Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 11, Issue 1, 1997

IDEAL logo BIDS logo

The developing electronic library

Terry Hanson
University of Portsmouth Library


The general concept of the networked electronic library has been around for many years. Even in the 1940s a model for a hypertext-linked virtual library was being dreamt of by Vannevar Bush, President Roosevelt's scientific adviser (1). Later work on the world wide hypertext model by Ted Nelson resulted in the proposed Xanadu project, a world-wide hyperlinked publishing system with automatic royalty control (2). However, the reality of a library without walls has only really begun to emerge in the last few years with advances in information technology and, in particular, the inception, and phenomenal growth of the World Wide Web. The purpose of this article is to identify and describe some of the building blocks of the electronic library and to look at some organisational responses to these developments from universities and libraries.

Building blocks of the Electronic Library

Electronic Journals

Electronic journals are now commonplace. Most major publishers have either implemented plans for electronic publication or have announced that they will soon do so. Among the pioneers in this area have been Elsevier and Academic Press. Elsevier embarked upon the TULIP (The University Licensing Program) in 1991 in which 43 materials science journals were distributed to 9 US university libraries. As pioneers they were keen to test the feasibility of the online distribution model. At this time there was still much debate about how a such a model would emerge and which technology would facilitate it. The TULIP model used FTP (File Transfer Protocol) or CD-ROM to deliver the files to the university sites on a bi-weekly basis whereupon they were loaded on to local servers, although one of the sites chose to retrieve articles on demand over the Internet. The file format was TIFF Group IV fax produced from scanned pages at 300 dpi.

TULIP was attempting to move beyond the text only model of journal distribution based on simple Telnet connections to Internet servers. Many titles appeared in this format in the heyday of the Internet Gopher, 1988-1993. Their growth was limited however because no matter how convenient it was to publish in this fashion, text without graphics or even mathematical symbols was not a compelling alternative to the richly formatted pages of a printed journal. Consequently the number of peer reviewed journals appearing in this format never climbed much beyond 200, though there were rather more newsletters. This experience was proof that there was more to the electronic library than text and networks. Formatting was a very important factor.

In late 1993 the World Wide Web entered the field with the launch of the Mosaic browser. Here was a model that held the promise of universal network access to information in a variety of formats. There was still, though, the question of viewing and printing formats. The basic HTML language, which is used to construct Web pages, is not rich in its formatting ability. However, Web browsers are adaptable and can be configured to call upon other software as appropriate to display files of particular types. For example it is normal for Netscape to link to a graphics package such as LView to display a JPEG or GIF graphics file.

The emerging format of choice for electronic journals, and many other publications, in the World Wide Web environment is Adobe Acrobat, also known as Portable Document Format (PDF). The Acrobat format can be produced either by scanning of the paper copy of a document or by converting a file from, say, a wordprocessing format. The result is a facsimile of the printed page which can be viewed, within Netscape, using the Acrobat viewer. The latter is free via many FTP sites and from Web sites that distribute files in Acrobat format. The viewer needs to be "plugged-in" to Netscape so that it is called upon automatically when PDF files are accessed. Virtually all journals publishers have adopted this format at least as an option.

Academic Press is a very good example of a scholarly publisher which has embraced the emerging standard model of electronic journal publishing. Its IDEAL service was launched in 1996 and became part of the UK Pilot Site Licence Initiative. This latter is a three year project to test new economic and technical models for journals distribution. The technical model is the World Wide Web with Acrobat as a viewing format. On the economic side the novel approach is to test the feasibility of national site licensing whereby the subscription costs to a publisher's journals are paid by the Funding Councils direct to the publisher. At the time of writing the project is approximately half way through and has proved very successful on the technical side though, as a new concept in most universities, it has not yet become mainstream and thus is still untested in terms of overall popularity. This is at least in part due to local infrastructural issues such as slow network links or inadequate, or no, PCs on staff desks. It is still too early to tell whether the new economic model will be successful until after the formal evaluation of the project has been completed and until more experience is gained.

The experiments referred to above, and many others, have helped establish electronic journals as a standard practice though it is not likely that the printed equivalent will disappear just yet. Parallel publishing, where a journal appears in both print and online formats, is already common. As the online access model develops so the often dreamt-of notion of a just-in-time library gains greater credibility.

The Just-in-Time Library Model

As with the JIT model in manufacturing, where inventories are reduced or eliminated in favour of guaranteed instant or rapid supply of parts, so the concept also applies to the emerging electronic library. If it can be demonstrated that journals can be published electronically via the Internet such that instant access is possible to a richly formatted facsimile of the printed page then the JIT model is demonstrably feasible, leaving aside the question of economics and affordability.

The JIT model is now compared to the traditional library model, retrospectively named "just-in-case". Libraries throughout history have adopted collection development policies, especially for research purposes, based on the notion that one day somebody might want a particular item. The JIT model suggests a different collection development model based on access to information rather than local ownership. This access versus ownership debate has now been raging for about five years in the academic library world but it is now moving from debate to practicality with the appearance of a variety of methods of access to full text articles. These include:

Electronic journal servers
As discussed above most publishers are developing their own individual electronic journal service on the Web. Now we are beginning to see electronic journal servers maintained by third parties that will provide access to the journals of many publishers. An early example of this approach, and still in its infancy, is the JournalsOnline service run by BIDS at Bath University. JournalsOnline is designed as a common front end to journals from many different publishers. As such it will take care of searching, browsing, viewing and billing. This latter point ensures that the user avoids having to deal with many different publishers. A search, or browse, would result in the identification of useful articles which the user could then purchase using a credit card, or perhaps by charging it to an account. This would result in the immediate display of the article on screen using the Adobe Acrobat format.

BIDS JournalsOnline currently provides access to the electronic journals of Blackwells and Blackwells Science. The titles are being added gradually and eventually more than 300 titles will be available. The 185 titles from Academic Press will then be added to be followed, it is planned, by other publishers in the future.

Current awareness services with document delivery
These services are sometime referred to as CASIAS services: Current Awareness Services with Individual Article Supply. Examples include CARL UnCover, a service run by Blackwells, and the recently launched Inside Science and Inside Social Science and Humanities services from the British Library. These are databases with very extensive journal coverage with the additional facility of direct access to a document delivery service. The two BL products together cover more than 20,000 journals. The user can search and place direct orders, via email, to the British Library with delivery be either fax or mail. At present CARL UnCover is an online service whereas the BL services are CD-ROM based, though they are expected to become Web accessible in the near future.

Tailored full text products
These are databases devoted to a particular subject with the facility to display the full text of all, or some, of the journals covered. Examples include:

Access to full text from bibliographic databases
Perhaps the closest to the ideal of a just-in-time library is the notion of direct access from major bibliographic databases to the full text of selected articles. The direct access examples described above are products that are controlled or limited to a small number of sources. The aim of JIT is to have access to immediate full text display at the point of discovery. Since most articles are discovered when searching or browsing major bibliographic databases, such as the Social Science Citation Index, EconLIT, ABI-Inform or Medline, this means the records having a direct, hypertext, link to the full text source. Examples include:

Links from article bibliographies

A logical next step for the Just-in-Time library would be to link the articles themselves to other articles via their bibliographies. This is exactly what the Institute of Physics (IOP) is currently working on. The IOP publishes 32 journals all of which are available via the Institute's Web site. The idea is to place a hypertext link in each reference appearing in a bibliography of an article in an IOP journal. The link will be to the abstract or full text of the article referred to. The IOP is negotiating with journal and database publishers to secure the rights to this information.

Preprint servers

There is, in many disciplines, a tradition of distributing article preprints among colleagues prior to formal acceptance for publication. Not surprisingly this practice has been given a boost by the World Wide Web. The pioneer service was - Paul Ginsparg's service for the high energy physics community based at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. [Now at - web editor]. Since then many other services have been established in different areas of physics, where the preprint tradition has been very strong, and in some other subject areas including psychology and mathematics.

A standard interface?

Clearly there are many exciting developments in the world of scholarly communication all of which promise access to ever greater amounts of information in an increasingly convenient manner. However, there is still the question of transparency and ease of use to consider. Ever since the early days of CD-ROM databases, since 1986, there has been a call for the development or adoption of a standard interface to the multitude of bibliographic databases. Users are forced to familiarise themselves with many different interfaces each of which is undertaking the same range of functions.

To date there has been little practical progress towards this ideal though two developments hold some promise for the future. The first is the inexorable move towards Web-based access to these services, still in its early days but the trend is now definitely established. This results in similar, if not identical, interfaces, but at least they all work from the same piece of software, your Web browser.

The real promise however is in the potential of an emerging protocol called Z39.50 from the National Information Standards Organisation (in the US). This protocol governs communication between clients and servers in the area of bibliographic databases. Once established, and it is well on the way, it will be possible for a library to adopt a standard interface that would be usable with all databases regardless of publisher, as long as they were compliant with the Z39.50 standard.

Electronic Reserve collections

Most university libraries maintain a short loan, or reserve, collection of high-use items for mass consumption by undergraduates. And in most universities this is seen as a necessary, but ultimately doomed, attempt to deliver essential reading material to increasingly higher numbers of students. Many libraries are now experimenting with electronic versions of these collections where articles, book chapters and other materials, are mounted on a local Web server. Students would be able to browse or search for the material needed, display it on the screen and, if necessary, print it for later consumption. The technical side of this model is now fairly straightforward but the copyright side is the major question. Essentially the copyright holder must give permission for initial mounting and will also, normally, insist upon regular reports on usage and further revenue based upon this data. Thus the technical model needs to incorporate usage tracking as well as other standard front-end functions.

Organising Internet resources

As more and more information is made available via the World Wide Web so the task of organising access to it grows more difficult. Whether it is free of charge or costed the well organised electronic library needs to make some sense of, and apply some structure and organisation to, the enormous pool of resources. Most libraries will avail themselves of the following tools:

Locally developed gateway
Academic libraries typically would utilise the subject knowledge of senior library staff, subject librarians, to construct and maintain a gateway to Internet resources. This would reflect local needs and perform a very important filtering role to the benefit of academic staff and students.

Specialist subject gateways
In the UK the "eLib Programme" has funded a number of subject gateway projects with the aim of demonstrating the importance and benefits of this work being taken on centrally. The services that have emerged to date include Social Science Information Gateway (SOSIG); the Edinburgh Engineering Virtual Library (EEVL); ADAM for Art Design Architecture and Media; IHR-Info for historians; Organising Medical Networked Information (OMNI); and Resource for Urban Design Information (RUDI). Another major subject gateway is the Humanities Bulletin Board (HUMBUL) which predates the eLib Programme.

General Internet Directories and Search Engines
There is now a large and confusing number of general Internet search engines available with new ones appearing on a regular basis. They can be grouped into three categories:

Organisational responses

The emerging electronic library represents the most significant shift in the scholarly communication process since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. The magnitude of the change in enormous and affects all involved in the process whether as consumers (researchers and students), librarians, campus administrators or publishers. Clearly the implications of the above developments for the traditional model of the university library are very significant. The following organisation trends have emerged in the last five or so years in response to these developments:

Convergence refers to the increasingly overlapping interests of libraries and computing centres as the IT revolution progresses. There is a perceived need for these two functions to be planned jointly and in some cases to deliver them in a combined fashion also. To date this trend has claimed more than 50 UK universities with many different variants on the convergence model. In very few cases has there been a full organisational integration of the two bodies. The dominant model appears to be convergence at the planning level with otherwise separate services. In a growing number of cases though, there is a front line convergence for student support where there is combined staffing to help students with either information questions or problems relating to the use of wordprocessing or other software packages.

Information Strategies
In 1993 the Higher Education Funding Councils Libraries Review Group, under the chairmanship of Professor Sir Brian Follett reported (3). Among its recommendations was the need for each university to develop and maintain an information strategy. This would be a plan for organising and making the most effective use of information resources on campus. It would cover information relating to the teaching, learning and research processes, and ultimately to management information also. This recommendation having been accepted each university now has a formal opportunity to produce a strategic plan for information and to address questions such as convergence in the process. Many institutions have taken the opportunity done so but, as with convergence, there are many different approaches. Some have concluded that they have an adequate strategy already while others have set up a thorough review process.

Learning Resources Centres
Learning Resources Centres (LRCs) are one of the outcomes of the convergence trend and information strategy planning process. They represent the re-conceptualised library: a service that is designed on the basis of the electronic library developments described above. The LRC model is designed to allow the student to undertake a broad range of tasks, such as information retrieval, wordprocessing, use of online learning materials, access to course information, data manipulation, communication via email, browsing the Internet, all from a single multi-functional "scholar's workstation". Many LRCs, with large numbers of workstations as well as traditional library collections, have sprung up throughout the country in the last few years and many more are in the pipeline.


The electronic library is moving rapidly from theory to practice with the appearance of hundreds, and soon, thousands, of electronic journals and of just-in-time delivery methods from current awareness and major subject bibliographic databases. Rapid progress too is being made in other areas such as electronic reserve services, standard interfaces and organisation of Internet resources. As universities develop their responses to these rapid and fundamental changes through their newly formed information strategies, the clear trend on campus is towards a decentralisation of access facilities in integrated learning resource centres. These will be "one-stop-shops" where students can undertake all their "information" work from the one place, much of it from the one workstation.


  1. Bush, Vannevar. As We May Think. Atlantic Monthly. July 1945: 101-108.
  2. Nelson, T. On the Xanadu Project. Byte. September 1990: 298-9.
  3. Joint Funding Councils' Libraries Review Group: Report. The Funding Councils, 1993

Top | CHEER Home

Copyright 1989-2007