The Role of Public Libraries in Enabling Open Government

By: Rebekkah Smith Aldrich

On May 7 & 8 I was invited to attended the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government (CTG) summit on the role of public libraries in enabling open government in Washington, DC., representing the New York Library Association.  From CTG’s project web site: "State and local governments are exploring new ways to open their governments using technology to engage citizens, increase transparency and accountability. Such efforts provide new opportunities and challenges for public libraries as citizens turn to them for both access to and assistance in their interactions with government … An open government initiative will impact and can be facilitated or impeded by a community’s information ecosystem. Libraries can have a critical influence on an ecosystem and the success of such an initiative."

Our discussions centered on the varying roles public libraries play to assist in “open government,” from providing tax forms to assisting patrons in accessing government programs to public forums, all the way up to data crunching and visualization (one library had a year-long resident from Code for America!) – and the clear burden open government efforts have put on local public library infrastructure (staffing technology, connectivity, physical space). There is widespread acknowledgement that in efforts by all levels of government to streamline processes and costs, there has been a direct impact on libraries as more people turn to us for help.

The efforts of those in attendance (see below) will result in a “framework” to assist libraries in responding to the rising need to assist patrons with open government services, from a resource and advocacy perspective. IMLS representatives at the summit made it clear they are interested in funding projects related to these issues.

Stakeholders in the room included library directors from major metropolitan libraries throughout the U.S. (Los Angeles, Chattanooga, Cleveland, Pittsburg, Multnomah County), library stakeholders from major universities (University of Maryland, Rutgers, University of North Carolina), library advocacy groups such as the Public Library Association and OCLC, and non-library, government and open government stakeholders such as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy,  U.S. Department of Education, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Office of Government Information Services, Sunlight Labs/Sunlight Foundation,, TechSoup Global, , and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

For more information, see CTG’s website. They have also posted a concept paper at  If you’d like to participate in the discussion about libraries and open government, you can do that at

Rebekkah Smith Aldrich is the Coordinator for Library Sustainability at the Mid-Hudson Library System in New York where she has assisted 66 member libraries in the areas of governance, management, funding and facilities since 1998. Rebekkah is a Library Journal Mover & Shaker and is the author of a number of publications, including the Handbook for New Public Library Directors in New York State. An active member of the New York Library Association (NYLA), Rebekkah currently serves as a Councilor-at-Large and a member of the Legislative Committee.