-government needs.
Recognizing that users will likely have varying levels of e-government expertise and differing ideas as to how their libraries can address their communities’ e-government needs, the site encourages librarians to learn more about their community through needs assessments and the discovery of relevant partners in their areas. Content is presented as a continuum of services, ranging from ready reference materials to help answer frequently asked questions to suggestions on how to implement subject-specific outreach programming in the users’ own libraries. In recognizing the need for librarians to have adequate in-house resources, LibEGov highlights existing programs that acknowledge the varying technology needs and digital literacy levels of users (such as the aforementioned site visit examples).
Iterative usability testing during the development and refinement of LibEGov served to ensure that the perspective of the public librarians — the intended users of the site — was central to the completed resource. The usability testing was conducted at public libraries, allowing librarians to test sample queries in the resource in the setting in which they will be using it to address information needs of members of the public. In line with best practices in usability and accessibility testing (Dumas and Redish, 1999), the task lists and survey instruments were pilot tested before data collection began. For each of the two rounds of usability testing, 35 library staff evaluated the LibEGov Web resource, representing libraries in urban, suburban, and rural areas. These numbers are greater than the generally accepted number of participants in usability testing (Lazar, Feng, et al., 2010; Turner, et al., 2006). The first phase focused on usability tasks in the following four areas: user account registration and functionality, information seeking, bookshelf (a type of favoriting) functionality, and blog/forum usage. The second phase occurred after additional content had been added to the site and, as such, focused primarily on information seeking behavior. Following the two rounds of usability testing, the authors conducted online and in-person demonstrations of the site, collecting user feedback from each session.
As a result of these tests and demonstrations, it became obvious that there were subtleties within the meso level of public librarians that affected their engagement with the site. From the beginning, LibEGov was designed to facilitate interaction within the meso level of libraries, as well as between librarians and government agency representatives, through the inclusion of various social media elements (e.g., community forums, a Twitter feed). Forum users are encouraged to submit practices that have worked in their libraries or common issues they have come across in the course of delivering e-government services, allowing small worlds to interact within the lifeworld of e-government. Interestingly, when using the site, librarians tended to focus much more on the information collected from government agency resources, rather than these social elements. Feedback also indicated that librarians were interested in vastly different subject-specific resource collections (based on their users’ needs) and often failed to see a connection between their needs and the needs of librarians serving different small world user groups. The authors assumed that putting the small worlds into the context of the large e-government lifeworld would encourage collaboration. The emphasis on subject-specific information, however, seemed to distract from the opportunities that meso-to-meso interaction would present. Finally, complications arose with regards to the information from the government agencies. Because of the wide range of goals and perspectives of different agencies and agency representatives, establishing and coordinating a uniform strategy and plan for communication between the meso and macro levels proved to be extremely difficult.
With these observations, the authors have created a new iteration of LibEGov deemed “Lib2Gov” (Lib2Gov.org). There has been a shift in the structure of the resource, emphasizing the social elements and deemphasizing the subject-specific government resources. While the authors still believe there is a need for more tailored content from the agencies to meet the public librarians’ meso level needs, the more immediate need seems to be the establishment of a more robust network of meso level librarians. To facilitate greater motivation on the part of librarians to build this collaborative environment, the authors have created more spaces within the new site for sharing individual stories and resources that have served general e-government user needs. A series of webinars also highlights topical information related to e-government service in the library.
These findings not only led the authors to plan further changes to the site, they also yielded four significant findings about the structure of the intermediary in the lifeworld. One challenges the ways in which libraries are conceived as a social institution, another enhances the components of the theory of information worlds, and two provide guidance on role of the public library as a social institution.
Public libraries, as a collection of more than 17,000 local institutions, have worked to establish a collective national identity and to advocate collectively at the national level, as evidenced by major organizations such as the American Library Association and the Public Library Association. The grouping of these local institutions together at the macro level, however, does not make for a coherent grouping in terms of information needs and behavior. Each public library is a meso level institution serving various small worlds, and each local community has different information needs, norms, types, and behavior that the library must take into account when developing and implementing services.
In practice, the creation of an intermediary tool to bridge these varying needs and behaviors, such as LibEGov, does not adequately take into account the vast differences among public libraries. Reactions to LibEGov in testing and training ranged from librarians believing it to be a tremendous asset in delivering e-government training and services to their patrons to librarians who felt it so far below the needs of their patrons that it was of no value. While the researchers understood from the outset of the project that LibEGov would have varying benefits to different public libraries and the small worlds that they serve, the vast range of reactions points to a larger issue. Due to the prevalence of diverse needs, developing tools that meet the information needs of all public libraries is a monumental task. Future projects of similar aims may increase chances of success by focusing on information needs in a subset of public libraries with similar information needs and behavior.
The challenges in creating an intermediary tool that captures the information needs and behavior of such a diverse and dispersed group of meso level institutions also revealed a new element that needs to be considered within the theory of information worlds. Theories of information are constantly developing due to changes in the ICTs that shape information behavior (Jaeger, 2010). With this project, the intermediary tool played such an important role in the intended linking and crossing of boundaries between micro, meso, and macro levels and in the widely varying reactions to the tool’s potential by librarians, that the bridging mechanism itself became a consideration in assessing the behavior of the small worlds. As detailed above, this study indicates the need to add a new element to the theory of information words: bridges that serve as tangible (physical or digital) mechanisms and channels that facilitate the exchange of information and interaction across boundaries. Future research involving the theory of information worlds would do well to explore further the implications of bridging tools in the flow of information between and within worlds. These bridges seem to be particularly important considerations in digitally-driven contexts, such as e-government.
This project also provided two key lessons about public libraries as social institutions. The first has significant implications for the many collaborative community projects that public libraries are engaging in to serve unique community needs. Libraries, other community agencies, and users each exhibit different information behaviors and, furthermore, assume different roles vis-à-vis these behaviors, which can create conflict among these groups. For example, agencies are often concerned with the efficiency of their e-government services, particularly with costs. This often results in a transactional approach that emphasizes legalistic and perfunctory information dissemination. Users, on the other hand, are concerned with effectiveness and ease of use so as to meet their information and e-government needs. Serving as intermediaries, librarians’ concern with both efficiency and effectiveness often forces them to fill gaps created by agencies’ implementation of e-government services and users’ inability to successfully engage with these services, whether it be from a lack of adequate technology, literacy skills, or time.
Additionally, the complicated interactions between public libraries, other community agencies, and users reinforce a lesson that public libraries have long struggled to internalize. Libraries should not assume that others are aware of the place they occupy within and among information worlds. They must continue to promote the various ways they are already facilitating flows of information between the small worlds they serve and government agencies so that resources such as LibEGov reach the greatest possible audience. The insufficient effort to adequately convey their roles in society has long plagued public libraries (Jaeger, Gorham, et al., 2013). But, as more Internet-enabled projects involve collaborations among community agencies, public libraries have a greater incentive to make others aware of their contributions.
For the vast majority of e-government projects, the focus has been on a “one size fits all” approach to user groups, with little thought to differing needs of user populations (Bertot and Jaeger, 2006). Creating linkages between theoretical perspectives on information behavior and e-government information, communication, and services may prove to be instrumental in efforts to overcome many of the barriers to e-government usage that currently exist because of this misguided focus. As this study shows, information behavior theory, combined with an understanding of digital inclusion issues, can help to connect e-government and its stakeholder groups. Beyond the theory of information worlds, there are many other theories of information behavior that can be applied in the context of e-government access and usage (Spink and Heinström, 2012), and future studies should explore these potential applications.
From a policy perspective, this study also makes it clear that a number of actions are possible by different levels in the lifeworld to improve information flow across the bridges within the boundary spaces. The macro level of government agencies, as well as the various small worlds within this level, must recognize the existence of the small worlds of user groups and ensure that information is available in different formats, languages, and venues. Along with varying information behavior, small worlds will have different cultural expectations, different attitudes about e-government, and different means of accessing the information. At the same time, the agencies must also recognize the importance of making intermediary groups aware of this information and how to use it so that they may effectively assist users. The library as an intermediary institution has a unique opportunity to encourage small-world interaction and to change the way the lifeworld of government information is disseminated. While users are segmented into their own groups, libraries offer a place to bring users with similar needs together, potentially creating a critical mass that can influence the agencies providing the information. Librarians in this respect can act as change agents in the lifeworld and as representatives of individuals from various small worlds, but only if agencies give them the opportunity to voice their observations and they actually seize the opportunity to do so. The library also has the opportunity to create physical and virtual connections between and links within small worlds that can foster interactions, communication, and lessen isolation. Ultimately, these actions on the part of both government agencies and libraries can create broader communities to facilitate user, agency, and library e-government efforts.
About the authors
Paul T. Jaeger, Ph.D., J.D., is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Information Policy and Access Center and in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on the ways in which law and public policy shape information behavior. He is the author of more than one hundred and twenty journal articles and book chapters, along with seven books. His most recent book is Disability and the Internet: Confronting a Digital Divide (Lynne Reiner, 2011). Dr. Jaeger is Co-Editor of Library Quarterly and Co-Editor of the Information Policy Book Series from MIT Press.
E–mail: pjaeger [at] umd [dot] edu
Ursula Gorham is a doctoral candidate in the College of Information Studies and a Graduate Research Associate at the Information Policy & Access Center. She holds a law degree, as well as graduate degrees in library science and public policy, from the University of Maryland. She is admitted to practice in Maryland, and her research is focused on the accessibility of legal information and court documents.
E–mail: ugorhos [at] yahoo [dot] com
John Carlo Bertot is Professor and co-director of the Information Policy & Access Center in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. He is President of the Digital Government Society of North America and serves as chair of the International Standards Organization’s Library Performance Indicator (ISO 11620) working group. John is Editor of Government Information Quarterly and co-Editor of Library Quarterly. Over the years, John has received funding for his research from the National Science Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Government Accountability Office, American Library Association, and Institute of Museum and Library Services.
E–mail: jbertot [at] umd [dot] edu
Natalie Greene Taylor is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. She is a Graduate Research Associate at the Information Policy & Access Center in Maryland’s iSchool, where she works on projects relating to e-government, digital literacy and inclusion, school libraries, and children’s health literacy. She received her Master’s of Library Science at the University of Maryland-College Park, specializing in e-government and school library media.
E–mail: ngreenetaylor [at] gmail [dot] com
Elizabeth Larson received her Masters of Library Science at the University of Maryland-College Park, specializing in e-government. Formerly, she worked as a Graduate Research Associate at the Information & Policy Access Center in Maryland’s iSchool. Currently, she works for the University of Maryland Libraries.
E–mail: elclarson [at] gmail [dot] com
Ruth Lincoln is a former graduate research associate at the Information Policy & Access Center and a 2012 graduate of the University of Maryland’s iSchool, from which she received her Master’s in Library Science with a concentration in e-government. At iPAC, she contributed to the E-Government Partnerships project and the Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study. She now serves as an Online Content Specialist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s (NCBI) Bookshelf, a free searchable collection of online biomedical books and documents.
E–mail: rlincoln21 [at] gmail [dot] com
Jonathan Lazar is a Professor of Computer and Information Sciences, director of the undergraduate program in Information Systems, and founder and director of the Universal Usability Laboratory, all at Towson University. He is currently serving as the Shutzer Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where he is researching the relationship between Web-based interfaces that are inaccessible to people with disabilities, and how those inaccessible interfaces lead to forms of discrimination that are illegal under U.S. law. Lazar has published more than 120 refereed articles in journals, books, and conference proceedings. He has also authored three books and edited three books, including Research Methods in Human-Computer Interaction (Wiley, 2010), Universal Usability: Designing Computer Interfaces for Diverse User Populations (Wiley, 2007), and Web Usability: A User-Centered Design Approach (Addison-Wesley, 2006). He received a 2011 University System of Maryland Board of Regents Faculty Award for public service, a 2010 Dr. Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind, and a 2009 Innovator of the Year award from the Maryland Daily Record. Dr. Lazar has been granted a patent for his work on developing accessible Web-based security features for people with disabilities. He currently serves as chair of public policy for ACM SIGCHI (Association for Computing Machinery Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction), and editor of the “Interacting with Public Policy” forum of ACM Interactions.
E–mail: JLazar [at] towson [dot] edu
Brian Wentz, DSc, is an Associate Professor of Management Information Systems at Shippensburg University. His research interests include human-computer interaction, user-centered design, policy implications of accessibility and usability, and expanding employment for individuals with disabilities. Dr. Wentz recently received the 2013 Honorary Service award from the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind, and has published over 20 refereed articles in journals, books, and conference proceedings.
E–mail: bwentz [at] ship [dot] edu
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Received 23 October 2013; accepted 7 October 2014.
Copyright © 2014, First Monday.
Copyright © 2014, Paul T. Jaeger, Ursula Gorham, John Carlo Bertot, Natalie Greene Taylor, Elizabeth Larson, Ruth Lincoln, Jonathan Lazar, and Brian Wentz.
Connecting government, libraries and communities: Information behavior theory and information intermediaries in the design of LibEGov.org
by Paul T. Jaeger, Ursula Gorham, John Carlo Bertot, Natalie Greene Taylor, Elizabeth Larson, Ruth Lincoln, Jonathan Lazar, and Brian Wentz.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 11 - 3 November 2014