100% of Ontario’s public libraries support their communities by providing access and support for online government forms and information.
Toronto, ON: Since the 1990’s governments at all levels, federal, provincial and municipal, have increasingly been migrating their forms to digital and online formats. This e-government strategy has saved all levels of government money by increasing efficiency while raising tax and non-tax revenue. Sadly, research shows that significant portions of the population of Ontario do not have cost-effective or great access to the Internet or necessary digital devices to engage effectively with mandated forms for government or employment purposes.
The Federation of Ontario Public Libraries administered a survey to its membership in September 2013 to determine the extent of public library support for government forms and access. It showed that at just about every age and stage of an Ontarian’s life, the public library is playing an important role in helping our communities bridge digital and economic divides.
Public Libraries Support e-Government
“Public libraries let a little steam out of the kettle for those Ontarians who struggle with access to digital resources,” noted Stephen Abram, executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. “No other institution is in every Ontario community, and has the professional staff, technology, internet access, open hours, and mandate to serve our communities. Someone needed to level the playing field and public libraries are the most cost-effective strategic partner to government.”
Some community voices from our survey:
“Staff recall the gratitude that seniors show in having a place to go for assistance. Many elderly patrons have no internet at home and need help with getting the form, filling it in and having a copy made. One couple was both hearing impaired and one was legally blind.”
“People who are uncomfortable with computers are always very grateful and appreciate the one-on-one assistance.”
“A staff member helped a new immigrant find the appropriate form she needed – the requested form was difficult to locate and was finally found on the federal Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration website.”
“A woman who tried several times to apply for a job online, and was unsuccessful in submitting the application, came into the library and we were able to assist her. She got a job interview and was hired.”
“We often have Mennonite and Amish families come to the library to register the births of their children. Without library Internet access and staff help, these families would have an extremely difficult time completing any online government forms.”
“A patron requested documents pertaining to the Landlord Tenant Act. A stressful situation for the patron compounded by insecurity with computers was dealt with by directing patron to website and aiding in identifying and print assistance of specified documents. Patron was satisfied and expressed gratitude for the assistance the library staff provided.”
“Our northern Ontario library is now receiving a steady stream of American tourists who cannot access government services except by means of the library. In the case of hunting and fishing licenses, the expectation of visitors is that they can buy a license in person when they reach Canada. When they can’t, due to the provincial cutbacks, frustrated tourists are turning up at the library.”
“The main benefit is staff to help people when they get frustrated with the government sites – not sure what they need, or can’t find it. One person needed a particular form, but was confused about what he needed. He called the number listed on the government site, but was just directed back to the website. I was able to figure out what he needed and helped him fill in the form. Another woman was trying to apply for EI benefits and was having a lot of trouble with it. She became very frustrated, but I was able to help her get it all filled in. She was very grateful for the help.”
“We have helped countless people who are computer illiterate fill out forms for unemployment and social services. We had one patron who was so embarrassed to admit he was unable to file his unemployment that he went weeks with barely enough money to eat before he got up the courage to come ask for help. He used to go to the employment centers for help but they told him they were no longer able to give him the one on one time so he was expected to do it himself. We have had some sad cases looking for help with resumes, social assistance and general direction.”
“We had a new resident from Trinidad. She needed help with printing and faxing some of the the forms required for her immigration status. Our staff assisted her in getting forms printed, filled out and faxed before her deadlines.”
“As ServiceOntario partners, patrons are happy when we tell them there is no cost for printing ServiceOntario documentation. In our area, it is more difficult to get to ServiceOntario and ServiceCanada kiosks. I helped a patron navigate ServiceCanada’s website. After phoning or visiting a ServiceCanada kiosk, they were told to fill in the form on the website. They had attempted to do this at home but didn’t understand the instructions of which links to use so they came to the library knowing that we would be able to help them get through it.”
“We basically direct people to the right information or forms they seek. Many rural residents are without internet access and lack computer skills, we are able to assist them with their questions and access.”
What do Ontarians do at the library with government forms?
Here is a small sampling of the types of forms that Ontario’s public libraries are providing deep support for our communities and governments:
▪ Employment services ▪ Birth registrations ▪ Hunting/fishing licences and regulations ▪ Change of address ▪ Outdoors card renewal ▪ Education services (OSAP) ▪ Landlord and tenant ▪ Land transfer tax ▪ Driver’s licences and plate renewals ▪ Student loans / education applications ▪ Health cards ▪ Small business start-up ▪ Child care ▪ Social assistance forms ▪ Subsidized housing forms ▪ Marriage licences ▪ Death certificates ▪ Power of Attorney and health Power of Attorney ▪ Boaters test & licence ▪ Divorce forms ▪ Family and children’s law ▪ Small claims court forms ▪ Child custody ▪ Settlement support negotiations ▪ Access to information ▪ Legal name change ▪ Workers’ compensation ▪ Lost identification
▪ Business registrations ▪ Trademarks ▪ Income taxes ▪ HST ▪ Employment Insurance ▪ Passports ▪ Immigration/ Permanent Residency ▪ Citizenship forms ▪ Visas ▪ Change of address ▪ Settlement workers support ▪ CPP/OAS and other benefits ▪ SIN ▪ Military information ▪ Lost identification
▪ Welfare forms ▪ Property Tax ▪ Municipal fees forms ▪ Municipal information ▪ Town planning ▪ Social assistance ▪ Subsidized housing ▪ Business start up ▪ Police forms ▪ OPP freedom of information form ▪ Municipal taxes ▪ Dog licenses ▪ Recreation registration ▪ Hydro reinstatements ▪ Burn permits ▪ Burial permits ▪ Business licenses ▪ Court documents ▪ Garage sale permits ▪ Resident parking passes ▪ Cancellation of water/sewage service ▪ Inspection forms ▪ Municipal employment forms
Indeed public libraries are providing global access to meet the needs of our diverse population:
▪ Passport applications ▪ Education forms ▪ Immigration / emigration forms ▪ College and university registrations ▪ Student loan applications ▪ Travel documentation ▪ Visas ▪ Business forms ▪ Foreign pension forms ▪ Visa and passport renewal for other countries ▪ Accessing birth registrations ▪ Filling out form for found money in USA ▪ Education equivalency ▪ Identification paperwork
There are a number of reasons why Ontarians use public libraries to access government. These include:
- No access to the internet from home or work
- Supportive and trained professional staff
- Confidential and approachable support
- Personal answers to questions
- Open convenient hours
- Access to peripherals like printers
- Access to specialized add-ons like Adobe, Java, video, etc.
- Direct access to physical and virtual collections to support their tasks
Many library cardholders use the library to find access to councilors, MPs, MPPs and civil servants.
Public Libraries in Ontario are largely funded by their local governments. The Ontario government provides a small operating grant that was cut in the 1990’s and has not recovered. The federal government cut funding for the Community Access Program in 2012.
In 2013 President Obama recognized this role of public libraries and e-government by providing funding to OCLC and the Institute of Museum and Library Services for training library staff in the complexities of the new forms for healthcare in the U.S. under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act 2010 (sometimes called Obamacare).
What Is FOPL?
Simply put: Ontario’s Public Libraries. Now more than ever before, they play a critical role in the social, educational, cultural and economic success of the communities in our province. Public Libraries are an essential investment in the future of our communities and are essential drivers of success in school preparedness, reading readiness, economic and employment success, and social equity. As the development of the knowledge economy progresses, public libraries are a vital link for every resident and every community to ensure success of all Ontarians, regardless of location or background.
The Federation of Ontario Public Libraries represents Ontario’s over 400 public library systems exceeding 1,000 branches in virtually every Ontario community. Over 5 million Ontario residents make hundreds of millions of visits to the library, in person and virtually, every year. Libraries are trusted, accessible community hubs providing freely accessible professional service, technology, programs, and resources to a more diverse range of residents than any other cultural institution. Ontarians have voted with their library cards and passionate support for public libraries continues to grow in the digital age.
For more information:
Stephen Abram, MLS
Executive Director, Federation of Ontario Public Libraries