Issue papers index page

earl logo

Internet Services:
the range available to library users

By Julia Harrison, Essex County Libraries, 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


As public libraries start to provide public access to the Internet they are faced with a number of policy issues such as whether Internet workstations can be used for e-mail, whether users can use chat rooms, or download material to a workstation’s hard drive. This issue paper identifies some of the main types of Internet service available, the issues surrounding the provision of these services and the importance of having an acceptable use policy which explains why the library is willing to provide some services and not others. It is useful to note that new public library standards are currently being produced by the Government which may identify at least minimum provision of networked services. It is important to consider these issues at the outset as experience shows that usage is very heavy, and likely to increase as the ‘People’s Network’ is rolled out.

What is available?

The services discussed in this paper are those available over the Internet, which is the infrastucture over which e-mail and the web are run. It is very powerful, capable of carrying services in audio and visual formats, and of giving access to information from anywhere in the world at a speed undreamt of only a few years ago. Other networked services such as CD-ROM networks and word processing facilities are not included in this discussion.

Web access

One of the main reasons most public libraries provide access to the Internet is to give their users access to another information resource. Provision of the opportunity to ‘surf the net’ is the baseline networked service. Even here there are choices to be made concerning charging, printing, downloading, filtering, and providing services such as links to selected sites and assistance or training for users.


To charge or not to charge, and how much, will depend on a number of issues such as the library’s mission and aims, the budget, the policy regarding income generation and cost recovery, whether there is local competition such as a cyber cafe, the number of terminals which may mean there is a need to ration use in some way, and the ability of users to pay. For a discussion of the issues, see the paper by Ian Everall in this series [1].


Many if not most users will want to print out information. Libraries often charge for printing even where access is free, to cover the costs of paper and ink. Printing to a central printer on or near a staffed enquiry point is probably the easiest way to control printing and ensure any charges are paid.


Downloading of material from the web can be done either to the computer’s hard drive or to floppy disks. The former can be problematic for security reasons, because of the danger of viruses, and because many files take a long time to download and can thus tie up the computer for an unacceptable length of time. Allowing users to download to floppy disks also carries some risks, particularly if users are permitted to use their own disks. Many libraries only allow downloading to disks which they sell, and which have been pre-formatted and checked for viruses, or they require users to submit their disks to be virus-checked before use on the library’s computers. This can be more easily controlled if the computer’s floppy disk slot is kept locked and staff have to physically remove the lock to provide access. Remember also that copyright applies to material on the Internet, and users should be made aware of this. A paper in this series on copyright issues is forthcoming.

Additional software

Additional software may be required for some services such as downloading and games. Depending on the services offered libraries will need to ensure that their browsers are kept updated with the latest plug-ins such as Acrobat, Flash, Macromedia, VRML and Real Audio. Libraries should be aware that some of these need very frequent updating, and some, particularly those used to download audio and video, are bandwidth heavy. Headphones will need to be provided if downloading of sound files is permitted.


Filtering software aims to restrict access to potentially harmful or offensive material, and thus aims to be a service to parents, teachers and others with responsibility for young people, and indeed to those who do not wish to access such material themselves unintentionally. For an introduction to filtering, see the paper by Sarah Ormes in this series [2].

Guiding and signposting

Librarians can make using the web much easier by organising links to sites, selecting and signposting good sites, and providing subject lists, resource directories, and links. For a discussion of the issues involved, see the paper by Robert Harden in this series [3].

Managing access to the workstations

This is particularly important in libraries with only one or a few workstations. Most libraries operate a booking system. Consideration needs to be given to the length of sessions, the number of sessions per day/week which can be booked by the same person, the number of days/weeks in advance which sessions can be booked, in the case of late-comers how long to hold a booked workstation before allowing someone else to use it, and whether bookings can be made by library ticket holders only. Where enough terminals are available, libraries could consider having one workstation for drop-in use only, but again the length of drop-in sessions may need to be defined. In public libraries people can use the reference facilities without being a ticket holder, so drop-in use could be allowed to non-ticket holders even if advance bookings are restricted to ticket holders. Security issues will be addressed in a forthcoming paper.

Assistance and training

Some users will inevitably require help, and consideration should be given as to the level of assistance which will be provided. Librarians have always helped users to find information in books, and this is just another format. However, more help may be needed because the medium is new to many users; assistance should be available at all times. Libraries could provide open learning packs, signpost some of the many online tutorials [4 and 5], provide only introductory help just to get people started, or run full-scale training courses free or for a fee. The question of how much technical assistance to provide must also be considered. It is important that users know what they can expect. These matters have impacts on staffing levels and staff training; the skills outlined in Building the New Library Network [6] are a useful guide to what the librarian's role should be, and the New Opportunities Fund is providing money to train all public library staff in the skills required.

Reasons for use

Libraries will need to consider whether or not to limit access to serious research only. Things to be taken into consideration here include the purpose of the library, the number of terminals available, the mechanics of preventing access to ‘unsuitable’ sites, and indeed the definition of an ‘unsuitable’ site. If access is to be limited, then this should be defined in the acceptable use policy, which should be clearly available to users and staff. The definition will need very careful wording as someone looking at pages about the Spice Girls could be doing it for fun or for a thesis on popular music. And should someone looking for health information take precedence over someone looking for information about Manchester United?


The Internet is not purely a source of information however. It is also a means of communication, and many users will want to use it to send and receive messages.

Allowing users to set up personal e-mail accounts (e.g. on library computers can be administratively and financially problematical and is seldom done in public libraries, although as networked services become more common and users’ demands more sophisticated this situation may change. If people are prepared to pay for this sort of service it could become a good income generator.

It is also possible to send messages through an Internet browser, but although mail can be sent, there is no way to receive a reply as browsers have a general rather than a person-specific e-mail address. It is not therefore very satisfactory for users, except for those users who have their own e-mail accounts elsewhere and wish to send information to themselves without the need to download or print in the library. Also, people could send e-mail which would appear to have been sent by the library, and it would be virtually impossible to control what was sent, or track down who sent it after the event. For these reasons many libraries do not configure their web browsers to allow mail.

However, e-mail is not just for personal correspondence. It is also a means of obtaining information. Online book groups for example run on e-mail, as do many support groups, for example, for cancer sufferers. And if the library supports lifelong learning it may want to allow learners to contact tutors and fellow students.

And what about free web-based e-mail such at Hotmail or Yahoo mail? People using this are simply visiting another web site, so it is difficult to prevent, and there are no technical or financial reasons to do so. They register under their own name with the company offering the service.

Bulletin boards and mailing lists

These allow users to place messages on the Internet which are delivered to all subscribers via e-mail. Recipients can then reply in their own time. They can be a very useful source of information, providing access, for example, to a group of chrysanthemum growers who might provide the answer to a question not available in the gardening section of the library. Of course, as these require access to e-mail, they will be unavailable if e-mail is not a service offered.


This service is expensive to provide, but it has useful applications, for example, in connection with any lifelong learning services offered, as it could enable students to talk to their tutors and to each other. It can also be used to link with other services such as council tax or housing benefits departments and enable users to interact with advisers.

Chat lines or rooms

Chat lines are very similar to bulletin boards and mailing lists except that they operate in real time. Messages are received and responded to by people who are online in the chat room at the same time. Like bulletin boards and mailing lists they can be a very useful source of information where people with mutual legitimate interests can exchange ideas. However, they are associated in many people's minds with sexually explicit or potentially harmful material, and, as young people seem particularly attracted to them, are often banned in libraries. Another consideration for libraries is that chat lines can be addictive and users can tie up library computers for lengthy periods of time. However, if the range of chat lines available is controlled, they can be a useful service.


This is another interactive service to which young people are particularly drawn. It might be difficult to restrict access to these on the grounds that they are games, especially if the library lends computer games and does not block access to other recreational web sites. However, often online games have themes involving violence or the occult, and might therefore be considered unsuitable on grounds of content. Also, like chat lines, they tend to be addictive and can cause people to tie up the computers unless a booking system is in operation.


Now that most resources can be viewed using a web browser, Telnet is not as essential as it once was for searching purposes. However, there are still some sites, mostly library catalogues as it happens, which can only be accessed via Telnet, and Telnet is also necessary for users who wish to use a library workstation to access e-mail on a server elsewhere. Offering Telnet is simply a matter of installing the necessary software, and is worth considering for these reasons.


This generally means buying and selling goods or services over the Internet, and might be regarded by some libraries as inappropriate use of a library's computer. However, some libraries might want to provide their users with access to online bookshops; see Essex Libraries’ online shopping arcade which links users to and WH Smith where they can purchase books, music and videos [7]. Business use corresponding to the type of service traditionally offered by library business information services is of course acceptable, and indeed desirable, contributing as it does to the local economy.

Interactive learning services

Public libraries have always been in the education business, and are increasingly offering flexible or open learning services as part of the lifelong learning agenda. Also, the University for Industry is making learning opportunities available through such venues as public libraries, and there is scope for partnerships with other educational providers, Training and Enterprise Councils, etc. It is eminently desirable therefore to consider offering access to online tutorials, not only on such subjects as how to use the Internet, but on a range of other subjects too. Links to suitable courses can be installed on the library’s computers, and it is particularly useful to have Internet tutorials signposted from the home page for the benefit of novice users. [4 and 5].

Publishing on the web

It is increasingly likely that users will want to try their hand at setting up their own web pages, and libraries could host these pages. Security will need to be carefully managed as users will need access to the library’s server. In addition, there are some legal risks regarding content of such sites and it is advisable to take legal advice. As a minimum libraries may need to consider placing a disclaimer on every page making it clear that the library is not responsible for its design and content, and require individuals or groups who publish such pages to display their own name clearly. Having said this however, a useful service which libraries can provide for small firms and organisations is to put up for them, for a small charge, a basic web site of perhaps four pages.

Library web site

Creating a library web site opens up endless possibilities for providing resource based and interactive services such as local information, what’s on, book reviews, online magazines, quizzes, online surveys, local history materials, booklists, discographies, and so on. Twenty-four hour access to a virtual library can be made possible. Publishing on the web is getting easier with software which can convert text into html (hypertext markup language) automatically. However, content is not the only consideration. The site needs to be attractive, user-friendly, and easy to navigate. Online tutorials and help pages may be needed, especially for times when staff are not on hand. IT units in local authorities may have experts in web design, or the expertise could be bought in. However, there is an opportunity here for the library to take the lead in designing a corporate web site for the whole authority. Examples of good public library web sites can be found by looking at the EARL web awards [8].

Additional services

Led by advances in technology the range of services available is constantly increasing, and with it the expectations of library users. Depending on the aims and purpose of the library, some of the following examples might be regarded as core services, others as value added services:

  • OPACs giving in-library access to the catalogue
  • remote access to library catalogues
  • community information
  • seamless access to a range of information sources
  • creation of digitised content to provide remote access to special collections and local studies materials
  • tailored mailing lists and bulletin boards for groups of users such as reading groups, homework clubs and distance learners
  • personalised services such as informing a user that, based on previous reading habits, a new book, video or web site has arrived which may be of interest
  • online enquiries services
  • requests and renewals by e-mail or other form of remote access
  • managed databases of frequently asked questions
  • co-operative networked services between libraries in different sectors and between libraries and museums and libraries and other advice agencies
  • document delivery
  • networking of CD-ROMs
  • hosting interactive services for local and national government e.g. for consultation or election purposes or to allow application forms etc. to be completed remotely. Enhanced communication is seen as a key role for the Public Library Network [9].
  • development of services which will extend access to all and further the aim of increasing social inclusion, such as Essex Libraries ‘Readers without Walls’ project which enables housebound people to select their own books.

Sheila and Robert Harden publish a useful list of ideas [10].


The Internet station(s) are solely designed to access the resources known as the World Wide Web and Telnet. The library will not provide access to e-mail accounts, newsgroups or other online forums not falling under the domain of the World Wide Web or Telnet. Individual use of the Internet stations will be limited to a period of one hour per session. Users may only have one booked session per day.

If a workstation is unoccupied during any session, the next person in line may use the station for the remainder of that session. If a person leaves the workstation for more than five minutes, it is assumed that they have finished their session and it is available for use by another person. Final judgement on who may use the workstation lies with the library assistant on duty.

Printing and downloading of material from the World Wide Web or Telnet is encouraged as long as it does not violate the generally accepted ideas of copyright and plagiarism. Downloading material to a floppy disk is free. If a user does not have a 3 1/2", 1.44 MB, IBM-formatted, virus free floppy disk, the library will have them available for sale. Printing material carries a charge of 5p per page. Users will be held responsible for all pages they print out.

The workstations must be used for educational, informational and recreational purposes only; not for unauthorised, illegal or unethical purposes. Users must make only authorised copies of copyrighted or licensed software or data.

Children under the age of 18 MUST have parental permission to use any Internet station. The library does not assume any responsibility for the use of the Internet by minors. It is impossible for library staff to control information contained on specific World Wide Web or Telnet sites. The Library cannot be held responsible for the accuracy of information taken from the public access Internet stations.

Library staff will attempt to assist users in the proper use of any World Wide Web or Telnet software program the library uses, but not all staff members will be able to give complete assistance. Because both the Internet and software used to access the Internet rapidly change, the staff may not always be able to give assistance to users.

Misuse or abuse of any of the guidelines listed here may lead to suspension or termination of computing privileges at the library. These guidelines are subject to change.

Deciding what to provide

Public libraries are rightly being promoted as key players in the information revolution. The Government is providing funds for the Public Library Network and to re-skill library staff. Each library service will need to consider what constitutes a core Internet service, taking into account the new standards being developed for public libraries. For some it might be simply providing access to web sites for research and information purposes. Others will consider it includes e-mail, chat rooms, mailing lists, access to the whole range of web sites, and more. The number of additional services which are or could be provided is limited only by the imagination, the technology and the resources available.

The library’s mission statement will be a guide to what services should be provided. Internet services provided should link with other services already provided, and those excluded be similar to services not currently made available, so that the reasons are clear to staff and public alike. It is essential to have an acceptable use policy which states clearly what is provided and what is not, and the procedures to be followed in the event of breaches of the policy. Some examples of acceptable use policies can be found at and


[1] Charging and networked services, by I. Everall

[2] An introduction to filtering, by Sarah Ormes

[3] Collecting Internet resources, by R. Harden

[4] NetLearn

[5] UK Assist

[6] Building the New Library Network

[7] Essex Libraries’ online arcade

[8] EARL Best on the Web Awards 1998

[9] New Library: The People's Network

[10] Net notions for librarians

Other relevant resources

Smith, Mark. Internet Policy handbook for Libraries. Neal Schuman, 1999. ISBN 1-55570-345-3


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.

If you wish to comment on any issues raised in this paper, please use the Feedback option on the main Networked Services Policy Task Group web site.

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