Retrospective on the RDN

Debra Hiom, in the first of a two-part series on the Resource Discovery Network, looks back at the development of the RDN and its activities to date.


This article will describe the history of the Resource Discovery Network (RDN) [1], charting the development of subject gateways in the UK since 1993 to the present day. To help set the history of the gateways in the wider context of the resource discovery landscape in the last decade or so, readers are encouraged to refer to Lorcan Dempsey's recent article on the development of digital libraries [2]. A timeline of the RDN's development is also available to serve as a summary of its history.

The RDN is a national service funded by JISC, with support from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), to help the education community discover the best of the Web for learning, teaching and research. The network is made up of an executive based at the University of Manchester, technical support from UKOLN and eight subject-based gateway services. Together the network encompasses over seventy partner universities and research institutions in the UK. The current subject services are:

Altis: Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism [3]
Artifact: Arts and Creative Industries [4]
BIOME: Health and Life Sciences [5]
EEVL: Engineering, Maths and Computing [6]
GEsource: Geography and Environment [7]
Humbul: Humanities [8]
PSIgate: Physical Sciences [9]
SOSIG: Social Sciences, Business and Law [10]


The origins of the RDN lie in the Electronic Libraries (eLib) Programme [11], although SOSIG (the Social Science Information Gateway) preceded the eLib Programme by about a year (as a pilot project funded by the ESRC) and Humbul had actually existed as a bulletin board service for the humanities since 1985. eLib was a large and wide ranging programme of projects funded by JISC in 1996 (initially £15m over 3 years but later extended to 2001) as a direct result of the recommendations of the Follet Report [12]. Projects were funded under a number of different tracks including Digitisation, Electronic Journals, Electronic Document Delivery and On-Demand Publishing.

The subject gateways were grouped under the Access to Network Resources (ANR) area, which were projects to support access to high-quality information. The projects funded under this area were:

  • ADAM: Art, Design, Architecture & Media Information Gateway [13]
  • Biz/ed: Business Education on the Internet [14]
  • CAIN: Conflict Archive on the INternet [15]
  • CATRIONA II [16]
  • EEVL: Edinburgh Engineering Virtual Library [6]
  • IHR-Info [17]
  • OMNI: Organising Medical Networked Information [18]
  • ROADS: Resource Organisation and Discovery in Subject-based services [19]
  • RUDI: Resources for Urban Design Information [20]
  • SOSIG: Social Science Information Gateway [10]

These projects varied in their approaches and focus, for example CAIN and RUDI were involved in the creation of resources as well creating guides to materials available elsewhere and CATRIONA was investigating the approaches to the management and creation of institutional and departmental electronic resources in Scottish universities. The ROADS Project was also slightly different to the rest of the group in that it was developing a set of software tools and a standards framework to support some of the information gateways being developed under this strand, specifically ADAM, Biz/ed, OMNI and SOSIG.

In relation to metadata description and resource discovery, this was the early days of the Web, discussions about what was later to become the Dublin Core Initiative [21] had only just begun and the closest to a standard approach to metadata at the time was the IAFA/WHOIS++ [22] templates, which were incorporated into the ROADS software. As the Dublin Core Initiative became more established, the gateways moved across to support this standard, while still maintaining their own richer discipline-specific metadata where required.

Related Research Projects

During this time there were a number of related projects and initiatives with which many staff from the UK subject gateways were closely involved. These multi-partnered projects often involved European and worldwide collaborations and helped to shape the standards and procedures for creating and maintaining Internet subject gateways. A couple of these projects are briefly described below.


DESIRE (Development of a European Service for Information on Research and Education) [23] was a large pan-European project that ran from 1996-2000 as DESIRE I and II. The overall aim of the project was to promote the use of the Web within the European Research Community and included work packages on security, Web caching and Web creation tools as well as a strand on resource discovery and description. DESIRE I focused on gateway metadata developments and one of the outputs of this was the Internet Detective Tutorial [24], which taught users critical evaluation skills for Internet information and was a forerunner to the Virtual Training Suite [25]. A major output of the resource discovery strand in the second project was the DESIRE Information Gateways Handbook [26], which examined issues and provided best practice in planning and implementing information gateways.


The aim of the Renardus Project [27] was to improve academic users' access to a range of existing Internet-based information services across Europe. With 14 partners drawn from national libraries, university research centres and other information-related organisations (including the RDN), it provided users with integrated access, through a single interface, to distributed Internet-based services by providing cross-search and cross-browse features. Renardus's partners worked on devising models for sharing metadata, agreeing on technical solutions and other standards and developing a pilot system for a fully functional service.

After eLib

Towards the end of Phase 2 of eLib funding JISC acknowledged that the subject gateway projects were one of the programme's success stories [28], with the subject gateway model being widely replicated across the world. There was a desire to maintain these gateways on a more sustainable long-term basis. At the same time there was recognition of the need to co-ordinate the activities of these gateways, which up until now had operated independently as research and development projects. There was also a need to scale up activity to ensure that the coverage of the gateways was expanded to represent all the major academic disciplines. As a consequence, JISC put out a call for proposals in 1998 to establish a national Resource Discovery Network [29], which would build on the work of the eLib gateways. This was to consist of a centre to co-ordinate the activities of the gateways and a number of faculty-based services (hubs) to provide the gateways in related subject areas. The Resource Discovery Network Centre (RDNC) was established in January 1999 as a partnership between King's College London and UKOLN at the University of Bath, with support from the University of Hull [30].

As part of the process of creating the network some of the existing subject gateways formed partnerships with high-profile institutions in their subject areas to set up faculty-based hubs. For example, the medical gateway OMNI partnered with the Natural History Museum, the University of Oxford, the University of Reading, BRIL (BBSRC Research Institutes Librarians Committee) and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to create the BIOME service.

Similarly SOSIG expanded its subject expertise base through partnerships with Biz/ed, the British Library for Political and Economic Science, the Centre for Social and Anthropological Computing at the University of Canterbury at Kent, the CTI Centre for Psychology (now the HEA Psychology Network), the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey, the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London and the National Institute for Social Work.

The Hub for Engineering, Mathematics and Computing was also created during this time and received additional funding for the MathGate Project, which was developed at the University of Birmingham, in partnership with Heriot-Watt University.

A formal launch of the RDN took place at the Trades Union Congress Hall in London in November 1999, over 270 people attended from a range of sectors including academia, publishing, government, professional societies and commerce. The event was introduced by Lynne Brindley and Sir Howard Newby and included presentations from the five hubs set up under the new service; Medicine and the Life Sciences; the Social Sciences, Business and Law; the Humanities; the Physical Sciences; and Engineering, Computing and Mathematics. The three other hubs covering Arts and Humanities, Geography and the Environment and Sports, Leisure and Tourism were gradually added to the service at later dates. The Virtual Training Suite, which started life as a JISC 5/99 project, also became part of the core service in 2002.

Shared Frameworks

One of the objectives of the new RDNC was to bring together the expertise and experience the existing gateways had gained throughout eLib and related initiatives, and to formalise this into a shared operational framework. So while the gateways continued to be developed and maintained at individual institutions, the network centre developed and maintained framework policies to ensure quality, consistency, and interoperability across the services. These policies include shared terminology, cataloguing guidelines, an interoperability and standards framework and a collections development policy [31].

Outside the network, a partnership project with the Higher Education Academy resulted in the development of the LTSN / RDN (RLLOMAP) LOM application profile and associated vocabularies which are used to share records between the two organisations [32].

RDN Research and Development

The environment within which the RDN operates is one that changes at an incredibly fast rate and the network has always been actively engaged in research and development projects to ensure the service keeps up with the changes in the environment. One of the most significant of these research projects was the RDN Subject Portals Project (SPP) which was funded by JISC as part of its 5/99 [33] Learning and Teaching call. The aim of the call was develop the visibility of the JISC Information Environment-supported information resources (formerly known as the DNER) and the SPP project itself aimed to deliver 'an aggregated cross-searching tool searching across both JISC supported and non-JISC information resources specially selected by the hubs [gateways] themselves'. Subject demonstrator portals were set up and tested with users over the summer of 2004. The feedback from these sessions was largely very positive with considerable interest in the cross-search feature, with aggregated newsfeeds and alerting as other features that were well received.

The original vision was to integrate these subject-based portals into the RDN service so that cross-searching of commercial and non-commercial databases was offered alongside the core Internet catalogue. The information landscape had changed quite significantly during the project and particularly the introduction of tools such as MetaLib has shifted the emphasis from subject to institutional portals. However the development strategy of the project was to create portable functionality, which could be embedded into a variety of other environments. Therefore a series of 'portlets' were developed including search and cross-search facilities, news and events aggregation services, which can be easily embedded in institutional portals and virtual learning environments (VLEs).

In Spring 2000, JISC took on support for Further Education and the RDN has worked closely with the FE community to develop its services to ensure their relevance to this audience. This has resulted in FE-specific Internet tutorials as part of the Virtual Training Suite, a set of case studies detailing how FE staff can use resources found through the RDN in their learning and teaching and working with FE practitioners to map a set of RDN records to the FE curriculum.

Details of all past and current research projects can be found from the main RDN site [34]

Current RDN Services

Since the launch in 1999, the RDN has been continuously developing its core database of resource descriptions and the combined catalogue now contains over 120,000 records of useful sites and resources, each one chosen by a subject specialist and regularly checked to make sure they are still up to date and being maintained. In addition to the core Internet Catalogue the RDN offer a number of other services, including:

Virtual Training Suite

The Virtual Training Suite is a set of free 'teach-yourself' tutorials offering Internet training skills in over sixty subject areas ranging from agriculture, food and forestry, the performing arts, social research methods and town and country planning. Each tutorial offers an introduction to some of the key Internet sites in its subject area as well as how to avoid some of the common pitfalls of using information found on the Internet.


The RDN-Include facility allows institutions or individuals to embed the Internet catalogue within their own Web site. Subject gateways have always proved especially popular with information professionals who recognise the time and resource commitment required to create and maintain links to high- quality Internet sites. At the same time, research indicates that HE institutions are keen to provide students with links to Web resources from within their own Web sites, retaining the institutional look-and-feel. Institutions that are using portal software can easily cross-search the RDN alongside other collections using the RDN Z39.50 server. Institutions without such portal facilities can make use of the RDN-include service, which allows institutions to add the RDN Internet Resource Catalogue (or portions of it) to their own site, giving their users access to a selected database of high-quality Web resources without them leaving the institution's own site.

Additional Services

The subject gateways also present a number of additional services depending on the needs of their particular communities. Below are a just a few examples of these additional services:

EEVL offers free information about jobs and industry news within engineering, maths and computing through their One-Step Services which aggregate content from a range of information providers.

Users of Humbul and SOSIG can choose to set up accounts to allow them to personalise their view of the services and receive weekly email updates in their particular subject areas of interest.

PSIgate provides Spotlight, which is a monthly science magazine with features and news.

A Look to the Future

After a period of review, analysis and internal consultation, 2005/06 is a year of transition at the RDN. A programme of change is in process in order to build upon and re-establish the position of the RDN in the Further and Higher Education environment. These changes include a restructuring of the subject services, an integration of the software and hardware platforms and a new visual identity for the service. The new service will be relaunched as Intute in July 2006. In a further article, readers will be able to find out more about the strategic changes taking place within the service and its plans for the future. In the meantime if you want to keep up with the latest developments please visit the Intute development updates [35].


  1. Resource Discovery Network
  2. Dempsey, L. The (Digital) Library Environment: Ten Years After, February 2006, Ariadne Issue 46
  3. Altis
  4. Artifact
  5. BIOME
  6. EEVL
  7. GEsource
  8. Humbul
  9. PSIgate
  10. SOSIG
  11. Electronic Libraries Programme
  12. Joint Funding Council's Libraries Review Group: report (Follet Report)
  13. ADAM, the Art, Design, Architecture & Media Information Gateway
  14. Biz/ed: Business Education on the Internet
  15. CAIN: Conflict Archive on the INternet
  17. IHR-Info
  18. OMNI: Organising Medical Networked Information
  19. ROADS: Resource Organisation and Discovery in Subject-based services
  20. RUDI: Resources for Urban Design Information
  21. History of the Dublin Core Initiative
  22. Peter Deutsch, Alan Emtage, Martijn Koster, M Stumpf. Publishing information on the Internet with anonymous FTP. Internet Draft. (working draft now expired) Copy available from
  23. DESIRE (Development of a European Service for Information on Research and Education)
  24. Internet Detective Tutorial (original version no longer live but a second edition will soon be available from
  25. The Virtual Training Suite
  26. DESIRE Information Gateways Handbook, 2000, Copy available from
  27. Renardus Project
  28. Pinfield, S. eLib in Retrospect: a national strategy for digital library development in the 1990s. Published in: Judith Andrews and Derek Law (ed.s) Digital libraries: policy, planning and practice. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, pp.19-34.
  29. JISC Circular 10/98: Subject based information gateway
  30. Dempsey, L. The subject gateway: experiences and issues based on the emergence of the Resource Discovery Network. Online Information Review, 24(1), 2000, 8-23
    Note that a preprint version of an article of the same name is available at:
  31. RDN Policy, Strategy and Guidelines
  32. RDN/LTSN Partnership page
  33. Circular 5/99: Developing the DNER for Teaching and Learning
  34. RDN Project
  35. Intute development updates

Author Details

Debra Hiom
SOSIG Director
University of Bristol
8-10 Berkeley Square
Bristol BS8 1HH

Tel: +44(0)117 928 7117

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Date published: 
Sunday, 30 April 2006
Copyright statement: 

This article has been published under copyright; please see our access terms and copyright guidance regarding use of content from this article. See also our explanations of how to cite Ariadne articles for examples of bibliographic format.