Maybe I'm behind, but I've just found out that members of certain London libraries, like City of London or City of Westminster, can have free access, for non-commercial use, from any computer - including their home computer (not just library computers) - to a wide range of useful online material or resources which have been subscribed to and paid for by the library / local authority, including:
- music, which you can select to stream to your browser over the Internet, with player controls (I could only get "near CD" or "FM" quality), from CDs in the Naxos Music Library - not much pop or rock, but fans of classical, opera, music theatre, jazz, blues, folk, world music and older "nostalgia" music (Piaf, Armstrong etc), instrumental and even Chinese music can rejoice! There's lots of recordings from the Naxos label, as you'd expect, but there's also music from other labels too like Chandos and Opera Rara.
- The Economist, one of my fave reads, all issues from 1843 to 2003, fully searchable
- The Times digital archive, searchable, though only from 1785-1985, as well as a searchable archive of national and regional UK newspapers and magazines from NewsUK
- CANS advice notes, billed as practical summaries of UK laws updated daily by qualified lawyers, including on some digital rights issues and consumer rights / consumer protection (both subjects I'm very interested in as regular readers of ACE will know)
- Grove Art and Grove Music dictionaries
- many other standard references like Encyclopaedia Britannica, Who's Who, the Oxford English Dictionary and lots of other Oxford University Press references
- and lots of other searchable reference works, which I won't list here - see the Westminster e-resources and the City of London online resources pages for full details of what's available in each (I think Westminster offers slightly more than the City).
Those are the only libraries I know about or have looked into, but given the similarities in the resources offered I bet lots of other libraries in the UK will also have similar schemes (though perhaps more limited, I suspect, as Westminster and the City of London are wealthier councils and can probably afford to subscribe to more services). Just try your local library's website and see.
The good news is, at least if you live in London, it's free to join Westminster Library or join the City of London Library if you have proof of your address - you don't even have to live or work in those areas; I'm a member of both libraries, myself, as their range of material and opening hours are much better than my local library's.
I'm assuming, though I haven't researched the point, that the sources (like Naxos) either get paid a flat subscription rate or get paid a percentage whenever they are downloaded or their music is streamed, just as with authors get paid under the Public Lending Right when their books are borrowed from UK lending libraries.
Now this is what I call bringing libraries (and record labels) into the 21st century!