May 18th, 2011
In March 2011 we conducted a national survey of public and academic librarians to gather their thoughts on the Government of Canada’s gradual movement away from publishing printed documents and towards electronic dissemination of information.
Called “The Digital Shift: Librarians and Public Access to Government Information”, the survey was geared towards answering the following research questions:
- What do librarians perceive to be the key issues surrounding electronic government information in libraries, and in particular public access to this information?
- What are libraries and librarians doing to facilitate public access to electronic government information?
- How does the shift to disseminating government information electronically affect the work of librarians?
We invited librarians to respond to an online questionnaire via notices posted to public and academic library listservs. We also sent e-mails to heads and directors of libraries inviting their participation.
We received 113 completed questionnaires, although not all participants responded to every question. Respondents were a mixture of library administration and staff, with approximately 15% explicitly working with government documents in some fashion. Age was fairly evenly distributed; 45% of respondents are 45-years-old or younger, and 52% are older than 45 years. Library experience was also evenly distributed, with exactly 50% of respondents having more than 16 years experience working as a librarian, and 50% having less than 16 years experience. 44% of respondents work in an academic library and 51% work in a public library. Special and government libraries were named as places of employment by some of the respondents who work outside public and academic libraries. Western provinces were overrepresented in our survey, with 46% of respondents currently working in the Western region of Canada. 22% work in the Central region, 26% in the Eastern region, and only 4% indicated they work in the Northern region of Canada.
In order to gain a sense of the key issues surrounding electronic government information, we asked respondents to provide their opinions in response to a number of statements:
We also asked respondents to tell us in their own words what they see as being the major effects of the ongoing shift from print to electronic government information on access to government information. 90 respondents replied to this question. Among a wide variety of responses, the following broad themes emerged:
- Elevated uncertainties over long-term preservation and archiving of electronic government information
- Many respondents indicated that access to government information has improved (e.g. access to information is easier to find, convenient, less costly)
- In contrast to the notion of increased accessibility, a number of respondents indicated that findability of government information has become more troublesome, citing inefficient search engines, uncertainty over format, and lack of stability of online information
- Those who lack computer skills or access to technology are disadvantaged by the government’s digital shift
- Librarians and patrons require more training to navigate an online environment
The following table indicates how respondents believe the digital shift is affecting use of government information as well as demand for reference services.
We asked respondents what initiatives their libraries are undertaking to facilitate the process. Adding records to the catalogue and creating subject guides were cited most frequently, while creating links and promoting electronic government information via the library website were also methods being commonly used (Figure 1). Those who indicated they used other initiatives mentioned traning staff and patrons, using social media such as Twitter to announce new resources, and creating custom search engines.
As we were very interested in understanding how the digital shift has impacted librarians, we asked respondents to tell us if and how the ongoing shift from print to electronic government information has affected their professional work. We received 86 responses to this question. While a handful of respondents indicated there has been no change, the majority listed a very wide array of changes in their work as a result of the digital shift.
Some recurring effects mentioned include the following:
- An increased amount of time spent with patrons (e.g. helping to find government information, assisting with computers) / fewer reference questions
- Information is easier and quicker to find / information is more difficult to find
- More time spent cataloguing and maintaining links / fewer catalogue records for print materials
- More decisions must be made about downloading government information
- Looking for ways to preserve access to digital government information
- Cost of printing has shifted to library, patrons
The Digital Shift: Librarians and Public Access to Government Information by Luanne Freund, Leah Hopton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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