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Internet Acceptable Use Policies

By Sally Criddle, UKOLN, on behalf of EARL, the Library Association and UKOLN

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


This paper will look at how a policy for acceptable public use of the Internet in the library can be developed and the issues affecting policy development and implementation.

Why have an Acceptable Use Policy

The Internet has now established its place in the public library. Library staff, and much of the general public, now appreciate its value as a provider of information and recognise the role that public libraries have in providing public access to the Internet. In addition, the government, in its commitment to widening access to Information Communication Technology (ICT) and ensuring that the benefits of the information age are open to all, recognises the central role that public libraries have to play in ensuring that all members of society have access to ICT and can enjoy the benefits it brings.

This recognition is being backed up by national funding programmes and government initiatives such as the People's Network and the NOF-Digitise programme, which are aimed at providing the networking infrastructure and content to place public libraries at the centre of the drive to increase lifelong learning and cultural enrichment opportunities throughout society, and to bring people into the information age, by encouraging them to use ICT.

Whilst the benefits and opportunities the Internet has to offer are becoming widely recognised and appreciated, the Internet is not without its problems, particularly in the context of use in the public library. Much is made in the media of the pornography that can be accessed on the Web and critics will cite the potentially offensive and illegal material that can be accessed as reasons why it is unsuitable for use in a public library.

To exploit the opportunities offered by the Internet and to minimise the negative aspects, public access to the Internet in the library needs to be effectively managed. Careful consideration must be given to questions such as who should have access to the Internet and under what conditions, what Internet services should be offered and with what restrictions.

An Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) is a crucial tool in helping to manage public access to the Internet. An effectively written policy will clarify the level of service that the public can expect, provide guidance for management of the medium and can communicate to the wider community the place that the Internet occupies within the public library.

Guiding principles of policy development

Ideally the AUP should be written before a public access Internet service is introduced. It should be a positive statement developed from the core values of the library service, rather than a reactive document written in response to problems that have been encountered, and should complement existing library policies. It needs to be practically enforceable, and must be supported with appropriate administrative procedures so that it can be implemented effectively by front-line library staff. All library staff must be familiar with the policy, have an understanding of why particular decisions have been made and be aware of the implications of the policy. Front-line staff should be able to explain the reasoning behind the policy and the implications for users.

The policy should be consistent with existing library policies. Examining policies that the library already has in areas such as age limits on users (if any), charges for services, video borrowing criteria etc. may provide guidance in areas of Internet access. The AUP must also be written with reference to the national policy context such as the Library Association's statements in related areas such as freedom of information and censorship and restrictions imposed by funding bodies content produced from the New Opportunities Funding programme must, for example, be free.

As well as ensuring that the Internet AUP does not conflict with existing polices, an AUP that is produced with regard to established policies will ensure that the Internet becomes an integral part of the library's existing services, and will demonstrate how it is complementing existing services rather than seeking to replace them.

Elements of an Acceptable Use Policy

What should an AUP include?

A basic AUP should address the following issues:

  • Why does the library provide Internet access?
  • Who will be able to use the library's Internet terminals?
  • What Internet services will the library provide?
  • Will access be free or charged?
  • What types of resources can users access?
  • Is access filtered?
  • How are users expected to behave?
  •  How will library staff implement the AUP?

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE: Why does the library provide Internet access?

The AUP is an excellent place to set out in a clear and concise statement the role that the Internet has in the library service and the benefits it has to offer the public library. This is a good opportunity to establish the Internet as an integral part of library service provision.

PHYSICAL ACCESS: Who will be able to use the library's Internet terminals?

Once Internet terminals have been installed in the library managing the physical access to them needs to be considered. For example, will anyone be able to walk in off the street and start browsing the Web? Will access be limited to registered library users? Will passwords and user login names be used to control access?

The library could keep records of who is using the terminals (which can be particularly useful information to have if sanctions need to be enforced in the event that the AUP is transgressed). However, this needs to be balanced with the administrative overhead it will impose on staff if they are required to collect names and addresses or issue library memberships before allowing access. And users may be put off using the Internet if logging-on is seen to be time consuming and burdensome. Also, how does this fit in with policy on how other non-lending materials, such as newspapers, are used in the library? Privacy issues need consideration. Users may be uneasy about logging-on to a terminal with an identifiable password as they may think that their subsequent use and the resources they go on to browse are being recorded and could be traced back to them.

The level of demand and number of terminals that can be provided will also have a bearing on whether users are required to pre-book sessions or access is limited during busy periods.

Access for disabled users can be addressed in an AUP and the library should consider whether it would be appropriate to provide assistive technologies such as speech synthesisers or wheelchair access to terminals.

Charging for Internet access provokes much debate and many different solutions. Some libraries charge all users to access the Internet; others provide free access to a limited range of Web sites and services or charge particular users such as local businesses for access; others provide access to all services and content free of charge. Careful thought and consideration of the implications and consequences of free vs. fee access is needed. Whilst there is no definitive legislation in this area (libraries must still rely on the 1964 Public Library and Museums Act for the definition of which public library services must by law be provided free) it should be noted that the NOF-Digitise programme makes it a requirement that all content developed as a result of its funding must be provided free of charge to users of the People's Network and the National Grid for Learning. The issues of charging for access are discussed in a previous Issue Paper in this series Charging and Networked Services [1].

SERVICES: What Internet services and resources will be provided?

The World Wide Web may be the most widely used Internet service, but the AUP should also address other Internet services such as e-mail, newsgroups, chat rooms and telnet. Will access to these services be provided? If e-mail facilities are provided will incoming and outgoing mail be allowed? Can users access free mail services such as HotMail? Will downloading of software and file transfers be allowed? Will users be required to have their own disks scanned for viruses before use?

Some libraries may not want the Internet being used for games or chat, particularly if such use ties up terminals for long periods of time (although limiting the length of sessions could help with this). Also, chat rooms and bulletin boards are often associated with sexually explicit or offensive material.

Whilst it may be tempting to prohibit use of chat rooms for entertainment purposes, it is worth considering that not all games can be dismissed as purely entertainment, some do have educational elements. Similarly, not all chat room discussions can be dismissed as frivolous. Some libraries promote virtual support groups for people with disabilities for example, or actively encourage users to form book reading groups supported by e-mail and chat rooms. 

With the growth in e-commerce on the Web the AUP may need to address the commercial activities that users get involved in and it may be decided to take steps to ensure that users activities cannot incur costs to the library.

FILTERING: Does the library filter Internet access?

Are filters installed on the library's public access terminals? There are many reasons for and against the use of filters (as addressed in a previous Issue Paper - An Introduction to Filtering [2]) and the policy should include a statement on the decision that is taken.

ACCEPTABLE USE: How are users expected to behave?

The quantity and quality of resources available on the Internet has been well reported in the media, with much coverage given to the questionable and illegal materials that are available. Whilst a determined user may still be able to view offensive, illegal or other inappropriate material even if filtering software is installed, an effective AUP can make it clear that such behaviour will not be tolerated and will give staff the authority and confidence to stop it.

Example Internet AUP

Midshire Library Service provides access to a wide range of resources including those available from the Internet in its role as a provider of informational, educational, recreational and cultural enrichment opportunities for its users.

Midshire Library Service provides free access to its Internet services for all library members.

The Internet is a global electronic network and Midshire Library Service is not responsible for the accuracy, validity, legality or usefulness of information available.

Transmission of any material in violation of any laws is prohibited. This includes, but is not limited to: copyrighted material, threatening or obscene material, pornographic material, or material protected by trade secret. Use for any commercial purpose is also prohibited. 

Permission of parents or guardians is required before children can use the Internet and the Library encourages parents/guardians to supervise their children's use of the Internet.

Midshire Library Service provides its members with access to the World Wide Web. The Library does not provide e-mail accounts, Internet Relay Chat or Newsgroups. Printing and downloading services are not currently available.

Whilst there is legislation such as the Obscene Publications Act [3] to guide on what might constitute illegal materials, it is very much up to individual libraries to define just what are and what are not appropriate materials to access in the public library. This is not an easy task, particularly as it can be so subjective. What one person finds totally innocuous, another person may find deeply offensive depending on their cultural or religious background, for example. One way to address this issue is (again) to consider library policy in other areas. For example, materials of an offensive nature, be they sexual, racist or violent, could be seen as creating an atmosphere of harassment which could breach existing policies on harassment or discrimination. 

As well as offensive materials, the AUP should draw users attention to the fact that the authenticity and accuracy of many of the resources available over the Internet are questionable. As the law currently stands it is unlikely that a library itself would be responsible if users breach copyright, intellectual property rights or are involved in illegal activities on the Internet in the library. However, the situation needs to be made clear to users, and they should be made aware that they have a personal responsibility to abide by the relevant legislation, just as they do when photocopying copyrighted materials. The AUP should include a statement making it clear that the library is not responsible for Internet content, its authenticity or accuracy. Copyright issues are addressed in a previous Issue Paper - Copyright and the Networked Environment [4].

The library also needs to be aware of issues of freedom of access to information, particularly if filtering Internet access. This is an area where legislation is still being determined, but the Library Association makes it clear in its statement on intellectual freedom and censorship [5] that libraries should be aiming to provide access to all publicly available information, regardless of format, for all their users.


Children's access to the Internet deserves particular consideration. It is usual for parents/guardians to be asked to provide their consent before their children can use the Internet. A consent form could incorporate the terms and conditions under which access is provided for children. Some libraries choose to install filters on Internet terminals only in the children's library; others make it explicit that parents/guardians are responsible for the material that their children view and that the library has no responsibility for supervising access by children. Providing links to materials for children and sites that have been selected as being particularly suitable for children are good ways of guiding use.

The AUP can draw on the library's existing policies on provision of services to children. Aligning children's access to the Internet with existing policy on, for example, the categories of books and videos that they can borrow, will help to demonstrate how the Internet fits in with services already provided by the library. Whatever level of access is provided, it must be clearly defined in the policy.

POLICY INTO PRACTICE: How will library staff implement the aup?

All library staff should be aware of the AUP and have an understanding of the issues that it addresses and the implications that the policy will have on public use. There should be appropriate administrative procedures in place so that the policy can be implemented effectively. An AUP can also be very useful in dealing with enquiries from, for example, local councillors or journalists about how the Internet is being used in the library.

Although this paper focuses on acceptable use by the public, staff use should also be considered. Will access for them be under the same conditions as for the public? The local authority may already have a policy for Internet access by employees or the public policy could form the basis of a council-wide policy.

A statement about the level of assistance and guidance that users can expect from library staff could be included in the AUP. If resources for assisting the public are limited, providing support in the form of lists of resources and links to subject guides, such as EARLweb [7], can be very effective.

Users must be made aware of the terms and conditions under which the library is providing Internet access. The AUP should be prominently displayed near Internet terminals. One way of highlighting the policy is to display it as a front screen on the Internet terminals: users must click on the screen before they can proceed, to confirm that they have read and will comply with the policy.

The policy should be clear on the consequences for users who breach the conditions. This is usually dealt with by Internet use being withdrawn or restricted.

Finally, as with any policy, the AUP should be reviewed periodically. The policy needs to be workable on a day-to-day basis and should reflect changes in this area of rapid technological development, where society's familiarity with the Internet is increasing day by day.

Policy Challenges [6]

An interesting exercise, once an AUP has been drafted, is to see how well the policy deals with various hypothetical situations such as:

  • The library's mission statement states that the library aims to provide the most effective information service that it can to meet the information needs of all of its users and will try to get hold of any legal material requested a user complains that this statement is blatantly irreconcilable with the library's use of filters.
  • A parent in the library notices that in clear view of the children's library someone is looking at a pornographic site the parent makes a complaint how will the library deal with it?
  • Someone who has used one of the library's terminals used information they found on the Internet to make some investments the information was out of date and the user lost some money and claims the library is responsible for providing incorrect information.


[1] Charging and Networked Services

[2] An Introduction to Filtering

[3] See, for example, the Obscene Publications Act 1959, the Protection of Children Act 1978 and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

[4] Copyright and the Networked Environment

[5] Library Association statement on Intellectual Freedom and

[6] Policy Challenges 

[7] EARLweb

Other relevant resources

Smith, M. Internet policy handbook for librarians.
New York: Neal-Schuman, 1999.

Safe Surfin guidance for children's use of the Internet

Examples from UK public library AUPs


This is one of a series of issue papers which will be produced by the EARL 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 Penny Garrod, the project manager for the initiative:

Penny Garrod
The University of Bath
Bath BA1 7AY

Telephone: 01225 826711

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

EARL: The Consortium for Public Library Networking The Library Association UKOLN