Library Web Proxy Use Survey Results

By Murray, Peter E. | Information Technology and Libraries, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Library Web Proxy Use Survey Results


Murray, Peter E., Information Technology and Libraries


[Editor's note: The following article is winner of the first annual LITA/Endeavor Student Writing Award.]

Libraries face many policy and technological difficulties in providing remote access to databases, making effective use of Internet bandwidth, controlling where patrons browse on public computers, and gathering statistics on usage. Some libraries have chosen to employ proxy Web servers to solve these problems. This paper outlines the use of proxy Web servers by libraries to address these areas and documents survey results on their use in libraries.

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In its most general definition, a proxy server is "[a]n intermediary server that accepts requests from clients and forwards them to other ... servers." (1) In the general form of this definition, a proxy server may act as an intermediary for one of many Internet protocols (such as HTTP, FTP, Telnet, NNTP, and others). This paper focuses on the application of proxy Web servers in general, and specifically their use in library networks to solve library-specific problems.

There are four reasons a library may install a proxy Web server: to enable access to resources by patrons outside a library's network, to filter Web requests or responses on public stations, to conserve bandwidth and improve response time, and to gather statistics on Web usage. In order to identify why libraries had installed proxy servers and what proxy server software was used, a survey was prepared and distributed in November 2000. Additional questions were asked about the documentation provided to patrons about how to use a proxy server and any privacy statements about the disposition of proxy server log files. This paper will discuss the information gathered in the survey.

The survey was posted to the following electronic mailing lists: Web4Lib@sunsite.berkeley.edu, PACS-L@ listserv.uh.edu, LITA-L@ala1.ala.org, teknoids@listserv. law.cornell.edu, SYSLIB-L@listserv.acsu.buffalo.edu, LIS-LINK@mailbase.ac.uk, and PUBLIB-NET@sunsite. berkeley.edu. E-mail messages were also sent to the attendees of the second and third LITA Regional Institutes on Web Proxy Servers and Authentication. A copy of the survey appears at the end of this paper in appendix A.

Between November 16 and December 22, 2000, eighty-five libraries responded to the call for participation in the survey. Respondents had the option to identify themselves and their institution; that information was used for follow-up information, much of which is discussed in this paper. A breakdown of library types is shown in table 1. Three of the responding libraries were not using proxy servers at this time.

Proxy for Remote Resource Access

By far the most frequent reason for libraries to use Web proxy servers is to enable off-network patrons to access vendor-provided resources. These resources are typically restricted to a particular institution's subscription by one of two methods: vendor-supplied username/password authentication or network address recognition. Although alternate methods exist for the purpose of authenticating access to resources (vendor-supplied scripts and referer-URL authentication, for example), these methods do not enjoy widespread implementation.

The problems of distributing vendor-supplied usernames and passwords to a community of users and keeping them secure are well known; such a method allows access to a resource from nearly any Web browser in the world. A single username and password supplied by the vendor can be distributed to individual patrons or posted on an internal Web site. In addition to the packet sniffing problems discussed in Cole, there is nothing inherent in this scheme that prevents the password from being given to patrons outside the institution's community. (2) The same problem exists for usernames and passwords distributed to individuals, although it is easier to identify abuses with a single user's password and cancel access for a username which has been compromised. …

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