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The Library Association Web Site

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Alan Cooper and Finbarr Joy talk about the past, present and future of the Library Association Web Site.

 


Relevant Web Site


Two years' ago the Library Association was considering how best it could deliver services and information to its members using the Internet. There seemed no obvious need to add to the substantial number of successful e-mail lists catering for the UK library community, but a number of librarianship bodies overseas (notably the American Library Association [1] and the International Federation of Library Associations [2]) were developing their use of the World-Wide Web.

We were concerned about the resources needed by a small organisation such as the LA to operate a Web site. A long-term IT strategy had been developing at Library Association Headquarters which had led to our having in place a 2 Mbs secondary connection to JANET, and a decision to refurbish most of the building with a network using structured cabling for voice and data. However, we were not convinced that we had the technical expertise or financial resources to be able to set up our own Web server, and the commercial rates for externally-hosted Web sites were prohibitive.

Fortunately, at this time we were approached by Fretwell Downing Informatics with a free offer to host a Web site on our behalf. The Library Association would retain full editorial control, while Fretwell Downing would operate the Web site and provide the technical expertise. The Library Association was extremely pleased to take up this offer, constrained by the resources we have to develop and maintain the information rather than any space limitations imposed by Fretwell Downing.

Library Association activities

The immediate objective was decided as being providing a source of information about the Library Association and its activities for members and potential members. Established in 1877, with a Royal Charter granted in 1898, the LA is the UK's leading professional body for librarians and information managers and has more than 25,000 members. Among its activities, are:

a voice for the profession
The LA influences government and other decision-makers affecting the library world, by campaigning, lobbying, and responding to government initiatives; in particular, campaigns such as National Libraries Week [3] and Library Power have changed the way people view libraries.

career development
Members can gain professional qualifications with Chartered status and receive help and advice on employment-related issues; in addition, librarians can obtain career opportunities through the INFOmatch recruitment agency, take part in an extensive programme of short courses and purchase professional resources published by Library Association Publishing.

promoting standards
University library and information courses are accredited, awards are given to promote professional excellence, and service guidelines in a number of sectors are developed and published.

products and services
The Library Association record (12 issues a year) and Library technology (5 issues a year) are free to members and available on subscription; the Vacancies supplement (fortnightly) is the leading medium for job advertising in the profession.

Initial Web site

These activities generate much information of significance to library and information professionals. For example, the Web site now contains many of the information sheets and policy documents otherwise produced in print and provided by post on request. The site also provides a preview of the forthcoming issue of the Library Association record, including the text of some feature and news articles, and the full text of National Libraries Week news.

Many of the activities of the LA take place within its special interest Groups and regional Branches, and all were encouraged to make their information available on the Web, either on their own sites or the main LA Web site. A majority of Groups now have Web pages. In addition a number of organizations in liaison with the LA (i.e. national organizations with a substantial number of LA members which have formal links with us) have pages on the LA Web site.

As a consequence of there being these many sources, information for the Web site arrives in a variety of formats, mostly word-processor or text files, but in some cases HTML files and in some cases pieces of paper! A deliberate decision was made not to be prescriptive, in order to encourage Branches and Groups to participate and editorial control is extremely light.

Screenshot of the training section on the LA Website

The training section on the LA Web site

Two years' ago, LAHQ staff had terminal access to Uniplex (office automation software) and elm (e-mail software) running under Unix. As a result of the implementation of the next phase of the IT strategy, LAHQ staff now have Microsoft Office and Microsoft Exchange running under Windows 95 on the desktop, with servers running Windows NT. (Our monthly journal, the Library Association record, is the exception, in being Macintosh based.)

Our new systems will begin to make it easier for LAHQ staff to develop materials for the Web site, and the use of Web editors , such as the FrontPage editor, is being encouraged. In the long term, the ability for us to develop and maintain the LA Web site is dependent upon generation of Web information being integrated with our everyday office procedures for creating and sharing information. In order for this to happen, as well as promoting Internet use for all LAHQ staff, we are beginning to look at developing our use of Intranet technology.

Library Association Publishing was sufficiently convinced of the value of the World-Wide Web to the book trade, that it soon arranged to have its own Web site, as part of the Internet Bookshop. As well as the advantages of LAP's current list being accessible as part of a large collection of publishers' catalogues, the Internet Bookshop provides facilities to order books online and to be notified of new titles by e-mail automatically.

LA JobNet

During 1996 it became clear that the Internet was becoming a significant source of information about vacancies in the profession (for example, services such as NISS [4] and the BUBL Information Service [5] include LIS job information). A number of recruiters were also beginning to enquire about placing job advertisements on the Internet, attracted by the opportunity it would provide to reach an audience wider than the LA membership. An Internet version would also have significant advantages for overseas members. On the other hand, the Vacancies supplement is seen by members as being one of the major benefits of membership of the LA.

A decision was made that the advantages to the Association of a Web-based version clearly outweighed any possible disadvantages. It was agreed that the service would be available to anyone and not just the LA membership, but that users would need to register. Members would continue to receive a personal copy at least three days before each issue goes live on the Internet. Fretwell Downing was commissioned to develop the new service, which started in January this year.

Platform

Both sites are housed on a Sun UltraSparc II Internet server installed with Netscape Enterprise web server software. LA JobNet also makes use of an Informix RDBMS.

The Netscape Enterprise server is typical of the latest wave of web servers in that it offers much more than a simple HTTP server daemon. Such servers now also provide suites of web publishing tools to help with server administration (usually through a GUI interface as opposed to the old command line/ configuration file hacking method). Typically, user administration, authentication/security, version control, and text retrieval components are available 'out-of-the-box' and are configurable through the GUI administration interface. These features are even to be found in 'freeware' servers such as Apache (although without the GUI interface and only after some patient source code hacking and compilation from you/ your pet programmer).

In addition, the latest servers also support direct access to the server API. This offers many benefits for those developing applications or interactive elements for web sites since it obviates the need for the more complex (and slower) CGI -based programs traditionally used and gives the developer direct access to the server's more powerful functions. To further aid developers, many server vendors also provide their own development platforms - in Netscape's case this is known as 'LiveWire' [6] and consists of a JavaScript implementation which executes entirely at the server (as opposed to the more common implementation at the client) through the server API.

The LA HQ site runs as a 'traditional' web site in that all HTML pages are created by LA staff and transferred to the server using FTP. These pages are updated remotely on a regular basis as required.

In contrast, most of the information contained within the LA JobNet site is generated from within a database - i.e. HTML pages are dynamically generated by the server at the time of each user's request.

Dynamic Publishing through Database Integration

The LA JobNet site is driven by a relational database which holds information on job vacancies and users registered to use the service (registration is compulsory, though free to all). In addition , authority files are maintained for regional and sector information used in querying the database.

The actual job of presenting the site via database queries is handled through the Netscape LiveWire interface which provides a library of database connectivity routines for use in server-side JavaScript. This supports the direct connection and execution of database operations without the need for third party web/database gateways and so simplifies the development process. Since LiveWire is an extension of the server's API performance is also enhanced.

A standard 'template' is employed throughout the site which defines common page elements that can be constructed programmatically according to the context. Hence, site-wide 'headers and footers' can be defined which need only be edited in one 'template' file for changes to be reflected across the site. Similarly, query and record display screens are composed of form and list elements which are called on as needed from a single file.

The advantage of constructing a site in this way is that maintenance is greatly reduced since only one (template) file is edited rather than multiple HTML files to effect changes.

These templates are automatically populated by data from the database according to the context of the user's actions so that database interaction is transparent to the user who navigates the web site in the same manner as a 'static' site.

Future Developments

A number of issues need further examination as part of the development of the LA's Web-based services:

Web preparation and management
We are looking at how , in the long term, the Web site will become integrated with information management within LAHQ and with information services to members of the Association. For example, information for print publication and the Web site should need to be created once only. Also, if we are to allow our members to re-new their subscriptions or book a course place online, this clearly has implications for our in-house membership and courses systems. Existing tools, such as FrontPage, still have a number of inadequacies in areas such as ensuring accessibility, generating metadata and carrying out validation. This raises a number of issues, such as the extent to which we feel able to decentralise responsibility for the Web site to staff using these tools.

new services
The Library Association is committed to developing new information services to our members and the wider profession using Internet technologies. Already, BLISS [7] and the BUBL Information Service [8] provide information about the professional literature, and the University of Wales, Aberyswyth provides the PICK gateway [9] and Electronic Calendar [10]. The Library Association is well placed to provide information on LIS in the media, suppliers of library services or products, and legal and parliamentary matters affecting the profession, for example. The Library Association is an information provider to the NewsAgent for Libraries eLib project [11] . LA JobNet will be extended to provide complete details of all the posts advertised in the print version.

The LA JobNet web site is currently exploiting some of the most advanced features available from the latest wave of web servers. The 'next wave' (already looming over us!) will bring closer integration with other applications besides database servers such as news, media and directory servers (based on X500 or LDAP - the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol).

Such integration would enable organisations such as the Library Association to set up authoritative, secure information services to its members that would be available over the Web.

References

[1] American Library Association,
http://www.ala.org/

[2] International Federation of Library Associations,
http://www.ifla.inist.fr/

[3] National Libraries Week,
http://www.la-hq.org.uk/nlwnews.htm

[4]NISS Library vacancies service,
http://www.niss.ac.uk/noticeboard/jobs/libvac.html

[5] BUBL Jobs Service,
http://bubl.ac.uk/news/jobs/

[6] Livewire developers guide,
http://europa.rlj-consulting.com/documentation/livewire/developers_guide/

[7] BLISS,
http://portico.bl.uk/bliss/

[8] BUBL Library and Information Science journals,
http://bubl.ac.uk/journals/lis/

[9] PICK LIS Gateway, http://www.aber.ac.uk/~tplwww/e/

[10] PICK Electronic calendar of events,
http://www.aber.ac.uk/~tplwww/eleccal/

[11] NewsAgent for Libraries eLib project,
http://www.sbu.ac.uk/litc/newsagent/

Author Details

Alan Cooper,
Information Manager,
The Library Association
Email: CooperA@la-hq.org.uk
Tel: 01636 7543

Finbarr Joy,

Internet Services Consultant,
Fretwell-Downing Group Ltd.
Email: fjoy@fdgroup.co.uk
Tel: 0114 2816112
Date published: 
19 July 1997

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How to cite this article

Alan Cooper, Finbarr Joy. "The Library Association Web Site". July 1997, Ariadne Issue 10 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue10/la/


article | by Dr. Radut