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Questions and Answers:
Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks:
An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

Following the initial adoption by the ALA Council of Access to Electronic Information, Services and Networks: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights in January, 1996, the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee produced a sample set of questions and answers to clarify the this Interpretation’s implications and applications.

As librarians, we have a professional obligation to strive for free access to all information resources. However, many of the questions concerning electronic information will not have a single answer. ALA recognizes that each library needs to develop policies in keeping with its mission, objectives, and users. Librarians also need to be cognizant of local legislation and judicial decisions that may affect implementation of their policies.


  1. What are the factors that uniquely position American librarianship to provide access to electronic information?

    Electronic media offer an unprecedented forum for the sharing of information and ideas envisioned by the Founding Fathers in the U.S. Constitution. Their vision cannot be realized unless libraries provide free access to electronic information, services, and networks.

    Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others laid the basis for a government that made education, access to information, and toleration for dissent cornerstones of a great democratic experiment. With geographic expansion and the rise of a mass press, American government facilitated these constitutional principles through the creation of such innovative institutions as the public school, land grant colleges, and the library. By the close of the 19th century, professionally trained librarians developed specialized techniques in support of their democratic mission. In the 1930’s, the Library Bill of Rights acknowledged librarians’ professional and ethical responsibilities to the Constitution’s promise of access to information in all formats to all people.

  2. What is the library’s role in facilitating freedom of expression in an electronic arena?

    Libraries are an essential part of the national information infrastructure, providing people with access and participation in the electronic arena. They are fundamental to the informed debate demanded by the Constitution and for the provision of access to electronic information resources to those who might otherwise be excluded.

  3. Why should libraries extend access to electronic information resources to minors?

    Those libraries with a mission that includes service to minors should make available to them a full range of information necessary to become thinking adults and the informed electorate envisioned in the Constitution. The opportunity to participate responsibly in the electronic arena is also vital for nurturing the information literacy skills demanded by the Information Age. Librarians need to remember that minors also possess First Amendment rights. Only parents and legal guardians have the right and responsibility to restrict their children’s—and only their own children’s—access to any electronic resource.

  4. Do the policies of ALA regarding intellectual freedom and ethics apply to electronic information, services and networks in libraries?

    Yes, because information is information regardless of format. Library resources in electronic form are increasingly recognized as vital to the provision of information that is the core of the library’s role in society.

  5. Does the ALA require that libraries adopt the Library Bill of Rights or the ALA Code of Ethics?

    No. ALA has no authority to govern or regulate libraries. ALA’s policies are voluntary and serve only as guidelines for local policy development.

  6. Does ALA censure libraries or librarians who do not adhere to or adopt the Library Bill of Rights or the ALA Code of Ethics?

    No, ALA does not.

  7. Do libraries need to develop policies about access to electronic information, services, and networks?

    In view of the complex issues associated with access to electronic information, the ALA strongly recommends that libraries formally adopt and periodically reexamine policies that develop from the missions and goals specific to their institutions.


  1. How can libraries impact vendors/network providers/licensors when they attempt to limit or edit access to electronic information?

    Librarians have a mandate to be strong advocates of open access to information. Therefore, when purchasing electronic information resources, librarians should conduct contract negotiations with vendors/network providers/licensors to ensure the least restrictive access in current and future products.

    Libraries, themselves, along with any parent institution and consortia partners, should also communicate their intellectual freedom concerns and public responsibilities in the production of their own electronic information resources.

  2. How can libraries help to ensure library user confidentiality in regard to electronic information access?

    Librarians must be aware of patron confidentiality laws on library records for their particular state and community. In accordance with such laws and professional and ethical responsibilities, librarians should ensure and routinely review policies and procedures for maintaining confidentiality of personally identifiable use of library materials, facilities, or services. These especially include electronic circulation and online use records.

    Electronic records on individual use patterns should also be strictly safeguarded. Software and protocols should be designed for the automatic and timely deletion of personal identifiers from the tracking elements within electronic databases. System access to computer terminals or other stations also should be designed to eliminate indicators of the research strategy or use patterns of any identifiable patron. For example, the efforts of the last user of a terminal or program should not remain on the monitor or be easily retrievable from a buffer or cache by subsequent users. Methods used by libraries or institutions to monitor reserving computer time and the amount of time spent in electronic information resources also must protect the confidentiality rights of patrons.

    Libraries and their institutions should provide physical environments that facilitate user privacy for accessing electronic information. For instance, libraries should consider placing terminals, printers, and access stations so that user privacy is enhanced. Computer accessories, such as privacy screens, offer additional protection. Where resources are limited, libraries should consider time, place, and manner restrictions.

    Finally, libraries must be sensitive to the special needs for confidential access to electronic information sources of physically challenged patrons.

  3. Our library is just one of many autonomous institutions in a consortium. How can we be sure that our cooperating partners honor the confidentiality of our library users in a shared network environment?

    This is a contractual and legal matter. The importance of confidentiality of personally identifiable information about library users transcends individual institutional and type of library boundaries. Libraries should establish and regularly review interlibrary and interagency cooperative agreements to ensure clear confidentiality policies and procedures, which obligate all members of a cooperative, or all departments and branches within a parent institution.

  4. Do libraries need a use policy for electronic information access? If so, what elements should be considered for inclusion?

    Access questions are rooted in Constitutional mandates and a Library Bill of Rights that reach across all media. These should be professionally interpreted through general service policies that also relate to the specific mission and objectives of the institution. Such general policies can benefit from the legacy and precedents within the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual, including new interpretations for electronic resources.

    Reasonable restrictions placed on the time, place, and manner of library access should be used only when necessary to achieve substantial library managerial objectives and only in the least restrictive manner possible. Libraries should focus on developing policies that ensure broad access to information resources of all kinds. Policies should not limit the kinds of information accessed by which patrons and in what manner.

  5. Why shouldn’t parental permission be required for minor access to electronic information?

    As with any other information format, parents are responsible for determining what they wish their own children to access electronically. Libraries may need to help parents understand their options during the evolving information revolution, but should not be in the policing position of enforcing parental restrictions within the library. In addition, libraries cannot use children as an excuse to violate their Constitutional duty to help provide for an educated adult electorate.

    The Library Bill of Rights—its various Interpretations (especially Free Access to Libraries for Minors; Access for Children and Young People to Videotapes and Other Nonprint Formats), and ALA’s Guidelines for the Development and Implementation of Policies, Regulations and Procedures Affecting Access to Library Materials, Services and Facilities—also endorse the rights of youth to library resources and information as part of their inalienable rights and the passage to informed adulthood. Electronic information access is no different in these regards.

  6. Does our library have to make provisions for patrons with disabilities to access electronic information?

    Yes. The Americans With Disabilities Act and other federal and state laws forbid providers of public services, whether publicly or privately governed, from discriminating against individuals with disabilities. All library information services, including access to electronic information, should be accessible to patrons regardless of disability.

    Many methods are available and under development to make electronic information universally accessible, including adaptive devices, software, and human assistance. Libraries must consider such tools in trying to meet the needs of persons with disabilities in the design or provision of electronic information services.


  1. My library recognizes different classes of users. Is this a problem?

    The mission and objectives of some libraries recognizes distinctions between classes of users. For example, academic libraries may have different categories of users (e.g., faculty, students, others). Public libraries may distinguish between residents and non-residents. School library media centers embrace curricular support as their primary mission; some have further expanded access to their collections. Special libraries vary their access policies, depending on their definition of primary clientele. Establishing different levels of users should not automatically assume the need for different levels of access.

  2. Does the statement that “electronic information, services, and networks provided directly or indirectly by the library should be equally, readily, and equitably available to all library users” mean that exactly the same service must be available to anyone who wants to use the library?

    No. It means that access to services should not be denied on the basis of an arbitrary classification; for example, age or physical ability to use the equipment. This phrase, from Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, clarifies that simply making printed information sources available to those unable to pay while charging for electronic information sources abridges the principles of equality and equity.

  3. Which is a higher priority: To offer more information or not to charge fees? Does this mean my library cannot charge fees?

    The higher priority is free services. Charging fees creates barriers to access. That is why ALA has urged librarians, in Economic Barriers to Information Access, to “resist the temptation to impose user fees to alleviate financial pressures, at long-term cost to institutional integrity and public confidence in libraries.”

  4. Does “provision of information services” include printouts?

    Whenever possible, all services should be without fees. In any case, fees should not create a barrier to access. Translated to the electronic environment, this means that some libraries will provide the text on the screen at no charge, but might charge for printouts.

  5. If my library has no “major support from public funds,” can we then charge fees?

    Yes, but ALA advocates achieving equitable access and avoiding and eliminating barriers to information and ideas whenever possible.

  6. What do you do if one person monopolizes the equipment?

    Libraries should address this issue in their use policies. Time, place, and manner restrictions should be applied equitably to all users.


  1. How does providing connections to “global information, services, and networks” differ from selecting and purchasing material for an individual library?

    Selection begins with the institution’s mission and objectives. The librarian performs an initial selection from available resources, and then the user makes a choice from that collection. Many electronic resources, such as CDs, are acquired for the library’s collection in this traditional manner. Collections consist of fixed discrete items.

    When libraries provide Internet access, they provide a means for people to use the wealth of information stored on computers throughout the world, whose ever-changing contents are created, maintained and made available beyond the library. The library also provides a means for the individual user to choose for him- or herself the resources accessed and to interact electronically with other computer users throughout the world.

  2. How can libraries use their selection expertise to help patrons use the Internet?

    Libraries should play a proactive role in guiding users, especially parents and their children, to the most effective locations and answers. Library Web sites are one starting place to the vast resources of the Internet. All libraries are encouraged to develop Web sites, including links, to Internet resources to meet the information needs of their users. These links should be made within the existing mission, collection development policy, and selection criteria of the library.

  3. Should the library deny access to Constitutionally protected speech on the Internet in order to protect its users or reflect community values?

    No. The library should not deny access to constitutionally protected speech. People have a right to receive constitutionally protected speech, and any restriction of those rights imposed by a library violates the U.S. Constitution. Only a court of law can judge speech to be outside of the protection of the First Amendment.

  4. Does using software that filters or blocks access to electronic information resources on the Internet violate Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights?

    This interpretation states that libraries and librarians should not deny access to constitutionally protected information. The use of filters presents a number of complex legal, technical and ethical issues. For a discussion of these problems, librarians need to review information located on the Office for Intellectual Freedom Web page, “Filters and Filtering,” at

  5. Why do libraries have an obligation to provide government information in electronic format?

    The role of libraries is to provide ideas and information across the spectrum of social and political thought and to make these ideas and this information available to anyone who needs or wants it. In a democracy, libraries have a particular obligation to provide library users with information necessary for participation in self-governance. Because access to government information is rapidly shifting to electronic format only, libraries should plan to continue to provide access to information in this format, as well.

  6. What is the library’s role in the preservation of information in electronic formats?

    The online electronic medium is ephemeral and information may disappear without efforts to save it. Libraries may need to preserve and archive electronic information critical to their mission.

  7. Does “must support access to information on all subjects” mean a library must provide material on all subjects for all users, even if those users are not part of the library’s community of users or the material is not appropriate for the library?

    The institution’s mission and objectives will drive these decisions.

  8. The Interpretation states that libraries should not deny access to resources, solely because they are perceived to lack value. Does this mean the library must buy or obtain every electronic resource available?

    No. The institution’s mission and objectives will drive these decisions.

  9. How can the library avoid becoming a game room and still provide access to this material?

    Libraries need to develop policies that address time, place, or manner restrictions when determining the use of electronic equipment and resources. Such restrictions should not be based on content.

  10. Do copyright laws apply to electronic information?

    Yes. Librarians have professional and ethical responsibilities to keep abreast of copyright and fair use rights. This responsibility applies to the library’s own online publications, contractual obligations with authors and publishers, and informing library users of copyright laws that apply to their use of electronic information.

American Library Association
June 5, 1997; rev. November 17, 2000


Related Files

Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks (PDF File)
Questions and Answers: Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks (PDF File)

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