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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Information Access in Prisons

As the vast majority of government information goes digital, it becomes more accessible to many segments of the population that may otherwise not be willing or able to invest the time and energy to travel to a repository or track the documents down through other means. K-12 students working on projects for civics class or stay at home moms living in rural areas are now able to do research from exactly where they are on their computers. As physical documents and physical space become less restrictive we are seeing government information as it has always been intended, accessible, democratic and for the people. In the flurry of excitement surrounding this new level of transparency and access it is easy to forget what a large segment of the population has no access to the Internet whatsoever.

In a recent National Telecommunications and Information Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, Digital Nation: 21st Century America’s Progress Toward Universal Broadband Internet Access 40% of Americans surveyed said they have no household high speed internet access, and 30% said they have none at all. While we can most likely assume they have some level of access via school, work or the public library. However, the vast majority of prison inmates have no access whatsoever. In a rapidly advancing and ever more digital world, inmates spending any length of time away from computers will certainly find themselves left in the dust upon re-entry into society. Some facilities recognize the value of increased access, as both an educational and community engagement, Matt Kelley wrote about the expansion of Internet in Kansas State prisons In most prisons around the country however, prison librarians serve as the main point of access to information for all inmates. For those seeking to better understand sentencing, that often means requests for copies of legislation and other government information. One of the most highly requested bills at a DC area prison of late has been the Fair Sentencing Act (S. 1789) which reduces the disparity in sentencing between crack and powdered cocaine. The flurry of press coverage following its signing this past summer led to high requests of the legislation itself by prisoners looking to understand its impact.

While the argument can be made that those who have broken the law deserve punishment, not the privilege of surfing the web, I firmly believe that if prisoners are expected to productively rejoin society and improve themselves direct access is essential. Hopefully, eventually more states will go the way of Kansas, but in the meantime, prison librarians must continue the difficult and commendable work of disseminating information.

Sara Medlicott

A visionary plan for broadband access for all

One of the problems government information specialists face is that, as so much government information is born digital and available only online, a large percentage of people have less access than they did when a paper copy of government information was within relatively easy reach at their local FDLP library. We all imagine that this is a temporary situation and hope for a time when broadband access is as available as electricity and telephones and television. But, as the reports and surveys continue to reveal, the digital divide is real and is not shrinking very fast if at all.

The Benton Foundation has released a new report that addresses this issue head on.

Jonathan Rintels is the Executive Director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media. The Benton Foundation is a private foundation that works to ensure that media and telecommunications serve the public interest and enhance our democracy.

The report says that the new Administration “must launch a well-planned, concerted national effort — paralleling that which deployed telephone service, electricity, and interstate highways across the nation — to deploy robust and affordable broadband to every corner of our nation.”

Amen to that!

Digital Divide and E-Government

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has a new survey Home Broadband Adoption 2008 (PDF, 31 pages) that says “Adoption stalls for low-income Americans even as many broadband users opt for premium services that give them more speed.”

NextGov looks at the report in relation to e-government initiatives. (E-Government’s Tough Nut, by Allan Holmes, Tech Insider NextGov, July 3, 2008.) Some of the problems for a government wanting to interact with citizens online is that many citizens cannot or will not be able to do so. The articles picks the relevant statistics from the Pew report: the percentage of low-income Americans who have a broadband Internet connection dropped from 28 percent to 25 percent; of those that use the slower dial-up connections, almost two-thirds said they had no desire to change to broadband; 27 percent of Americans have no Internet access, with most of those being either elderly or low-income; only 10 percent of the non-Internet users have any desire to become wired. As Holmes says:

These are the hard-core resisters – and there are millions of them. That means if government wants to move ahead with providing more electronic services – including services that may require faster and more robust connections that broadband provides – a large portion of Americans may just not care. And these resisters are exactly the demographics that government tends to serve.

Digital Divide Widens in California

A new study says that there are signs that the digital divide is widening for some groups in California, particularly Latino and low-income residents. This conclusion is based on a statewide survey. The study also notes that computer use in California is similar to that in the nation as a whole.

  • Californians & information technology, by Mark Baldassare, Dean Bonner, Jennifer Paluch, and Sonja Petek, The Public Policy Institute of California, in collaboration with The California Emerging Technology Fund. June 25, 2008

Baldassare says:

“…[T]here are tremendous differences in access to critical information that put many at a disadvantage in their everyday lives. At a time when technology’s role is growing and in a state that has led the way, this poses a major policy challenge.”

Public Libraries Can’t Fill Digital Divide Alone

Public Libraries Can’t Fill Digital Divide Alone, Senate Committee Told
Jennifer Pinkowski — Library Journal, 9/7/2007

Public libraries alone cannot fill the digital divide that plagues rural Arkansas, Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Library System director David Burdick told United States Senators and officials from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on August 28. Burdick testified in Little Rock at the Central Arkansas Library System’s downtown branch before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in a field hearing on the accessibility and affordability of broadband in Arkansas organized by Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR).