The American Library Association’s (ALA) Intellectual Freedom Committee created this set of questions and answers to clarify the implications and applications of “Access to Digital Resources and Services: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”
As library workers, 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. Library workers also need to be cognizant of legislation and judicial decisions that may affect implementation of their policies. For additional information, contact the Office for Intellectual Freedom at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the purposes of this Q&A, we define the following:
Digital access is the ability to fully participate in digital society. This includes access to tools and technologies, such as the internet and computers, that allow for full participation.
Digital resources are databases, books, journals, newspapers, magazines, archives, theses, conference papers, government papers, research reports, scripts, and monographs in a digital form.
Digital services refers to the electronic delivery of information including data and content across multiple platforms and devices like web or mobile.
Rationale for Digital Access
1. What is the library's role in facilitating freedom of expression through digital resources and services?
In order to have a functional democracy, we must have informed citizens. Libraries are an essential part of the national information infrastructure, providing people with access and opportunities for participation in the digital environment, especially those who might otherwise be excluded.
2. 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 minors to become critical thinkers and active participants in our democracy. The opportunity to participate responsibly in the digital environment is vital for nurturing the information literacy skills demanded today. Library workers should remember that minors also possess First Amendment rights. Although parents and legal guardians have the right to guide their children’s use of and access to digital resources, federal and state legislation as well as institutional policies also impact minors’ access to digital information. Libraries should extend as much access as permitted under the law.
Rights of Users
3. Do the policies of ALA regarding intellectual freedom and ethics apply to digital information and services 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.
4. How can libraries help to ensure library user confidentiality in regard to digital information access?
Library workers must be aware of user confidentiality laws applicable to library records for their particular state and community. In accordance with such laws and professional and ethical responsibilities, library workers should routinely review policies and procedures for maintaining the 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 resources. System access to computers or other devices also should be designed to eliminate indicators of the research strategy or use patterns of any identifiable user. 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 reserve computer time or monitor use of digital information resources must protect the confidentiality and privacy 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 contract negotiations with vendors/network providers/licensors, library workers should ensure that third parties will protect any data and personally identifiable information obtained from users in accordance with all applicable laws, Article III of the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association, and Article VII of the Library Bill of Rights.
Libraries and those libraries with parent institutions should provide physical environments that facilitate user privacy for accessing digital information. For instance, libraries should consider placement of computers, printers, and devices so that user privacy is enhanced. Computer accessories, such as privacy screens, offer additional protection.
Finally, libraries should be sensitive to the special needs for confidential access to digital information sources by users with disabilities.
5. 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.
6. Why shouldn’t parental permission be required for minors to access digital information?
As with any other information format, parents and legal guardians are responsible for guiding their own children’s use of digital resources. Library workers may need to help parents understand their options, but should not be in the position of policing and enforcing parental restrictions within the library.
The Library Bill of Rights and its various interpretations, including “Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors,” and “Minors and Online Activity” and ALA’s “Guidelines for Library Policies,” clarify the rights of minors to access all library resources and information as an element of their First Amendment rights.
Equity of Access for Users
7. Do libraries need a digital information access use policy? If so, what elements should be considered for inclusion?
Issues associated with access, creation, distribution, retrieval, and archiving of digital information are complex. The Intellectual Freedom Committee strongly recommends that libraries formally adopt and periodically reexamine policies on these issues, so that they align with the mission of their institution, provide equitable access for all users, and are in compliance with the law and professional ethics.
Library policies related to access to digital information should be informed by a library’s mission and institutional objectives and be consistent with the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and ALA’s policies and guidelines, including “Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” “Guidelines for Library Policies,” “Services to People with Disabilities: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” and “Minors and Online Activity: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”
Reasonable restrictions placed on the time, place, and manner of access should be used only when necessary to achieve library managerial objectives and 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 access to information based on the means of access or the status of the library user.
8. My library recognizes different user groups. Is this a problem?
Libraries may establish distinct user groups. The mission and objectives of some libraries lead them to recognize distinctions between library users. In establishing distinct user groups, the library should not assume the need for different levels of access or restrict access based on origin, age, background, or views.
For example, academic libraries may distinguish between faculty and students, while 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 the definition of their primary clientele.
9. Must our library make provisions for users 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 users regardless of disability.
As stated in “Services to People with Disabilities: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” libraries and library workers should educate themselves about technical and legal standards for digital accessibility, and manage staffing and resources to provide equal access. Many methods are available and under development to make digital information universally accessible, including adaptive devices, software, and human assistance. Libraries, in the design and provision of their digital services, should make these resources and services accessible to meet the needs of people with disabilities.
10. “Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” states “All resources provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of format or method of delivery, should be readily and equitably accessible to all library users.” Does this mean that exactly the same service must be available to anyone who wants to use the library?
No. It means that library workers should provide reasonable accommodations 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.
11. Does the provision of information services include printouts?
Whenever possible, all services should be without fees. In any case, libraries should recognize that fees create a barrier to access and should take steps to minimize or eliminate this obstacle. 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. In charging fees for any service, libraries should consider waiving or reducing the cost, at its discretion, based on a user’s ability to pay.
12. If my library has no major support from public funds, can we then charge fees?
Yes, libraries that do not receive substantial public funding may find it necessary to charge fees in order to provide services to users. However, ALA encourages libraries to avoid charging fees as they may create a barrier to equitable access to information and ideas. For more information, see “Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”
13. What do you do if one person monopolizes public computer stations or other library technologies?
Libraries should address this issue in their technology use policies. While time, place, and manner restrictions to use can apply, they should be spelled out in the library’s computer use policies. Use policies should be applicable to all users regardless of origin, age, background or views. They should be written and posted to ensure equitable access for all users. For additional information, see “Guidelines for the Development of Policies and Procedures Regarding User Behavior and Library Usage.”
Selection and Management Issues
14. How does providing access to global information and services on the open internet differ from selecting and purchasing material for an individual library or providing access to curated online information resources?
Providing access to curated online resources is different from providing internet access. When libraries provide internet access, they provide a means for people to access information and resources that are created, maintained, and made available outside of the library’s control. Library workers are not making selection decisions about the information that becomes available by providing internet access; instead, they allow users to choose for themselves which online information and resources to access. The selection process, by default, involves decision making about and curation of resources which might be purchased and provided at an individual library.
15. How can library workers use their expertise to help users locate, understand, and use digital resources?
Library workers who have the necessary skills and education should play a proactive role in guiding users to the most effective information resources. Their guidance should foster digital literacy and enhance the ability to locate, evaluate, create and communicate digital content. For example, library websites are one starting point for accessing the vast resources of the internet. All libraries are encouraged to develop websites, curating links to internet resources and tools developed in the library to meet the information needs of their users. These resources should be made available within the existing mission, collection development policy, and selection criteria of the library. For additional information, see “Education and Information Literacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”
16. In order to protect a library’s users or reflect community values, can the library deny access to constitutionally protected speech on the internet?
No. 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.
17. Can my library use software that filters or blocks access to digital information resources on the internet?
Libraries and library workers should not deny access to constitutionally protected information. “Access to Digital Resources and Services: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” states, “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.”
The negative effects of content filters on internet access in public libraries and schools are demonstrable and documented. Consequently, consistent with previous resolutions, the American Library Association cannot recommend filtering. However, the ALA recognizes that local libraries and schools are governed by local decision makers and local considerations and often must rely on federal or state funding for computers and internet access. Because adults and minors have First Amendment rights, libraries and schools that choose to use content filters should implement policies and procedures that mitigate the negative effects of filtering to the greatest extent possible. The process should encourage and allow users to ask for filtered websites and content to be unblocked, with minimal delay and due respect for user privacy.
The use of filters presents a number of complex legal, technical, and ethical issues. For discussion of these issues, library workers should carefully review the information in “Internet Filtering: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” and on the Office for Intellectual Freedom’s “Filters and Filtering” website.
18. Why do libraries have an obligation to provide government information in digital format?
Most government information and forms are only offered online or in digital formats. Libraries, as a part of the national information infrastructure, should ensure that users can access government information in these formats. Libraries have a particular obligation to provide library users — especially those who might otherwise be excluded — with information necessary for participation in our society and our representative system of government.
19. 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 in order to ensure continued access. The types of information to be preserved, the scope, and retention period for any preserved information would vary depending on the library type and policies of each library. Federal depository libraries and state or local government document repositories may have a special responsibility to preserve government information.
20. Do libraries have a role in supporting the creation and distribution of digital information by users?
All libraries should support their users in the creation and distribution of digital information. The type of support will vary depending on the type of library. Academic and school libraries support their users in the creation, storage, and distribution of content as part of their curricula. Public libraries can support the creation and distribution of digital content through programs and other facilitated projects.
All libraries should have policies that define the extent of support while still providing access for users to create personal digital content.
21. Does my library have to provide digital material on all subjects, for all users, even if those users are not part of the library or the material does not meet the library's collection development policies?
No. The institution’s decisions about digital resources, like those of other formats, will be based on its mission and objectives as well as its selection policy. The “Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries” can assist libraries in the development of a selection and reconsideration 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, library workers should refer to “Diverse Collections: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”
22. How should libraries address vendors, network providers, and licensors who attempt to limit or edit access to digital information?
When purchasing digital information resources, library workers should conduct contract negotiations with vendors, network providers, and licensors to ensure the least restrictive access in current and future products.
23. 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 develop policies that address time, place, or manner restrictions when determining the periods of use of digital technology and resources. For additional information, see “Guidelines for the Development of Policies and Procedures Regarding User Behavior and Library Usage.” Policies can allow for more equitable access to digital content without censoring specific types of digital content.
24. Do copyright laws apply to digital information?
Library workers have professional and ethical responsibilities to keep abreast of copyright law and fair use guidelines. 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. For more information, see “Copyright for Libraries: General Information” and “Copyright: An Interpretation of the Code of Ethics.”
25. How should library workers respond to community complaints about digital resources?
Complaints about digital resources, like non-digital resources, should be received respectfully. Many complaints can be resolved with a respectful conversation.
Every library should have a request for reconsideration policy and follow it. The principles of these policies also apply to digital resources. Libraries can modify reconsideration policies to be applicable to digital resources. Information on reconsideration policies can be found in “Selection and Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, and Academic Libraries” and the Intellectual Freedom Manual.
Challenges to digital resources, like those of any other library resource, program, or service, should be reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom.
The Intellectual Freedom Committee compiled this Q&A following the initial adoption on January 24, 1996 (amended January 19, 2005) by the ALA Council of “Access to Electronic Information, Services and Networks: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” The interpretation was later amended on July 15, 2009 with the new title "Access to Digital Information, Services, and Networks," and again June 25, 2019 under the current title “Access to Digital Resources and Services: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”
The Intellectual Freedom Committee approved this Q&A on June 5, 1997, and revised it on November 17, 2000; January 16, 2010; and November 16, 2020.