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Green Paper on the Role of Libraries 
in the Information Society 
United Kingdom - Background Information


Updated: 05 NOV 98


In connection with research on the role of libraries in the information society , we have collected a fair amount of information on how the situation is evolving in different countries. This document provides background information on the United Kingdom.


Generic data

In 1993, the United Kingdom had 57.9 million inhabitants and an area of 224,100 sq. km., which gives a population density of 237 inhabitants per square kilometre. In 1990, the UK spent 0.23% of its GDP on libraries.

Higher education libraries

Higher education libraries in the United Kingdom had 860 service points in 1990. The number of volumes in book collections was 89.8 million and 1.9 million volumes were added. There were 1.3 million registered users in 1990.

Public libraries

Public libraries in United Kingdom had 24, 869 service points in 1994 compared to 5,185 in 1990. The number of volumes in book collections was 133.1 million in 1990 and 130 million in 1995. In 1994, 12.6 million volumes were added. There were 33.5 million registered users in 1990; and 33.9 million in 1995. According to New Library: the People's Network , there are 4,759 libraries in the UK, of which 693 are mobile libraries, plus 19,136 service points in hospitals, prisons, old people's homes, etc.

Current expenditure in 1993 was £778.1 million, of which 49% was allocated for staff. In 1995 the net revenue expenditure was £713.7 million of which 57% was allocated for staff and only £1 million was used for on-line services.

Statistical data on libraries

The total number of titles in UDC classes in 1995 was 96,620 (23,164 of these were new editions of existing titles). In 1994, there were 95,015 titles, in comparison to 86,573 in 1992.

The British National Bibliography lists the following:

Year Number of titles
1990 58186
1991 62493
1992 64435
1993 65785
1994 71064
1995 78981
1996 65915

The number of print titles is not available, but Whitaker's British Books in Print has 1,895,456 titles, of which 809,327 are currently in print.

In the United Kingdom, approximately 90% of the public libraries have automated. Data on the penetration of housekeeping systems into the 167 library authorities have been gathered bi-annually over a ten year period between 1983 and 1993 and these data show how libraries have extended coverage of library management systems (primarily circulation) towards more advanced systems. In 1993, 82% used the local system for circulation and 50% had an OPAC.

The majority of the local authorities in the UK have standard types of library systems. In the rural areas, however, such as in the Borders area of Scotland, library automation only consists of a central catalogue for the libraries in the country maintained by the county headquarters and none of the local authorities have on-line access to the catalogue.

Libraries and Internet

As regards the use of the Internet in public libraries in the UK, at the beginning of 1996, 53% of all public library authorities had some form of Internet connection, but this covers only 3% of individual service points. 28 (17%) UK public library authorities offered access to the public (0.7% of individual service points). 77 (85%) libraries used a dial-up connection, 15 (17%) had a leased line connection and 3 (3%) used ISDN. Two public libraries had their OPAC's available via the Web.

The number of workstations available for the Internet is still rather low, on average 2.1 for staff use and 0.23 for public use per local authority. In the UK, Internet service to the users may be fee based (e.g. £5 per hour in Croydon). In April 1996, 44 public libraries had created Web sites providing community information or other information.

Although it would not be sensible to read too much into this statistic, since a dial-up connection cannot provide the same accessibility or flexibility as a leased line; the fact that so many library authorities have started to experiment provides some insight into professional attitudes and priorities. As yet the use of the Internet has had almost no effect on service delivery.

In May 1997, 77 public libraries provided a homepage on the Web and one public library OPAC was available. Seven different resource centres and information services were available, alongside with six other national libraries. In addition, the British Library, BUBL (a bulletin board for libraries), UKOLN (UK Office for Library and Information Networking), the Library Association and JANET (UK's academic and research network) also have Web pages as do nearly all academic libraries.

CD-ROM data are not available beyond 1993 when the last edition of Information Technology in Public Libraries was undertaken, but the uptake between that survey and the 1989 data show how quickly the technology has diffused into public library services and a future survey is likely to demonstrate that this diffusion has continued both across the country and within individual library services - more service points having access to CD-ROM based information either across wide-area networks or in stand alone mode.


Public libraries with CD-ROM

1989 1991 1993
29% 60% 77%

It is unlikely that the rate of increase in the use of CD-ROM will abate within the next three years.

Policy issues on libraries

The provision of public library services is the responsibility of local authorities who receive their funding partly from local taxation (average 52%) and partly by Government grant (average 48%).

New Library: the People's Network published on 15 October 97 was commissioned from the Library and Information Commission (LIC) by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport . It sets out ambitious plans for networking public libraries over the next few years and should be seen in the wider context of the consultation paper on the National Grid for Learning . In addition, the LIC has published (November 1997) a discussion paper on Library and Information Research, Development and Innovation in the UK and (March 1998) Virtually New - Creating the Digital Collection , a ground-clearing report reviewing digitisation projects in local authority libraries and archives and calling for an agency to be established to coordinate public library digitisation. The wide range of projects and support actions under eLib and the emerging EARL initiative are also evidence of the UK's commitment to library technology.

In the UK, a key aspect of the formulation of strategy for research and development in the library and information field is that the disenboursement of available funds is made in accordance to a strategy defined by the Library and Information Commission, in order to avoid wasteful duplication of effort, and to encourage co-operation and co-ordination across all sectors for the benefit of the users.

Public libraries will play an important part in the Government's "IT for All" programme, which aims to rause public awareness of the benefits of information technology.

The Department of Trade and Industry has launched the Information Society Initiative, whose aim is "to promote the beneficial use and development of information and communication technologies - multimedia - in the UK". This initiative will be funded by £35 million between 1996 and 2000 for the development of telematics systems and services.

The Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib) received a budget of £15 million over three years to fund projects in a variety of areas. The main aim of eLib was to engage the Higher Education community in developing and shaping the implementation of the electronic library. As a continuation of the work in the eLib projects, a series of new projects which seek to integrate learning and outcomes of the initial eLib project portfolio will be funded under eLib Phase 3. These projects were scheduled to begin in the autumn of 1997. The work will be in 3 different areas: Hybrid Libraries; Large Scale Resource Discovery; and Preservation.

The British Library Research and Innovation Centre, aims at promoting, supporting and disseminate high quality research, development and innovation in information, library and related fields. Its funds will, alone or in partnership with other agencies, encourage progress in the library and information community, to evaluate the state of knowledge issues of interest to the community, and to promote the significance of this work among the wider community.

BLRIC research grants budget for 1997/98 has been set at £1,634 million and at £1,468 million for 1998/99.

British Library Research and Innovation Centre (BLRIC) is considered the main funding body for libraries and information service research . Its interests are wide ranging and cover aspects of the entire information chain, including the connectivity, content, competences, value and impact of library and information services, economics of library and information services. The BLRIC Research Plan April 1998 to March 2001 , identified the following areas of concern: value and impact, digital libraries, information retrieval, management of library and information services, library co-operation, providers and users of information, preservation of and access to the recorded heritage, public libraries.

Until autumn 1998, the Centre's address is:

The British Library
Research and Innovation Centre
2 Sheraton Street
London
W1V 4BH
United Kingdom

From autumn 1998, the Centre's addres will be:

The British Library
Reserach and Innovation Centre
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
Tel: +44 171 412 7053
Fax: +44 171 412 7251
E-mail: ric@bl.uk

The UK current priorities in library research are:

  • Network oriented internal library systems
  • Telematics applications for interconnected library services
  • Library services for access to networked information resources

Within recent months both the Government have expressed a general commitment to connecting all public service buildings (including schools, colleges, hospitals and public libraries) to the information superhighway, and the digitalisation of different public materials is already under way.

In the UK it is estimated that 6 million British adults do not fulfil the basic requirements to be considered literate, having various degrees of difficulty in reading, writing, spelling and punctuation. A complete inability to read and write is rare.

The Government is consulting on the future of legal deposit requirements, including their extension to the electronic media. Meanwhile, it is urging publishers to deposit digitised copies of print publications with the British Library (on a voluntary basis), where they are available.


The UK Library and Information Commission has a web site providing access to its publications and reports on the public library network, digitalisation in local authorities and the role of the librarian and libraries in lifelong learning.

Additional background information

Our page on National Programmes and Initiatives on Libraries in the Information Society is being constantly updated as we learn of pertinent policy information.


Report on the situation of libraries, museums and archives prepared in January 1998 by the UK National Focal Point for the European Commission's Libraries Sector.
European Commission 
DGXIII Telematics for Libraries 
Contact: Concha Fernandez de la Puente 
e-mail: concha.fpuente@lux.dg13.cec.be

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