Web Magazine for Information Professionals

ROUTES Project

Una O'Sullivan describes the Open University ROUTES project.

ROUTES is a gateway developed by the Open University Library as part of the Network Access Project (NAP). The project is funded by the Open University’s Office for Technology Development, and will run until April 2000, whereupon the work will be integrated into normal Library functions. ROUTES is part of the OU Library’s strategy to develop electronic library services, and is one of several Library research projects which aim to exploit new technologies and applications.

The principle aim of ROUTES is to bring librarians and academic staff together to select Internet resources for OU students. The selection criteria are as strict as those for any of the eLib Access to Networked Resources (ANR) gateways, but with the extra requirement that the websites chosen must be directly relevant to Open University courses. In practice this means that selected resources do not represent the full range of high quality websites in any subject area. It is preferable to maintain a smaller targeted collection which the students know will yield useful and relevant information, and thus will be a justifiable investment of their time and communications costs.

A second, though equally important, aim of ROUTES is to unite academic and library staff in the business of resource selection. In the tradition of the Open University, it is essential that the information sent to students is of the highest quality and tightly controlled, therefore, academic approval is essential for ROUTES resource selection. The academics judge the value of a website, and in a complementary way Library staff deal with the indexing and retrieval of the resources, and with the issues of access, copyright and performance. One of the benefits of ROUTES will be the closer working partnership between academic and information specialist, rather than the more traditional client/provider relationship.

ROUTES is using the ROADS [1] software to store, index and manage its links. The decision to use ROADS was taken after observing how other ANR services such as SOSIG [2] and OMNI [3] were using it with considerable success. The co-operation amongst ROADS users, evident from the archives of open-roads [4] and roads-hackers [5] lists, was especially attractive given that we wanted ROUTES to exist in the context of other ANR services. In early meetings with the ROADS team, we agreed that ROUTES would offer a useful opportunity to test the scalability of ROADS; the Open University has upwards of 150,000 students.

The fact that ROADS is customisable was particularly attractive. One of the aims of the OU Library’s research programme is to enhance students’ learning experience by using networked environments to create a feeling of belonging to the University. Thus the facility to create an OU "look and feel" is important. Together with the interactive opportunities afforded by a web-based service, we hope to give the students a sense of ownership of ROUTES. They will be encouraged to submit resources for inclusion in ROUTES, to offer feedback, and in some cases, will be asked to participate in the evaluation procedures.

ROUTES is evolving as a suite of services. The services to students will include quality control, academic approval of resources, a feedback mechanism, search and browse facilities and a reliable maintenance procedure. Students will be encouraged via ROUTES to develop their critical skills; they will be able to read the selection and evaluation criteria for their particular subject areas, and make recommendations for additions to ROUTES.

ROUTES offers a range of services to OU academic staff. Academics value the contributions that the Library can make to the selection and evaluation of Internet resources. Link management is also particularly attractive. By keeping up-to-date with ROADS developments and related electronic library initiatives, the Library is also offering a degree of technical maintenance; we are able to assure users that current standards on issues such as metadata, cross-searching and Internet classification systems will be observed. We plan to offer a current awareness service as well, by monitoring new links on various subject-based gateways through the Scout Report [6], In Site [7] and other current awareness sites. This is important as it will demonstrate that ROUTES is a dynamic resource, and one which will be worth visiting frequently.

In offering ROUTES to OU academic staff and students, the Library needs to consider the implications of introducing the Internet to this group of users and integrating into OU teaching and learning. We need to be continually conscious of the isolation which affects so many OU students, and to take care that we offer appropriate and comprehensive help files and guidelines. Getting the students to the resources is the first step, but they also need guidance on how they are to process and use this information. ROUTES will work with the Open University Library on addressing this need; we have already produced guidelines on evaluating information on the Internet, managing information and managing membership of mailing lists. All these guidelines are tailored for Open University students, and have been written in consultation with academic staff members.

At the first ROUTES focus group meeting, held on 10th March, training was highlighted as one of the highest priorities. In addition to familiarising course teams with the service, we also need to offer training to regionally-based tutors, who are the academic contacts for OU students. The Library is currently developing a pilot programme of training in electronic information resource discovery, and it is through this programme that we will offer ROUTES training and awareness.

Year 2 of ROUTES has just started. In this year, we aim to build on the work of the first year and bring in more course teams; pilot ROUTES on at least two student groups (representing roughly 600 users), refine the database itself and publicise the project. We will bring the Library’s Subject Information Specialist teams into the project as the link between the academics and the ROUTES specialist and this will enable us to embed the service easily with the Library’s existing range of electronic services. We are also planning a ROUTES event in the Open University, which will bring people together to discuss quality control on the Internet.

ROUTES represents in many ways the new responsibilities that the Open University Library is taking: management of electronic resources; training and awareness of the networked environment; continual monitoring of research and development in librarianship and information science; and developing systems for delivering these new services to a large student body. Further information on OU Library research is available from our website at http://oulib1.open.ac.uk. Enquiries about ROUTES may be addressed to Una O’Sullivan, Project Officer, Open University Library, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA., email u.osullivan@open.ac.uk


1. ROADS: Resource Organisation and Discovery in Subject-based Services. http://www.ilrt.bris.ac.uk/roads/
2. SOSIG: Social Science Information Gateway http://sosig.ac.uk
3. OMNI: Organising Medical Networked Information http://www.omni.ac.uk
4. open-roads archive http://www.roads.lut.ac.uk/lists/open-roads/
5. roads-hackers archive http://www.roads.lut.ac.uk/lists/roads-hackers/
6. The Scout Report http://wwwscout.cs.wisc.edu/scout/
7. In Site http://www.mcs.com/~jcr/INSITE.html

Author details

Una O’Sullivan, Project Officer
Open University Library
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes
e-mail: u.osullivan@open.ac.uk