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Charging and Networked Services

By Ian Everall, Walsall Library & Information Services, and Sarah Ormes, UKOLN, on behalf of EARL, the Library Association and UKOLN

An issue paper from the Networked Services Policy Taskgroup
Series Editor: Sarah Ormes, UKOLN

What this paper covers

This paper:

  • highlights why charging for networked services is a policy issue,
  • provides a snapshot of the current range of charging policies which are in place,
  • examines the current policy context in which charging is taking place,
  • details some of the issues in the fee vs. free debate,
  • suggests a policy framework to help library authorities shape their local charging policy.

Why is charging an issue for networked services?

Networked services are a recent development in public libraries and, consequently, are not covered in the 1964 Public Library and Museums Act which states which public library services must by law be provided free [1]. However, the 1989 Charging Regulations [2] do not prohibit charging for computer-based services except for access to the library catalogue. This has led to a situation where individual authorities are making different decisions about whether to charge or not for networked services. Therefore, there is considerable inconsistency across the country in the provision of networked services.

The situation is further complicated by New Library: The People’s Network [3] which is committed to the principle of equity of access across the country. This principle is not matched by a consensus in charging practice at the moment.

Charging is a confusing issue and needs to balance the reality of limited funds, the aspirations of equitable access, and differing local circumstances. Similarly, there is a lack of clarity in demonstrating the relationship between network costs and charges, and benefits to end users of the services.

For most library authorities, this issue has emerged in the context of charges for access to the Internet. However, as information services develop the issue will need to be addressed across a wider range of services as libraries subscribe to reference databases, electronic journals, and other services. This means that, in the medium term, libraries may have to develop a strategy which preserves equitable access to resources while returning appropriate revenues to providers. They will also need to develop access models for this material, addressing, inter alia, issues surrounding authentication of users, charge collection, site licensing models, and so on. While we are aware of this wider context, we limit our attention here to the immediate question of charging policies in the current environment.

Which networked services are currently being charged for?

The most recent statistics show that

  • 30% of library authorities who charge for networked services charge £5.00 an hour for Internet access
  • whereas 20% of library authorities make no charge at all for Internet access
  • the remaining authorities use a wide diversity of charging practices [4], [5].

Public access to the Internet is the networked service which is most typically charged for. Charges for Internet access can be calculated from per 15 minute period to per hour. Other library authorities may provide the first hour of access free and then charge for any additional time. Additional charges may also be made for printing, downloading material and using e-mail services. The cost to the end user of these additional services again varies greatly with some authorities providing them free.

The current national policy context

In 1997 New Library: The People's Network detailed a public library network to which all public libraries would be connected. Public Libraries would provide a considerable number of services over this network and through it would connect to the Internet. This vision was widely accepted in the profession and further explored in Building the New Library Network, [6], the follow up report. The Creating Content section in Building the New Library Network was written to advise the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) on the priorities for the £50 million content creation programme which public libraries qualify to apply for and the eligibility criteria for individual projects funded under this programme.

The guidelines for applying for this programme make it clear that any content created with New Opportunities Fund resources should be made freely available at the point of use and not charged for. This will make charging for networked services even more confusing as a blanket fee for all networked access will become increasingly difficult to maintain.

The report also encourages the development of value-added services which may be charged for. Section 17 of Building the New Library Network, outlines potential third-party revenue opportunities, and identifies charges on the user or provider of the service as one potential source of such revenue, alongside others such as advertising.

Appendix 12 of Building the New Library Network outlines network service specifications to meet the ‘New Library’ requirements. This sets out a typical service specification that includes e.g. definition of terms, service specifications, service-level agreements, charges and staff requirements.

In respect of charges it says:

  • Facilities will be provided to allow end users to be charged for use of nominated facilities and…

  • Facilities will be provided to allow quotas of ‘free service’ usage to be granted against any category of chargeable service to those who, according to New Library or the library authority policy, are eligible to receive such quotas.

Building the New Library Network recognises that charges are a legitimate element of the funding model for value-added services and promotes basic free access to resources at the same time.

The Government is also committed to delivery of the ‘New Library’ and the wider contribution it sees public libraries can make to its vision for a lifelong learning society. It is committed to an inclusive society and therefore strongly endorses the principle of equity of access. The resources the Government is making available to create the ‘New Library’ underpins this commitment. However, it has made clear the issue of access (and therefore the issue of charging) is an issue that must be determined locally [7]. The challenge to public library authorities therefore is to create a charging framework that supports delivery of the ‘New Library’ rather than constrains it. This is further explored in A Framework for Charging, later in this paper.

Arguments for and against charging

The following section looks at some of the arguments for and against charging for networked services. An excellent reference source in this area can be found in an article by Peter R. Young [8].


Decreasing revenue budgets
Many public libraries over the last 10 years have had decreasing revenue budgets. The ever decreasing amount of resources available to public libraries means that they simply cannot afford to provide free networked services without cutting back on other existing service areas. Adopting a no-fee policy may force substantial limits on the services that can be provided.

Charging fees increases public recognition in the value and importance of libraries
Charging for a service makes the people value it more.

Provides consumers with flexibility to choose
Most users can afford to pay and those who benefit from the service should pay the associated costs. Willingness to pay is also a good indication of demand for the service.

Fees help to sustain the service
The revenue generated from the service will enhance investment in ongoing maintenance and repair of facilities.

Fees help to regulate consumption
Charging for a service will help regulate its use and ensure that demand can be managed and that it reduces inefficient or wasted use of public facilities. Fees can also be regulated to manage peak usage times.

Fees encourage a better understanding of the financial limitations of local government
This is a general point but is arguably still important about getting the message over that there are limits to what the Government can provide.


Libraries are a public good
Free access to library services is a right of each citizen in a democratic society and should therefore be paid for out of taxes and not charged for. The introduction of charges is the beginning of the end for free services.

Equity of access
There is a need to minimise social exclusion. A charge is a barrier to access, and is therefore contrary to the Government’s objectives for a socially inclusive society.

Social costs of failing to communicate information
In the commercial world information carries a price which rarely has any relation to costs, it is priced at what the market will bear. In terms of public information however there is a cost associated with failing to communicate information which totally invalidates the commercial equation and impacts on people’s lives and families in all sorts of areas – employment, housing, health, education etc.

Maximises options to position the role of the library within the vision for a lifelong learning society
Libraries are in a period of transition. As well as developing and positioning their role in the lifelong learning society it is also necessary to establish and communicate that role to other providers. Charges will limit the options of public libraries to contribute to the wider creation of a lifelong learning society, and will affect how other providers perceive this role.

Free service is public libraries’ unique selling point
Public libraries are an attractive partner for service providers who have a need to communicate information but lack the outlets to do this easily. They often see libraries as a natural distribution point. If libraries no longer maintain their free-service image this will change people’s views as to the value and purpose of the library service.

Short term gains = long term losses
It is unclear what impact charges will have on existing and potential users, particularly children and young people who may be excluded by the costs of access and therefore may come to see the library as having little or no relevance in their lives.

A framework for charging

Irrespective of whether a public library authority chooses to charge for networked services it is important that it has developed a charging policy. This policy must be justifiable to the library’s users and be informed by the developing national policy context.

The following framework for charging is a suggested tool which can be used to help develop these policies. It draws heavily on the use of Public Library Plans which were introduced by the Government in 1998 as a tool to help oversee the delivery of statutory library services and to provide access to structured information to assess how local library services are doing nationally against broader objectives. These plans provide a natural framework around which local charging policies and practices can be developed.

The following proposed framework is therefore rooted in the Public Library Plan. It considers how it could be applied to inform local approaches to charging and how this may be shared and disseminated to the wider public library community. By answering the questions raised in the nine key areas identified in the framework an authority will be able to develop an informed charging policy.

Charging policy framework


    • What does this say about access to networked services?
    • What context does this currently provide for determining free/added-value services, and does this need reviewing in the light of the ‘New Library’?


    • What strategic priorities/objectives exist locally in respect of education and lifelong learning, anti-poverty and health, economic regeneration and community development etc? How can the ‘New Library’ locally support delivery reflected in the local charging policy?


    • What is the current level of provision of networked services?
    • What range of services is provided?
    • What charges apply?
    • What are the current reasons for charging?


    Partnerships are integral to the Government’s vision of a lifelong learning society. As well as external funding opportunities, links with local partners can help library authorities more clearly understand how they can best support delivery of the wider agenda for education and lifelong learning. This will be reflected in the charging policy.

    • What partnerships are already established?
    • What opportunities exist to feed into the partnership framework operated by the Council?


    Given the Government’s agenda for regionalisation it is likely that regional ICT strategies will increasingly influence local developments. It is also the view of the European Commission that regions are a key building block in the creation of the information society. This provides opportunities for library authorities collaboratively to demonstrate the role and contribution of the ‘New Library’ within the region.

    • How might this influence local charging policy?


    The Government’s vision for ‘Our Information Age’ [9] highlighted by ‘New Library’, and the National Grid for Learning.

    • How does the local charging policy support delivery of the bigger picture?


    • What resources are available to support implementation of the ‘New Library’?
    • What is the shape of the current funding model?
    • What contribution do network charges currently make to revenue budgets?
    • What funding options are available locally?


    • What changes to the library’s funding model will need to be made to support delivery of the ‘New Library’?
    • What funding opportunities can be targeted?
    • What changes need to be considered to the library’s charging policy in the light of all the above, and in particular given local circumstances?


    • What successes and experiences can be drawn upon, both locally and from elsewhere, to support implementation of the ‘New Library’?
    • What evidence can be assembled to demonstrate the relationship between costs and benefits?


Setting local charging policy within the above framework would produce:

  • summary of charges
  • context/justification
  • picture of local activity
  • way forward.

If library authorities were prepared to place this work in the public domain via the Networked Services Policy Task Group web site, then the opportunity exists nationally to create:

  • EARL/LA/UKOLN web site giving picture of charging activity and approaches
  • growing database of case study material
  • forum for ongoing discussion.


This issue paper has endeavoured to provide a current overview of the issue of charging and networked services. The situation is extremely confusing and not easy to resolve. What is important is that each authority is both able to justify its current charging policy for networked services and is aware of the national policy context in which it operates and which may significantly impact upon the way it provides networked services.


[1] 1964 Public Library and Museums Act

[2] Section 154 of the Local Government & Housing Act 1989, Charges: Library Services

[3] Library and Information Commission (1997). New Library: The People’s Network. Library and Information Commission: London. Available at

[4] Batt, C. (1998) Information Technology in Public Libraries. Library Association: London

[5]Networked Services Policy Taskgroup Survey

[6]Library and Information Commission (1998). Building the New Library Network. Library and Information Commission: London. Available at

[7]  Reponse by Mark Fisher M.P., then Minister of the Arts, to a question on charging and networked services asked at the WM Regional Library Telematics Conference, June 1998.

[8]  ‘Changing Information Access Economics: New Roles for Libraries and Librarians’, Peter R. Young, Information Technology and Libraries, June 1994, pp.103-114

[9]Blair, T. (1998). Our Information Age. DTI: London. Available at

Other relevant resources

Further information, including feedback from an EARL seminar on charging held in Westminster in February 1999, is available to EARL Partners at

EARL networked services policy taskgroup web site
Links to further information on this topic are available at the following web site
The web site also provides an opportunity to comment on the paper and the issues it discusses.


This is one in a series of issue papers being produced by the Networked Services Policy Taskgroup. UKOLN, the Library Association and EARL member libraries participate in the taskgroup. Queries about the issue papers series should be addressed to Sarah Ormes, the project manager for the initiative:

Penny Garrod
The University of Bath
Bath BA2 7AY

Telephone: 01225 826711

UKOLN is funded by the Library and Information Commission, the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Funding Councils, as well as by project funding from the JISC and the European Union. UKOLN also receives support from the University of Bath where it is based.

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