Agora: From Information Maze to Market

Bridget Robinson, David Palmer and Rosemary Russell outline the Agora cross-searching software project, and its technical background.

Agora is one of the five elib hybrid Library projects which began in January 1998 and are all due for completion at various times this year. They form part of Phase 3 of the elib Programme that is investigating issues of digital library implementation and integration.

The word Agora comes from the Greek word meaning meeting place or assembly point. On further investigation the Perseus project, part of the Department of Classics, Tufts University)[1] describes an agora as: -

'A large, open public space which served as a place for assembly of the citizens and, hence, the political, civic, religious and commercial center of a Greek city. Buildings for all of these various purposes were constructed as needed in and around the agora.'

In the original proposal submitted in response to JISC Circular 3/97, the reasoning behind the choice of the project name was explained in the following way 'Our title Agora, reflects our belief that the library will continue to organise the assembly places where information users and information products are brought into fruitful contact.' [2]

The concept of a meeting place has proved to be very relevant to the Agora experience to date.


The Agora[3] project is developing a hybrid library management system (HLMS) to provide integrated access to distributed information services. In parallel with this it is also developing library skills and experience in the management of hybrid resources. Agora aims to increase awareness and understanding of the benefits of a standards-based management framework; and therefore dissemination activities are an important part of the project.

Agora is a consortium-based project, led by the University of East Anglia; partners are UKOLN [4], Fretwell Downing Informatics and CERLIM (the Centre for Research in Library and Information Management). The project also works with several associate groups: libraries, service providers and systems developers. Implementation of the HLMS in the Agora associate libraries forms a key part of the development process.

The Agora development framework

Agora is based on concepts which emerged from the MODELS [5] project, MOving to Distributed Environments for Library Services. MODELS has been developing frameworks for managing distributed resources, to enable truly integrated access. The central part of the Agora framework is a layer of 'broker' services or 'middleware' which shields the user from the complex and repetitive processes involved in interacting with individual services. It is based on open standards, including amongst others HTTP, Z39.50 and ISO lLL. We are also tracking the W3C query language discussions and RDF developments, in order to plan future directions. The web provides the primary end-user access point to Agora.

The concept of information landscapes, based upon work at an earlier MODELS workshop, is integral to the Agora organization and presentation of resources. The term 'landscape' is used to describe a way of presenting different views of information resources to users, according to their interests and needs. Agora is exploring the construction of information landscapes, as part of its user-centred focus.

In order to provide information landscaping it is necessary to match information about users against collection level descriptions (information about resources). Agora is using the collection description schema drafted by a national working group and edited by UKOLN[6].User authentication (by Athens or an alternative system) is also required to determine access privileges; this may be done individually, or based on membership of user groups.

The Agora HLMS includes the ability to integrate previously separate functions of discovery, searching, request/locate and delivery.. In concrete terms, this means the integration of electronic document delivery with traditional interlending.


The prototype hybrid library management system was launched in summer 1998. The system is based on Fretwell-Downing's VDX software. It was considered important to have a prototype at the beginning of the project in order to gather the best possible feedback from associates in the early stages. The prototype focussed on social science resources, across different domains. It included abstract and indexing services, library catalogues, archive databases and subject gateways. It supports the four 'MODELS verbs' : search, locate, request and deliver. Two scenarios were demonstrated: cross-domain searching for mixed media; and search through to delivery for monographs and serials. The prototype supported parallel Z39.50 searching and displayed the status for each target to inform the user of the progress of their search.


System definition

Based on prototype evaluation, the system definition for the first 'real ' Agora HLMS was drafted and approved by the Agora Board in early 1999. It has a number of components, including the requirements catalogue which sets out 145 Agora requirements in detail. Prioritization undertaken by the Library Associates in cooperation with the Project determined functions to be implemented in Release 1 of Agora and those to be implemented in Release 2. Requirements will continue to be added to the catalogue on an ongoing basis. Other components of the system definition are the 'user framework' and the 'requirements tabulation', which present functionality and requirements in a simpler format. This system definition documentation is available on the Agora web site.

Release 1 and user case studies

Release 1 of the Agora HLMS underwent compliance testing as against the system definition, was subsequently approved by the Agora Board and is currently being installed at each Library Associaten site. Release 1 provides cross-domain searching and integrated delivery of information either electronically or by way of institutional interlibrary lending. An evaluation of Release 1 has been completed by the Library Associates and the resulting report is being finalized.

Release 1 will provide the platform upon which each institution will conduct case studies in the summer of 2000. These case studies constitute the major work of the Project in it's last year and represent a move towards a process and policy focus - a human approach that will inform the wider community of the reality of the hybrid library.

The case studies are diverse in nature, examining a range of issues pertaining to the implementation and use of the HLMS. The studies address three areas: functionality of the system, how different user groups use the system, and the training/management tools required.

Issues under functionality include:

  • Discovery of resources - the location and organization of resources within the system via the landscape function;
  • Searching resources - simple and advanced searching simultaneously across multiple databases to test benefits of cross-domain searching;
  • Delivery of information - the transmission of information to the user- via the Interlending function
  • The user groups to be examined include:
  • Academic, research and faculty staff;
  • University based and distance learning postgraduates, and;
  • Professional and non-professional library staff

The time scale of the project as it currently stands precludes undergraduates as a user group, although it is hoped that this can be revisited at a later date.

In the area of training and management tools, one of the studies will be specifically addressing the issue of training requirements of library staff.

One of the major objectives of the project is the provision of 'change management tools' that will assist the information community in assessing and potentially integrating hybrid library management systems, and that will also contribute to the larger debate and development of the hybrid library concept.

It is expected that all the Associates will contribute to documentation, which will reflect their experiences and the ongoing evaluation within the context of the case studies. This documentation will consist of project-wide work and documents tailored to the specific needs of each Library Associate.


Although exciting to look at where the Agora project is going, it is also important to look back over the last 2 years and acknowledge the achievements of the project to date.

The three major tangible achievements are:

  • The HLMS System definition. This has proved to be a landmark document. It is a substantial body of work, which brings together for the first time a complete functional description for the hybrid library. The Agora software will not meet all the requirements but it does go a huge distance in validating the theory. The document continues to provide a point of reference for a number of other projects. It also represents the consensus of a range of information stakeholders on what constitutes a HLMS.
  • The provision of a working HLMS. Release 1 offers cross-domain searching across a variety of resources including multimedia(images and media streaming), bibliographic databases, full-text and web pages and can be used as a testbed for the Hybrid library concept. Release 1 is an early instantiating of the HLMS concept and is one of the first DNER (Distributed National Electronic Resource) prototypes. It also stands as a significant achievement in its own right.
  • The Agora project has foreseen, and perhaps influenced the direction of the information community in relation to the HLMS concept. At the start of the project, the HLMS was a concept that was unfamiliar to many and required explanation. Two years on, we can see that many of the software suppliers are pursuing the HLMS concept in their product development. Many data providers now accept that adherence to a cross-domain protocol is necessary, and there is an acknowledgment by much of the library community that the integration of functionality envisaged by the Agora HLMS is desirable. The existence of the system definition and the subsequent work to translate it into a real system has provided a point of reference within the information community regarding the development of the HLMS concept.

The Agora HLMS is by no means a finished 'commercial' product - it is a proof of concept system that is only at its first release. However, even at this stage we can point to some specific areas of functionality that represent real progress in the area of the hybrid library:

  • The landscape function is a critical breakthrough for Agora Release 1. Landscapes (i.e. aggregations of resources) can be created, deleted, modified and stored for future use, independent of any particular search strategy. This is essential to the discovery functionality of HLMS;
  • The integration of collection level descriptions as a metadata standard for describing resources and to facilitate discovery and organisation of resources;
  • The provision of simple and advanced searching, searching simultaneously across multiple databases and recovery of records with a variety of data structures;
  • Results are displayed while the search process is ongoing and in a number definable by the user. Transmission status reports are provided to the user. Results can be sorted and contain URLs;
  • Searches are capable of being saved proactively and survive beyond the current search session;
  • Locate functionality for non-electronic resources exists in Agora Release 1 - sited within the Admin client - operates away from the user but works automatically;
  • Use of URLs allows for simultaneous location and delivery of web-accessible electronic resources;
  • The Agora interlending function is a major step forward in the seamless integration of interlending as a delivery mechanism within the Agora HMLS


Agora provides both a technological meeting place for information sources and a meeting place of a different kind - a forum for discussion. The Agora project has made real' much of the theoretical work surrounding the HLMS concept and will in turn inspire further thought, action and debate in this area.


1. The Perseus Project is a non-profit enterprise located in the Department of Classics Tufts University.
It is funded by: - Digital Libraries Initiative Phase 2, Tufts University, the Modern Language Association, the Berger Family Technology Transfer Endowment, and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education
2. Proposal document for Agora can be found at
3. The Agora main website is at
4. UKOLN is funded by Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives & Libraries (the organisation succeeding the Library and Information Commission), the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) of the Higher Education Funding Councils, as well as by project funding from the JISC and the European Union. UKOLN also receives support from the University of Bath where it is based.
5. MODELS website is at
6. Collection description working group report

Author Details


David Palmer

Assistant Librarian
University of East Anglia

Bridget Robinson

Agora Communications Coordinator
UKOLN (UK Office for Library & Information Networking).

Rosemary Russell

Research Officer, Distributed Library & Information Systems

UKOLN (UK Office for Library & Information Networking).


Date published: 
Friday, 23 June 2000
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