Public Libraries Corner
The Work of the Networked Policy Taskgroup
For public libraries wishing to provide their users with access to the Internet there are a number of difficult policy decisions that need to be made. For example, do they provide Internet access for free? If they charge how much do they charge? Do they use filtering software? How long can people use the Internet terminals for? What level of services (e.g. e-mail or not) will they provide? Policy decisions of this type are currently being faced across the country by public library managers who themselves may only just becoming familiar with networked services.
It is not surprising therefore that many public librarians are keen to learn from other authorities experiences when developing networked services policy. An example of this keenness can be seen in the regular messages to the UK public library discussion list LIS-PUB-LIBS  which ask for information about public access policies, the level of charges being implemented and hardware security issues. However, other than discussion lists like this there are few places where librarians can easily find information about other authorities policy models.
EARL , the Library Association  and UKOLN  have become increasingly aware of the need for a simple way to share information about policy development, and then to learn from each others experiences. Through the Networked Services Policy taskgroup the three organisations have been working to develop a body of resources which will be of use to those who are currently developing networked service policies. These resources will help librarians to make informed policy decisions and to easily find and learn from policy models developed by other authorities.
The Work of the Taskgroup
The work of the taskgroup is split into three main areas
- Identification and analysis of the main networking services issues for public library
- Development of a series of issues papers
- Development of an archive/resource bank of policies
Identifying Networking Issues
In order to explore the pressing needs in terms of networking service policy issues the taskgroup decided to survey the public library community during the Spring/early Summer of 1998. The survey had three specific aims:
- to capture a snapshot of public library networking activity
- to gauge the relative importance of previously identified networked service issues
- to acquire source material related to networked services policy for the taskgroup web site
The survey was sent out to every public library authority in the UK and answers were collected via the telephone. Responses from ninety four authorities were collected. The survey asked a mixture of questions which required both qualitative and quantitative answers. This reflects the nature of the subject. All participants were made aware that their replies would be disseminated to other library authorities to highlight the importance of sharing information.
Snapshot of public library networking activity
At first glance the amount of public library networking activity seems very rosy with 90% of authorities having some form of staff Internet access (compared to the 1995 figure of 53%) and just under 70% providing some form of public Internet access (compared to the 1995 figure of 17%). These statistics however become less heart warming when it is noted that these statistics refer to authorities rather than individual service points. An authority may provide public Internet access in only one of their sixty branches. A clearer picture is perhaps shown by Chris Batt’s 1998 survey  which was also published in 1998. This survey showed that only 9% of all actual service points in the UK provide public access Internet services – a much more sobering figure.
The taskgroup’s survey explored what kind of connection methods authorities were using to gain Internet access. Forty one percent of authorities still connect to the Internet via dial-up accounts, 35% use leased lines and 25% via ISDN lines. Dial up access is therefore the most typical connection method. This is a worrying statistic as dial-up is the most limited access method and severely limits the level and extent of service that can be made use of. However, this could just be indicative of the developing nature of UK public library Internet services as dial-up is often used by an authority for its initial experiments with Internet access with the authority later migrating to leased lines and ISDN.
The survey also explored the number of public library staff who have access to and make regular usage of e-mail. Generally the use of e-mail among staff members is very low. Typically it is managers and other senior staff who have access to e-mail accounts. It is also fairly common for library staff to share e-mail addresses e.g. email@example.com.
Library web pages are becoming very commonplace. Over 66% of library authorities have web pages and well over half are hosted on a local authority server. However, many of these pages are very limited in scope and underdeveloped.
Public Internet services
The survey clearly revealed a number of very pressing issues in terms of networked services for the public. The most issue the survey identified was the inconsistency of service levels and practices from authority to authority.
Charges for basic Internet access range from free to £5 an hour (at every 50p denomination per 15 mins., half hour or hour). There may be additional charges for e-mail services and printouts though not all authorities provide these services. Some authorities use filtering software whilst others do not. Despite authorities having made a decision whether or not to use filtering software, the adoption of Acceptable Use Policies/Disclaimers is patchy. Some authorities offer assistance to users, others do not. The number of Internet workstations available in a single library varies from between 1 and 20.
The quality and level of service for a member of the public who wishes to use the Internet in their local library is therefore going to be solely dependent on where in the country they live. There is absolutely no minimum standard of service which is provided by all authorities. The general lack of acceptable use policies and disclaimers reflects the lack experience many libraries have of developing networked service policies.
Issues and policy creation
The survey asked respondents to identify the barriers they felt needed to be overcome to achieve more developed networked services. Typically these were staff skills and time, financial resources, technical support, bandwidth, assimilation into corporate ICT policies, network provision/coverage, and general ignorance of networking issues.
Twelve Issues identified by the Taskgroup as key in the development of networked services were listed in the survey and their order of importance had to be indicated by the respondents. The most important issues around the provision of networked services were “Equality of Access” and “Quality of Information”. This reflects the traditional stance of professional public librarians in delivering socially inclusive high quality services.
Library authorities were also asked if they would be willing to share their networked services policies with other library authorities via the taskgroup’s website. The most typical response to this question was that the authority was still in process of writing its policies and so currently had nothing they were able to share.
Overall the results from the survey showed that networking services in public libraries in the UK range greatly in their size and their level of development. There is no common standard for service level and type and it is interesting to note that a considerable number of library authorities appear to be offering public access Internet services without having yet developed policies about these services. These respondents, however, were very keen to develop such policies but were finding it difficult to do so because of a lack of shared information on these issues and a general feeling of being uninformed about all the relevant issues. It is hoped that the issue papers and the web site which the taskgroup are developing will go a long way to helping address this.
The Issue Papers
The taskgroup is producing a series of papers which will provide information on some of the main issues involved with the development of networked services. It is envisaged that the papers will provide relevant information pertaining to each issue, including options for consideration, examples of best practice, legislative framework where applicable, and known authoritative views. The aim of each paper will be to provide potential policy makers with enough impartial information so that they can develop informed policies themselves.
The first paper in the series looks at the use of filtering software in public libraries. The paper explores exactly what is filtering software, how it works, how effectively it works and some of the pros and cons for using it. The paper is not an argument for or against filtering but simply provides enough impartial information on the topic so library managers will feel confidently familiarised with all the issues involved when they make a decision.
The filtering issue paper was distributed for free to every UK public library chief in November 1998. The full text of the paper is available on the taskgroup’s web site . The web site also provide links to some of the resources mentioned in the paper, examples of existing library policies about filtering software and an opportunity to comment on the paper and the issues that it discusses.
The filtering paper is the first in what is expected to be a series of ten such papers. The exact titles and topics of these papers is still under discussion but it is expected that the following topics will be covered
- Charging for public Internet access
- Security issues
- National policy context
- Equality of access
- Quality of Information
- Service Planning
The production of the issue papers will be project managed by Sarah Ormes, UKOLN’s public library networking research officer. The papers will be written by members of the taskgroup and although a few papers may be written by specially invited authors who have particular expertise or experience on a topic.
The other strand of the taskgroup’s work will be the continual development of an online archive of existing public library networking service policy documents. This online archive already provides access to the Internet acceptable use policies of the library authorities of Walsall, Suffolk and Brent. It also holds the service development plans of a number of other authorities. The aim of this archive is to allow authorities who are in the process of developing networked service policies to be able to easily find policies which have already been developed by other libraries.
At present the archive hosts a comparatively small number of policy papers but this is indicative of the developing nature of public library networked services policy. It is hoped that this archive will grow rapidly as networked services in public libraries grow. The taskgroup would therefore be interested to hear from any authority which has developed suitable policies and would be willing for the taskgroup to make them via the web site. It should be noted that the archive will not be restricted to policies to do with the provision of public access services but will include any material concerning any aspect of networked services.
Through its work the taskgroup aims to help those libraries which are having to develop policies for networked services. The survey has shown that there is a great need for this kind of help. Policy decisions that are made now may have a lasting impact on networked services and it is important that the best decisions possible are made. It is hoped that the resources being developed by the taskgroup will inform this process.
UKOLN is funded by the British Library Research and Innovation Centre, 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.
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 Library Association
 Batt, C. and Pantry, S. (1998). Information Technology in Public Libraries. London: Library Association Publishing
 Networked Services Policy Taskgroup
Author DetailsSarah Ormes
Public Library Networking Research Officer
University of Bath
BATH, BA1 3BU
Regional Libraries Telematics Officer
Birmingham, B3 3HQ