Web Magazine for Information Professionals

A Brief History of the American Library Association Web Site

A brief history of the American Library Association Web Site: Rob Carlson, Internet Coordinator of the ALA, introduces us to the acclaimed Web site of the largest Library Association in the World.

The American Library Association's (ALA) web site [1] is a large and growing part of the Association's five-year plan, dubbed ALA Goal 2000, to focus its resources on the public's right to a free and open information society. As part of a larger project to improve and increase the use of information technology at ALA headquarters and provide support for members' use of technology in the conduct of Association business, I was hired as "Internet Coordinator" (a title that prompted a woman at one of our Annual Conferences to stop me and declare how glad she was that ALA had finally hired someone to clean up that messy Internet!) in April of 1995. Shortly thereafter, a new director of the Information and Telecommunications Services (ITS) unit was hired, as was a LAN administrator. With these human "building blocks" in place, we began to design an in-house information and communications system.

Before this time the Association was not completely without the use of information technology. For several years prior, ALA purchased dial-up email accounts, discussion list support, and gopher space from the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC). Our plans for information services at ALA were growing so rapidly, however, that we felt we could no longer depend on a largely "handshake" agreement with UIC for the kinds of services we would soon be demanding, and so decided to go solo. We owe a great debt of gratitude for the services of UIC and its staff (especially Nancy John and Sharon Hogan of the UIC library), since much of what we wanted to do with our own systems was conceived, built, and debugged on their systems. Their knowledge and assistance in our eventual move to our in-house system were also invaluable.

Because member and staff interest in a web site was so high, we started building the web site on a commercial server some six months before our own web server was actually installed. With minimal HTML skills and some graphics support from ALA's (print) Production Services unit, I set out to create a site that would serve our three perceived audiences, namely, ALA members, non-member librarians and library staff, and the general public. While it would have been easier to model the web site on the bureaucratic structure of the organization, I felt at the time (and still do) that the web site should develop more along the subject-oriented lines of ALA's areas of interest and activity. Experienced ALA members might know that a particular document pertaining to, say, intellectual freedom came from the IF committee of a particular division, but a member of the general public, possibly someone concerned about censorship attempts at her child's school library, would neither know nor care about such details, and would most likely not be able to find what could prove to be a very valuable document. Thus, gathering documents in subject areas, regardless of their source from within the organization, became a guiding principle for the future development of the web site

In keeping with this subject orientation, then, I used an overview of ALA (produced by ALA's Public Information Office) which described general areas of ALA endeavor such as "Conferences," "Advocacy," "Intellectual Freedom" as the basis for the original page. Links were made from this file to gopher files already mounted on the UIC server, a few more HTML files were created to fill gaps in the gopher coverage, some not-too-sophisticated graphics were added, and voila! ALA's home page went live on June 18, 1995. This was definitely a "learn-as-you-go" proposition, and anyone who saw some of the earlier iterations of our site will know why we privately referred to it as our "homely page."

Progress on the web site was rather slow during the rest of the summer and early fall of 1995, as more and more of my time and energy were devoted to the selection and installation of our new systems. I was extremely grateful, therefore, for the arrival in October of that year of Helen Conroy, a recent library program graduate from Manchester with experience in developing web sites. Helen volunteered her time to work on the web site while she and her husband were stationed in the Chicago area due to his work. We were able to devote most of Helen's time to development of some high-priority web site additions such as a directories of library-related web sites and ALA Chapters and Affiliates.

After many months of preparation and consultation, ALA's "Internet server" (a Compaq Proliant server running BSDI Unix, and serving our gopher and web files, discussion lists, etc.) was installed in November of 1995. Our massive gopher file structure was moved over from UIC first, and then, once we were sure the server was stable (well, stable enough...), web files were moved from the commercial server to our server in December. Web site development really took off around this time, especially with the loan of Dan Lewis from Production Services. Dan worked feverishly with Helen and me to present a new face to our web site in time for ALA's Midwinter Meeting in February of 1996. In May of 1996, Dan and his position were moved to ITS long-term to help with development of the web site.

With two full-time staff now devoted to web site development, emphasis has shifted from basic organization to content and feature development and refinement of style. I receive all "mailto" and feedback form responses intended for the webmaster, and from these derive priorities for content and feature additions based on user demand. ALA units have been uneven in their enthusiasm for making their materials available through the web site, but pressure from members and others is mounting, and more and more units are working with us to get their units represented on the site.

The ALA web site has proved extremely popular as an information delivery system for ALA members, as an informative resource for others, and is a good public relations tool for the Association. It is expected to become even more so following Dan's and my move from ITS to ALA's newly-formed Communications Department in September of 1996. The majority of the new system issues having been resolved by that time, we felt this was a good time to more closely align web site development with other Communications Department units such as our monthly magazine American Libraries, the Public Information Office, and Public Programs.

Comments from visitors are by and large positive, with those not-so-positive being more along the lines of "why is there nothing here about..." (which, as mentioned earlier, I take as a call for further content development) than "what a crummy little site" (as was much more common in the early days...). In fact, the large majority of comments I receive are of the "where can I get more information about this..." variety than comments or questions about the web site per se. A large contingent of visitors continues to conceive of our library association site as a general library site, so I'm constantly forwarding reference questions ("What's the GDP of Mali?") to our Library and Research Center. But it comes with the territory, and I'm glad for these continuing indications of need for traditional library services in the wired world.

We have tried to make the web site the online equivalent of the Association, in all its size and complexity. This is at times a daunting task, and of course there's no pleasing everyone. Numerous ALA units and outside organizations continue to struggle for greater visibility through better placement on, and connections from, the ALA site -- the price of popularity, perhaps? Web site development will continue to be driven largely by user demand, but we have also recently formed an in-house steering committee to wrestle with questions of policy. We are hoping this committee can develop a number of widely-agreed-upon policies that will remove the burden of case-by-case content and connection decisions from web development staff.

Later this month (January 1997), we will unveil a new design and begin increasing the number and type of interactive database applications on the site. The addition of these features, we hope, will allow us to continue to keep the ALA web site a lively and, above all, useful element in the Association's mission to improve information services for all.


[1] American Library Association Web site,

Author Details

Rob Carlson is the Internet Coordinator of the American Library Association
Email: rcarlson@ala.org