Creating Meaningful Digital Resources

A library turns to government agencies to help patrons find and use government information effectively
Ramsey County, MN
Susan Nemitz

It’s no secret that government information can be hard to locate and difficult to understand. One library director, Susan Nemitz, is working to change this by having government employees train her librarians, who in turn share this information with the public.

In this case study, we'll be looking at Edge Benchmark 3.2: The library supports use of public technology for eGovernment or legal purposes.

The Ramsey County Library in Minnesota is changing the way it helps people locate and use government information. Upon realizing that the public wasn’t using the library’s curated online links to find information buried in its databases, Director Susan Nemitz decided to take action, partnering with other government organizations to help ensure that her library’s 300,000 constituents can find what they need.

Six months earlier, Nemitz said, she would have identified the library’s comprehensive offering of database, website, and catalog links as one of the library’s greatest strengths. "But we did some usability examinations of our website that made me feel like they were not widely used,” she said. “I realized that our research links are not well utilized, and it's not the way people naturally search in the 21st century for these kinds of resources."

Nemitz also became aware that Ramsey County Library website visitors weren’t making the most of the library’s online databases either, in part because Google is easier to use. In response, she is working to move site visitors toward a more interactive online experience, in part by ensuring more on- and offline partnerships with outside organizations. For government and legal information, that means partnering with the Saint Paul Public Library, Ramsey County Law Library, Central Minnesota Legal Services, and Legal Services State Support.

In fact, Nemitz says, it was the legal services department that initially contacted the library, after legal staffers working on creating a statewide legal help site discovered various idiosyncrasies between jurisdictions. They decided to create one site for a specific jurisdiction, Ramsey County, to see if that would be utilized more often and more successfully. Enter the library. "They’ve been doing most of the work," Nemitz said. "We’ve been giving them a lot of feedback about the ways we think people will use a site like this, based upon the questions that were being asked in the library. And I do think we’re seeing more legal questions."

What made your library successful?

In the fast-changing field of government information, training is vital. The Ramsey County Library works to ensure that staff is trained in the most recent government forms and procedures. "We have had both the Ramsey County Law Librarian and Legal Services out to do training," Nemitz said, adding that the library doesn't necessarily schedule such classes on a regular basis, choosing instead to arrange them on an as-needed or seasonal basis.

What did you learn during this process?

"I think that so many governmental entities, in their attempts to go paperless, are forgetting that there still are thousands of people in the United States who don’t have the computer skills to accomplish what they’re asking," Nemitz said, underscoring the massive need for basic computer training.

"I think the average member of the public would be shocked that the most common classes we teach are Mastering the Mouse and Setting Up an Email Account, just those really basic things,” she said. "When I came to this job seven years ago, I was shocked — and I'm of the age group where we didn't learn computers in college, at least not micro-computing. Everyone assumes that people in those classes are 75, but there are plenty of 50-year-olds in them. So I think that has been the biggest obstacle for us, because we will literally get a person in tears saying, 'I need to apply for a job online by midnight,' and having no computer skills."

In addition to discovering that site visitors weren’t using the library’s curated links, the library's Google Analytics showed that while visitors used search engines, they weren’t using them very well. In other words, if things weren’t showing up in the library catalog or in the search engine, people weren’t finding them. "We had gotten away from cataloging websites, but we’re really having the conversation about whether we need to get back to it because patrons do trust our catalog and they do trust our search engine to provide them quality information,” said Nemitz. “We need to figure out how to create meaningful digital searches that provide meaningful digital resources."

Finally, Nemitz adds that she was surprised to notice outside companies and organizations sending folks to the library to learn about their e-readers. While her initial reaction was "We're not staffed to do that!" she realized that this presented a unique opportunity for the library. "We want to be viewed as a technological leader,” she said. “We want people to think that the library's where you get information about technology.”

Where did you run into trouble?

Speaking generally, Nemitz stressed the importance of libraries being open to partnerships from other entities, as well as approaching these partnerships with a desire to learn. “I was really impressed with Legal Services,” she said. “When they started [building the law website mentioned earlier], they had no idea of the legal questions that were coming in to the public library. They actually did a survey and they found it out. They’ve been a joy to work with because they’ve just been open and happy and interested.”

What was the key to your success?

"Government entities around us keep putting things online, and it’s forcing people through our doors to access these resources offline,” joked Nemitz. ”Our numbers keep going up, and that’s great news!”

In all seriousness, looking forward Nemitz said that libraries should measure success in terms of "getting those governmental entities to think about the impact on users, particularly low-income and elderly users.” She would also like to see government groups giving librarians a heads-up when they are going to create something that will require lots of hands-on help — such as new tax forms — or when they refer people to the library for technology training.

What advice would you give to a colleague?

"I think to provide quality information to the public we need to partner,” said Nemitz. “I think there's scale on some of these issues where we need to partner more broadly than we have.”

What three steps would you tell a colleague to start doing now?

"Assess the questions that are being asked in the library to look at what eGovernment services are hot buttons in your community right now,” said Nemitz. “Then I think it’s worth making the phone call to that organization and ask if there are ways you can work together to make sure that the public has the information they need. Every governmental agency has that as part of their mission."

Nemitz also advises colleagues to seek out partnerships. "I think our future is partnerships on every level, and I think quality information is going to be about partnership,” she said. “I think we need to be open to working with organizations we’ve never worked with before."

Finally, speaking from her own experience, she half-jokingly cautions against over-reliance on research-curated web links: "I don’t think they’re our future." And yet, she also advises a dose of optimism. “Trying something is better than not trying at all,” she added.