If you have 15 metres of empty bookshelves and £12,000, you could set up a personal reference library comprising the 20 volume Oxford English Dictionary, the 60 volume Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the Grove family of reference books on art and music, and a comprehensive range of subject dictionaries and Oxford Companions to . . .

But there is an alternative, open to everyone who has a public library card. You can use the number on it to consult online versions of these resources in any library, or from a home computer, free of charge, thanks to a pioneering licensing agreement made between Oxford University Press (OUP) and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) in March 2006.

Founded in 1478, OUP is a department of the University of Oxford and the world's largest university press, currently producing 4,600 new books each year and 180 journals.

Profits are ploughed back into research projects, and an annual transfer is made to the university for educational purposes, such as student scholarships.

OUP's core purpose is to promote widespread access to information and scholarship. The development of online publishing is enabling it to do this on a far bigger scale than was previously possible, through licensing, and the sale of subscriptions to individuals and institutions.

England has 149 library authorities. Each has autonomy when it comes to procuring resources. But in 2005, they found themselves facing a new challenge. Many had recently installed computers and trained their librarians in IT skills, but they didn't have any high quality electronic reference materials for library users to consult.

"There was an opportunity to kickstart' this sector with electronic information," explained OUP's head of marketing, reference and online publishing, Susanna Lob.

OUP responded to a tender issued by the MLA, and offered all English library authorities access to five of its flagship resources, under the Oxford Online name, at a special price, if 90 per cent of them signed up to the package for two years.

"The libraries realised that if they subscribed as a group they could get discounts of up to 70 per cent on our resources. It worked out great for the libraries and great for us" said Ms Lob.

Ninety-seven per cent signed up, and a similar agreement was made in Northern Ireland. The MLA has since made licensing agreements with other publishers and the overall scheme is called Reference Online. Librarians have welcomed the Oxford Online resources and publicise them using one million bookmarks, posters, websites, and word-of-mouth recommendation.

Their work has borne fruit, as the first annual usage statistics show. English library users have spent 27,234 hours using the resources, and Oxfordshire tops the league table', measured by time.

Katharine Spackman, county reference and information librarian, said: "We're delighted that Oxfordshire Libraries members are such impressive users of OUP titles online, and that's largely due to our staff, who are so fired up by this wide world of information and promoting it enthusiastically.

"The excitement and interest when we introduce people to all the titles is huge, with the typical reaction being: I'm going to tell my friends about this!'"

The arrangement is also helping librarians to promote library membership in general. Someone who has not borrowed a book in years may pop in to join their local library, so that they can access Reference Online, and while there realise that there are other services they would like to use.

The MLA and OUP are running an awards scheme to recognise the achievements of librarians who have become champions' for online resources and their continuing importance in promoting them to the 48 million people who are entitled to use them.

Online publishing is one of the fastest growing areas of OUP's business, with the planned addition of many new resources in the coming year, as well as a completely redesigned Grove Music Online and Grove Art Online, to which library users will have access from September.

Their books are now designed in a format that allows them to be used in online versions, if required. Innovations include new pronunciation software and user-friendly character keyboards for a forthcoming series of online bilingual dictionaries.

Future negotiations with the MLA may see extra resources being added to the Oxford Online libraries package.

As well as being pleased by the quantitative results of the first year of the library collaboration, Ms Lob has received a lot of positive anecdotal feedback: "We have had spontaneous letters and emails from library users saying: This is fantastic'. Someone said: It is like having all these great books on the shelves at home.'"

If you have a public library card, you can access Oxford Online resources via Oxfordshire County Council's website: www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/referenceonline To join the library service, take personal identification to any library and fill in a form. Membership is free.

* For more information about OUP's online resources see: www.oxfordonline.com