Questions and Answers on Access to Digital Information, Services and Networks

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 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 digital 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.

Rationale for Digital Access

1.  What are the factors that uniquely position American librarianship to provide access to digital 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 fully realized unless libraries provide free access to digital 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 1930s, the Library Bill of Rights acknowledged librarians professional and ethical responsibilities to the Constitution 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 digital arena?

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

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

Those libraries with a mission that includes service to minors should make available a full range of information necessary for young people to become thinking adults and part of the informed electorate envisioned in the Constitution. The opportunity to participate responsibly in the digital arena is also vital for nurturing the information literacy skills demanded today. Librarians need to remember that minors also possess First Amendment rights. Although parents and legal guardians have the right to restrict their children’s access to digital resources, federal and state legislation as well as institutions’ policies also impact minors’ access to digital information. Libraries should extend as much access as permitted under the law.

Rights of Users

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

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

5.  How can libraries help to ensure library user confidentiality in regard to digital 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. Electronic records on individual use patterns should be strictly safeguarded. Software and protocols should be designed for the automatic and timely deletion of personal identifiers from the tracking elements within digital 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 digital information resources also must protect the confidentiality rights of patrons

Databases and other digital resources provided by the library should allow anonymous searching and should not require users to reveal personally identifiable information.  In their contract negotiations with vendors/network providers/licensors, librarians should ensure that these third parties will protect any personally identifiable information obtained from users in accordance with confidentiality law and the ALA Code of Ethics.

Libraries and their institutions should provide physical environments that facilitate user privacy for accessing digital 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 digital information sources by patrons with disabilities.

6.  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 policies and procedures that obligate all members of a cooperative or all departments and branches within a parent institution to maintain user confidentiality.

7. Why shouldn’t parental permission be required for minors to access digital information?

As with any other information format, parents are responsible for determining what digital information they wish their own children to access. Library staff may need to help parents understand their options, but should not be in the position of policing and 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,” “Minors and Internet Interactivity,” “Access for Children and Young People to Nonprint Materials”) 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 access library resources and information as part of their inalienable rights and the passage to informed adulthood. Digital information access is no different in these regards.

Equity of Access for Users

8. Do libraries need to develop policies about access to digital information, services, and networks?

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

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

The mission and objectives of some libraries recognize 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 to include use by parents and community members. Special libraries may 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.

10. Must our library make provisions for patrons with disabilities to access digital 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 digital information, should be accessible to patrons regardless of disability.

Many methods are available and under development to make digital 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 digital information services.

11. Does the statement that “digital information, services, and networks provided directly or indirectly by the library should be equally, readily, and equitably available to all library users” (a phrase from “Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights”) mean that exactly the same service must be available to anyone who wants to use the library?

No.  It means that library staff should provide reasonable accommodations to barriers to accessing digital information and services, such as providing adaptive technology or alternate formats, and should do so in a timely manner.  For example, if a library has determined that all students should have access to interlibrary loan services free of charge, then a student with a disability should not be charged for needing interlibrary loan material in a special format. It also means that arbitrary distinctions, such as age or the presumed ability to use technology, should not be used as the basis for restricting access. 

12. Which is a higher priority: offering more information or deciding to charge no 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.”

13. 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. Applied to the digital environment, this means that some libraries will provide the text on the screen at no charge, but might charge for printouts.

14. 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.

15. Do libraries need a use policy for digital 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. Library policies related to access to digital information should be informed by a library’s mission and institutional objectives and consistent with ALA’s policies and guidelines, including “Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” “Guidelines for the Development and Implementation of Policies, Regulations and Procedures Affecting Access to Library Materials, Services and Facilities,” “Services to Persons with Disabilities: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” and “Minors and Internet Interactivity: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”

Reasonable restrictions placed on the time, place, and manner of library access should be used only when necessary to achieve significant 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.

16. What do you do if one person monopolizes library technologies such as Internet-accessible terminals?

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

Selection and Management Issues

17. 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 digital resources, such as DVDs, are acquired for the library’s collection in this traditional manner.

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

18. How can librarians use their selection expertise to help patrons use the Internet?

Librarians 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.

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

No. “Publicly funded libraries have a legal obligation to provide access to constitutionally protected information” (“Access to Digital Information, Services, and Networks: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights”). 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. “If a library uses a technological measure that blocks access to information, it should be set at the least restrictive level in order to minimize the blocking of constitutionally protected speech” (“Access to Digital Information, Services, and Networks”).

20. Does using software that filters or blocks access to digital information resources on the Internet violate “Access to Digital 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. “Adults retain the right to access all constitutionally protected information and to ask for the technological measure to be disabled in a timely manner.  Minors also retain the right to access constitutionally protected information and, at the minimum, have the right to ask the library or librarian to provide access to erroneously blocked information in a timely manner.  Libraries and librarians have an obligation to inform users of these rights and to provide the means to exercise these rights” (“Access to Digital Information, Services, and Networks” and United States, et al. v. American Library Association, 539 U.S. 194 (2003)). The use of filters presents a number of complex legal, technical, and ethical issues. For discussion of these issues librarians should review information located on the Office for Intellectual Freedom Web page, “Filters and Filtering,” at

21. Why do libraries have an obligation to provide government information in digital 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 digital format only, libraries should provide access to government information in this format.

22. What is the library’s role in the preservation of information in digital formats?

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

23. Do libraries have a role in supporting the creation and distribution of digital information by patrons?

Library services should reflect the library’s specific mission and the objectives of the institution. For example, some schools may have budgeted funds to support the creation, storage, and distribution of student-generated content; others may not have such resources. Academic libraries may have resources for “creation and distribution” to which their enrollees would have access but the community users would not, including their intranet and campus e-mail. Public libraries generally must consider all eligible users rather than a minority when offering services.

24. 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?

No. The institution’s decisions about digital resources, like those of other formats, will be based on its mission and objectives.

25. 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 digital resource available?

No. The institution’s decisions will be based on its mission and objectives as well as its selection policy. Selection of digital resources, like those of other formats, is based on selection policy criteria and fulfilling a collection (or user) need, taking economic resources into consideration. For additional explanation of this issue librarians should refer to “Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”

26. How can libraries impact vendors/network providers/licensors who attempt to limit or edit access to digital information?

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

27. How can the library avoid becoming a game room and still provide access to digital resources?

Just as libraries do not make value judgments on print materials in their collections, so libraries should not judge games as having less value than other digital content or resources. The library can avoid becoming a game room by developing policies that address time, place, or manner restrictions when determining the use of digital technology and resources. Policies can allow for more equitable access to digital content, without censoring specific types of digital content.

28. Do copyright laws apply to digital 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 digital information.

American Library Association
June 5, 1997; rev. November 17, 2000; rev. January 16, 2010