Mailbase Reviewed

Terry Hanson reviews the mother of academic mailing list systems in the UK.

Background: What are electronic mailing lists?

The terminology is not yet standardised for what I prefer to call online discussion lists. Other names used include computer mediated conferences, bulletin board systems and newsgroups. Whichever name is chosen the concept is of a large number of people with an interest in common, and geographically dispersed, communicating as a group. The mailing list is the mechanism that permits the communication and it does so by allowing one list subscriber to send a message which will be received by all other subscribers. The message may be a question, a plea for assistance, an announcement of an event, a job vacancy, a complaint, a campaign, or even a semi-blatant advertisement. Any subscriber may then reply and, again, all other subscribers would see this message too. Most subscribers only "lurk" on the list, reading and discarding the messages with little particpation in discussion. Others become very active and establish reputations for themselves. It is no exaggeration to suggest that online discussion lists have transformed informal scholarly communication processes. The invisible colleges of the past have been revisited with a vengeance and have been democratised in the process, and it is Mailbase and other services throughout the world that have facilitated this progress.

However, it is not just academe that has benefited from these services. There is a mailing list system known as Usenet News within which context the lists are normally referred to as newsgroups, and the messages are known as articles. The concept is the same as that described above but whereas online discussion lists as operated by Mailbase (and others) are primarily for those involved in academic pursuits, Usenet News is an open system for anybody with an Internet connection. Consequently, a substantial proportion of the 5,000 or so Usenet newsgroups are devoted to entertainment and recreation topics.

Mailbase reviewed

Mailbase is a well organised electronic mailing list service for the UK academic community. It is funded centrally by the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Funding Councils and is based at Newcastle University. The service currently runs 1,213 lists (as of 12 March 1996) on behalf of academics in all subject areas. In total there are 144,000 subscriptions (from throughout the world) to those lists and 88,000 individual members of Mailbase.

Discussion lists are managed by software that automates the process of subscription and dissemination of messages. Throughout the world there are many software packages for this purpose. Perhaps the best known of them is the LISTSERV software from L-Soft International ( which runs from hundreds of sites. In the UK we are fortunate to have our very own system in Mailbase.

Mailbase lists are subscribed to by sending an email message to that says "subscribe list name your name". For example: "subscribe lis-link joe smith" would subscribe Joe Smith to the lis-link list. A little later Joe Smith would receive email messages from Mailbase confirming his membership, welcoming him to the list and giving some useful information about how to use the system. He can then make direct contributions to the list. In this case the address would be It is a very common mistake to send messages to subscribe or unsubscribe to the list (i.e. rather than to the administrator of the list (i.e. This is not a mistake that is unique to Mailbase. All mailing list software is prone to the same error.

For many Mailbase users the ordinary subscription process would be their only contact. They would be content to receive the messages every day into their mail box. Others may wish to take advantage of the facilities available via the Mailbase home page ( These include search and browse tools for list discovery and information about specific lists once located.There is also a very useful search facility for individual people, and their email addresses, who are members of Mailbase lists. At the level of the individual list the information available includes:

  • The owner's name and email address
  • Whether the list is moderated (quality controlled to keep out the trivia etc.)
  • A list of members and their email addresses
  • A "hypermail" archive of messages. This is an excellent feature of Mailbase that represents an alternative method for keeping in touch with discussion in particular areas. The archive allows you to browse the messages from a list month by month. With this facility you can avoid having your email box cluttered up with list traffic and instead browse the messages at your convenience, as you would with Usenet newsgroups.
  • Other files. These would normally be documents relating the list and its subject matter.
  • Searchable message archives.

To become a list owner is a simple process. Among the various help and information files on the Web service you will find a New List Template which includes an application form with instructions on how to fill it in. On this form you would describe your list proposal, its purpose, subject areas, expected membership size, etc. This would then be mailed to Mailbase. Alternatively there is a form that can be filled in online provided your Web browser can handle forms.

To conclude: Mailbase does what it does extremely well and it is hard to imagine academic life without it. From my own perception as a user I find it to be an excellent service. My own high opinion of Mailbase is also shared by others locally according to a small local survey of users and list owners.

Other sources of list information

If you wish to discover what lists are available globally there are some useful tools around but there is, unfortunately, not a simple Mailbase-like sytem that ties them all together. The following tools are worth a look:

  • List of Lists Champion. This claims to be the world's most comprehensive list of lists with more than 15,000 from more 2,500 different sites. This directory is manually indexed and updated every six months or so. See: [though note it unfortunately costs $19, in advance]
  • CATALIST. This is a searchable directory of lists that use the LISTSERV software. Currently some 8,400 public lists are described. The directory is maintained by automated indexing techniques. See:
  • Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters and Academic Discussions Lists. Compiled by Lisabeth King for the Association of Research Libraries. The 6th edition is due soon. See: gopher://
  • Directory of Scholarly and Professional E-Conferences. Compiled by Diane Kovacs and team. This well known directory is now in its 10th revision. It is available for searching and browsing at:

As well as general directories there are many examples of comprehensive subject listings available. For example:

Date published: 
Sunday, 19 May 1996
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