Mind the Gap!
It was joining the BBC Networking Club and wondering what to do with the 500K of web space that came with membership that got us started on filling gaps in the web. A purely personal home page didn't appeal but we were, and still are, fascinated by the prospect of being able to publish something useful for a global audience from our home in London at virtually no cost. We are both librarians with a public library background so that seemed a promising field to explore. Sheila is Lending Services and Promotions Manager for Richmond Upon Thames Libraries  and Robert used to be head of libraries for another London Borough. Not surprisingly given our background, some of the first WWW sites we looked at were libraries, most of them in the USA and Canada. The Galaxy  and Yahoo!  directories gave us a start until we found the library listings compiled by the St. Joseph County Public Library . Using this as a jumping off point we toured the public libraries of North America. We were impressed by much of what we found and admired the enthusiasm with which librarians across the pond had taken to networking technology and, perhaps more importantly, the idea of library networking.
By contrast the UK scene was pretty bleak back in Summer 1995. Surrey County  was the only public library authority we could find with a WWW presence but, with the help of BUBL  and sites in America and Scandinavia, we did discover plenty of resources that were relevant to public libraries. It's what didn't exist that gave us the idea of creating the UK Public Libraries Page. There was no site providing a convenient single entry point into public library Internet activity in the UK. That was a gap we thought we could fill. We were also happy to demonstrate that, such is the nature of the Internet, two private individuals could contribute something worthwhile to the network without the benefit of institutional resources, working parties, project funding and the rest of the organisational paraphernalia that impede progress as often as assisting it. From the outset our aim was to compile the definitive list of UK public libraries on the Web and combine it with a guide to Internet resources for the UK public library community.
Putting the page together was easy. You can learn the bare basics of HTML in about an hour and a half and you can develop your skills by examining the source code of web pages you like the look of. We also read a book (there's no point in telling you what it was - eighteen months on it is well out of date) and later joined HTML Writers Guild  where the professionals share their expertise and beginners can pick up invaluable tips and insights into the world of web page design. To start with we used downloaded editing and graphics shareware to create our pages. Within a week of its conception the page went up on the web in July 1995.
We knew we would have to devote time and telephone bills to continuous maintenance if we were to make the page as comprehensive and reliable as we wanted it to be. But keeping up with developments has not proved all that difficult. At first, we regularly checked sources such as CCTA's Government Information Service  and the Tagish Directory of Local Government  for local authorities coming on line. Sometimes that included the public library service. The Library Association Record was a good source for web page announcements and particularly for suppliers with web pages. We think of the maintenance process as gardening - weeding the old, planting the new, watching sites bloom, wither or get transplanted. Every link is checked on average once a month. We prefer to do it by hand because we like to see how sites are developing. Now the page is fairly well known around the world, site owners usually tell us if they would like a link from our page or if their URL has changed. We do most of our systematic gardening at the weekend when the telephone is cheaper and we take full advantage of British Telecom's discount schemes. Our telephone bill has only slightly more than doubled since we got wired up, which makes internetting one of life's more affordable pleasures! While we're on the subject of BT, here's a tip for anyone like us with a single telephone line for voice calls and dial-up Internet access. Try BT's Call Minder service. This can record messages from callers while you are on line - much better than an answering machine which can't work when your computer is using the telephone line - not to be confused with the Call Waiting service which doesn't get on with modems.
Once the page was up and running we wanted the world to know about it. We used Submit It!  to register our page on the main Internet directories and search engines and emailed directly local listings such as Ukdirectory . We also emailed the The Library COG , PUBLIB the US based public library mailing list, and posted an announcement to soc.libraries.talk  the news group for librarians. The Library Association Record published a news item about the page, which we think was helpful in informing UK public librarians, very few of whom had Internet access. What happened next made the effort worthwhile. We received email from librarians all over the world complimenting us enthusiastically on what we had thought was a quite modest achievement. We still keep in touch with many of the contacts we made at that time. That initial response was important in encouraging us to carry on developing our site. We had a counter on the page for the first six months or so which recorded hits at the rate of over 1,000 a month. Evidently, the gap we thought we had spotted had needed filling.
The single page began to grow as we added more links until it reached a size which made the loading delay unacceptable. It was time to divide it up into a series of pages. We had just mastered the art of frames so we redesigned our pages in a framed format. The addition of a What's New page was welcomed by many visitors who we suspect now only ever visit that page. At about the same time the BBC Networking Club came to the end of its life and we transferred to Pipex. That was fine except that our pages were now on a different server with new URLs and we had a new email address. Telling everyone about our page the first time round had been fun. This time there were many more people with links to us so sending out the change of address details was quite a chore. Changing your URL is not something to do unless you really have to!
After a while we came to the conclusion that frames are clunky and unnecessary, a view confirmed by the experience of one unfortunate visitor to our pages who had a very small screen and could only see the content as though through a very narrow letter box. And so the design of the UK Public Libraries Page evolved into its present form which seems to suit the content quite well. The present design has space for a column of text so we decided to come out from the shadows and offer our personal commentary on the UK public library networking scene. We also now put a star against sites which we think have something special to offer. It's hardly rigorous evaluation but, with so many desperately dull and static library sites around, we hope it helps highlight the sites worth visiting. Being free to comment is one the advantages of being independent of any institution or agency. We try to be encouraging in our comments rather than harsh but a favourable (more or less) review of our site in .net Directory went so far as to call us opinionated. We can live with that - it's true!
A visit to Cathy's Newstand  brought home to us the need of blind and visually impaired people for web pages which they can access by means of their text to speech screen readers. With Cathy Murtha's help we've tweaked the design of our library pages to make them speech friendly. We would like to see public libraries in the UK paying more attention to this aspect of web page design. Our next step is to make our pages searchable. We've tried to organise the content helpfully but as the pages grow so does the difficulty of finding what you're looking for without the ability to search. It's on our agenda for 1997. The other thing we want to try is to see how useful PDF technology may be as a publishing medium. When we get around to articulating our vision for public libraries in the 21st century, you may see it first as an Adobe Acrobat  file.
Having visited a great many public library web sites around the world we've formed a view of what distinguishes the good ones from the indifferent ones. Net Notions is our attempt to encourage UK public libraries to use their web pages in a more adventurous way than many of them do at the moment. The essence of our message is that the web is a new medium that you can use in new ways to connect with a new community of users. If all you've got on your pages is the digital equivalent of a printed leaflet, you're missing an enormous opportunity. A good active web page can serve so many worthwhile purposes from marketing tool to educational resource.
We've put together our ideas of how libraries can use their sites and we've illustrated them with real examples from around the world. There has been a lot of favourable comment from the USA where our page has been used as a Internet training aid for librarians. The influence of Net Notions in the UK library world seems to have been weaker, judging by the number of public library sites that haven't changed for best part of a year, show no signs of interactivity and don't contribute any real information to the network. There are some brilliant exceptions but if you detect a note of impatience with the pace and quality of progress, you're right.
Our biggest disappointment with Net Notions was our failure to create the web pages for Borsetshire County Libraries. We had the idea of putting up a model public library site to demonstrate all the features we are trying to promote. A fictitious library with a ready made virtual community would have been perfect so we approached The Archers production team to see if they were interested in co-operating with the venture. Imagine Jennifer Alldrige's local history notes, William Grundy's children's book review, Lynda Snell's complaint on the feedback page! Unfortunately they declined and we haven't yet come up with as convincing an alternative. [Note for readers unfamiliar with British domestic radio: The Archers is a long-running and much loved BBC radio series set in an English village.]
Our latest set of pages was suggested to us by Clair Drever, Information Manager for Berkshire. She had seen the UK Public Libraries Page and wondered whether we might consider doing something similar for Europe. Clair also put us in touch with Ian Piggott of the European Commission's Telematics for Libraries  programme who was cautiously encouraging. We set out to see what we might be letting ourselves in for and immediately appreciated the wisdom of Ian's caution. This was going to be a big project, particularly as we wouldn't want to confine our scope to the European Union. It would be complicated by language and cultural differences. We discovered that there was no existing WWW directory of European public libraries on the web. There were international listings of academic, research and national libraries and there were national listings which included public libraries. But there was no single WWW resource you could use as an up to date and comprehensive directory of public libraries. We had found another gap and committed ourselves to filling it.
We would like to be able to tell you about the systematic search strategy we used to locate European public library web pages but that would be misleading. The truth is it involved little method but lots of serendipitous surfing. After one particularly frenetic weekend internetfest we ended up with a bookmark file overflowing with European library sites and no more than a hazy recollection of how we'd done it.
The purpose of the pages is to provide a listing of European public libraries on the web but we have also included links to key library-related sites for each country. At Ian Piggott's suggestion we added a flag to public libraries with pages in English and we have used stars to mark sites that are particularly worth a visit. There are still gaps in coverage, especially in Eastern Europe, but that is because there are countries with no public libraries on the web yet. As is the case with our other pages, Public Libraries of Europe will retain its work in progress status for the foreseeable future.
The power of the network lies in making connections. Our pages  are intended to help librarians and others see the extent of the public library network that already exists, to share ideas for using it and to set an example of currency and reliability. Above all, we want to encourage public libraries in the UK to use the network to provide interactive services and real information by electronic means. It's starting to happen but why does it have to happen so slowly? It's not at root a question of resources. It is a question of vision, energy and the will to make the right things happen. We'll go on being impatient for a while yet!
 Richmond on Thames Library Web site,
 Galaxy Web site,
 Yahoo! Web index,
 St. Joseph County Public Library,
 Surrey Country Public Library Web pages,
 BUBL Web site,
 HTML Writers Guild,
 CCTA Government Information Service,
 Tagish Directory of Local Government,
 Submit it! Multiple search engine submission resource,
 UK Directory Web site,
 CCTA Collaborative Open Groups Initiative Web site,
 Libraries discussion newsgroup,
 Cathy Murtha's Newstand,
 Adobe Acrobat Web site,
 Telematics for Libraries Web site,
 The Hardens UK Public Libraries Page,
Sheila and Robert Harden are both practising public librarians in the UK.