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Collecting Internet Resources
- the issues for UK public librarians -

By Robert Harden (developer of EARLweb) on behalf of EARL, the Library Association and UKOLN

An issue paper from the Networked Services Policy Taskgroup
Series Editor: Sarah Ormes, UKOLN


The Internet as a publishing medium can benefit from the talents of librarians. Internet users, as often bewildered as enlightened by the anarchic richness of the medium, stand to benefit from reliable guides to relevant material. Here is a medium ripe for the exercise of the librarian's collection management and reader's advisory skills.

Public libraries need to prepare for their pivotal role in the People's Network [1]. Part of this role will be designing and creating public library services which can be accessed remotely over the network.

For the sake of credibility public library Internet sites must themselves achieve the quality standards they require of other networked resources. Librarians need to take responsibility for the development of their library's site and the public networked services provided from it.

Why collect Internet resources?

Thanks to the Internet, librarians can create collections of virtual resources at little cost. The reasons for doing so include:

  • To extend one of the library's conventional functions into cyberspace by creating virtual libraries of resources.
  • To record sites frequently visited by staff and library users.
  • To create guides to further resources to accompany virtual or real thematic displays and promotions.
  • To complement the content creation priorities defined in chapter 5 of Building the New Library Network [2]
  • To build collections of local resources for the immediate community and virtual visitors from around the world.
  • To support staff training and user education.
  • To assert the expertise and values of the library profession by working to standards of excellence in the collection and organisation of resources on which Internet users can rely.

Essex [3], Kingston upon Thames [4] and North Lincolnshire Libraries [5] are among UK examples of individual library collections. Good overseas examples are more numerous, including Berlin [6], Mölndal City Library [7] and Morton Grove Public Library [8]. EARLweb [9] is an example of a collection published by a consortium of libraries.

Adding value

Librarians serve the interests of their client communities through the selection of material, its organisation and guidance in its use. The Internet offers fresh ways of packaging material and presenting it in novel and exciting forms. The Treasure Island site [10] is an inspiring example for public libraries, as yet unfollowed, of how a diverse collection of electronic resources can be packaged in an appealing way and incorporate extensive use of the interactive features of the medium.

Sorting the wheat from the chaff is a conventional function of librarians. Faced with the amount of material published on the Internet, selecting a manageable collection of relevant and reliable resources is something librarians should encourage their clients to expect of them.

Librarians know how to organise a collection of resources in a way that makes sense for the collection's target audience. In a public library environment, where the ability to browse a collection productively is often preferred to a catalogue search, the organisation of resources under headings related to subject or target user may be the priority with searchability a secondary desideratum. Where searchability is a requirement, resources can be presented in a database. However, the financial and technical demands of creating a networked database may make it a better candidate for collaborative rather than individual library effort. The hypertext linking features of the World Wide Web make it easy to take the browsing user from the general to the specific. Morton Grove's Webrary [8] does precisely this using Dewey classification to organise the resources.

Because a collection of Internet resources is more like a book list than a shelf of books, the medium offers opportunity for commentary and guidance. There is scope, for example, to describe in general terms how well or otherwise subjects are covered on the Internet, how that coverage is structured and the best search strategies for locating it. Items in the collection can be annotated to help users judge their relevance to them. The librarians' annotations on the American Library Association's Great Sites [11] add enormously to the usefulness of the site. The relative merits of evaluative and descriptive annotation are referred to briefly below.

Evaluating quality information on the Internet - what do librarians really mean?

Quality is not an absolute. The quality of any resource depends on the extent to which it meets the requirements of its target audience. An Internet resource that meets the information requirements of a professor may not represent quality for a child. As ever for librarians, an understanding of the requirements of the online library's communities of users is as essential to any judgment of quality as any assessment of the intrinsic merit of the resource. The OMNI Guidelines for Resource Evaluation [12] share this approach, stating as their first selection principle:

Resources are included only if they contain substantive information of relevance to the OMNI user community.

The Internet is not only a source for information, any more than a public library is. It provides a multi-media environment for the enjoyment of entertainment, recreation and the arts, the exercise of imagination and the exploration of ideas as well as for the use of verifiable information, news and educational resources. The Internet has something to offer every department of a public library, not just the reference and information service.

The librarian's evaluation of an Internet resource may be less critical than is the case with other media which are selected for public library stock. Most Internet resources are available immediately to the user. Internet users will expect to make their own assessment of the relevance of a resource to their requirements simply by visiting the site. Librarians can assist that process of self-evaluation in a number of ways, including:

  • Grouping resources under thematic and subject headings.
  • Grouping resources according to the community of users for which they are most suitable.
  • Comparing and rating resources which cover similar ground.
  • Annotation.

Pointers to further resources on the conventional interpretation of the librarian's role in evaluating information quality are available from the Evaluation of Information Sources site [13]

A librarian's evaluative annotation of an Internet resource may be of interest and helpful to other librarians but may not be very meaningful to other Internet users, especially if the evaluation is based on a notion of quality which the user does not share. Descriptive annotation, on the other hand, can help users choose which sites to investigate further. Descriptive annotation can refer to:

  • The intended audience for the resource
  • Content and scope
  • Useful features, such as searchability
  • Drawbacks, such as slow loading or speech unfriendliness

Collection development principles

Most public libraries in the UK are developing an agreed stock management policy. The criteria for collecting Internet resources can be an integral part of it, as it is for Canterbury Public Library, New Zealand [14]. Key selection questions include:

Although this is one of the key quality issues, it can be a problem area for public libraries which, by definition and legislation, are unable to define the market for their services as narrowly as some other kinds of library. Nonetheless, there are relevance questions which can be asked, including:

  • Is the content of the resource of interest or useful to an identifiable portion of the library's online community of users?
  • Is it accessible to them as to level, language and style?

If quality is always relative, information integrity is less so. As a selection criterion it may be a less slippery concept and, therefore, a more useful way of referring to the intrinsic merits of a resource. Questions of information integrity on the Internet are the same as those for other media, including:

  • Does the resource meet the library's agreed criteria for accuracy and honesty?
  • Is the content adequately current and is there evidence of continuing updating?
  • Does the resource cover its theme adequately?
  • Is the style and appearance in keeping with the content?
  • Is this the best source of the content?

Unique to the Internet are certain technical factors which can improve or hinder access to the resource. A certain amount of tolerance has to be applied in this area as very few Internet resources are well enough constructed technically to meet every desirable accessibility criterion. Key accessibility questions include:

  • Is the loading time acceptable?
  • Are the pages composed of valid HTML and are they problem-free for all versions of browser software used by the intended users?
  • Is the site accessible to users without graphic or Java capability?
  • Is the site compatible with assistive technology including text-to-speech screen readers?
  • Is the site always available?

Key resources for exploring accessibility issues further include The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Accessibility Initiative [15], The Center for Applied Special Technology [16] and the RNIB [17].

Internet sites which are thoughtlessly designed and structured can be difficult to use, sometimes to such an extent that they are more more trouble than they are worth. Key usability questions include:

  • Is internal navigation adequate and logical?
  • Are large directory sites searchable?
  • Are searchable database sites also browsable?
  • Are help pages helpful and instructions on using the site intelligible to the lay user?
  • Do external links operate successfully?

Collection maintenance and development issues

Locating resources and judging their suitability for addition to the virtual library collection are the easy parts of the process. A greater challenge is summoning up the organisational stamina required to maintain and develop the collection. It is as true of virtual libraries as it is of real libraries that neglected collections quickly become outdated and useless to those for whom they were assembled. It is essential that the structures, systems and expertise for maintaining the virtual collection are put in place at the outset.

Not all local authorities have library service pages on their Web sites. Even where they do, the library service does not necessarily have editorial control over their content. In some cases this is vested in the IT department, the PR unit or some other corporate agency. In the interests of building New Library it is important for library services to make the case in their authorities for the library to be able to develop its own part of the corporate Web site and retain editorial control over its content, subject, of course, to the usual local government disciplines and accountabilities. Creating a worthwhile collection of Internet resources is just one of the public library Internet services that cannot be put in place without control of the library Web site.

Collections of Internet resources must be kept up-to-date and a robust system for doing so must be introduced. It is important that the size of the collection is not allowed to grow beyond the capacity of the library to maintain it and that sufficient time is allocated to maintenance. Routine maintenance involves checking links frequently and visiting sites periodically to review their content. Non- working links should be removed or corrected as soon as they are discovered. A fresh selection decision may need to be made about resources where the content has changed or become outdated. Internet users are unlikely to value the library's collection of Internet resources if they perceive it to be poorly maintained.

HTML is not rocket science and the ability to construct and maintain Web pages should be as common among librarians as their capacity to DTP notices, posters and booklists. If you have to send library site content to someone else to put onto a Web page, you are building unnecessary delay into the system. That matters because the Internet is not a static medium and can be continuously updated. Internet users are intolerant of content which they know could be up-to-date but isn't.

There are many HTML tutorials on the Web. Writing for the Web: A Primer for Librarians by Eric H. Schnell [18] is a good introduction.

Librarians responsible for maintaining collections of Internet resources need direct uploading access to the server on which they are held. Without it updating may not happen with the urgency required to meet the library's collection maintenance standards.

Valuable data about the use of collections of Internet resources can be derived from the host server logs. Knowing the proportions of business, academic, private and overseas visitors, for example, might be helpful in adjusting the focus of collecting policy to reflect the actual user profile. Knowing which pages on the site are visited most frequently might indicate strengths and weaknesses in the collection. It is important for librarians to seek the support of their IT colleagues in taking full advantage of the use data available from the server and to draw on their expertise in making a sound interpretation the data.

Because of the interactive nature of the medium, it is an easy matter to encourage comment, suggestions and satisfaction ratings from the users of online library services. Feedback data can be used to refine collection policy and practice.

Collaborate or go it alone?

Internet resources are as available locally, regionally and nationally as they are globally. Because this is a networked environment, the prospect of local libraries all putting in time and effort to collect the same resources is more worrying than it is in the case of books. On the other hand, individual libraries may be able to get to know, and provide for, the requirements of their specific online users in a way that a nationally delivered service would not. The sensible answer is probably that both approaches have a place and that collaboration is the key to avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort. If public libraries are to have a respected role as guides to Internet resources, they must work together or the result for the public will appear confused and confusing. The EARL Consortium [19] provides a forum for productive collaboration. The practical issues for decision include:

  • The common use of standard thematic headings in both individual and collaborative resource collections.
  • The common use of standard protocols for discovering, describing and retrieving networked resources.
  • A coherent communications infrastructure for alerting collaborators to quality resources.
  • The possibilities of co-operative resource location by subject area.

Librarians have so much to offer the Internet user. Who else cares as much about information integrity? Who else has the skill to apply sensible selection criteria consistently? And who but librarians is so used to organising resources in meaningful ways? Building carefully selected collections of relevant resources is the foundation of what librarians do. Let's get busy in cyberspace!


[1] New Library: The People's Network

[2] Building the New Library Network chapter 5, Priorities for Funding

[3] Essex Libraries - Library links

[4] Kingston upon Thames Libraries - Online Reference

[5] North Lincolnshire Libraries - Links

[6] Berlin Central and Regional Libraries - Links Collection

[7] Mölndal City Library - Sytematic Links Catalogue

[8] Morton Grove Public Library - Webrary

[9] EARL: The Consortium for Public Library Networking - EARLweb

[10] Treasure Island

[11] American Library Association - Great Sites

[12] OMNI Guidelines for Resource Evaluation

[13] WWW Virtual Library - Evaluation of Information Sources

[14] Canterbury Public Library (NZ) Collection Development Policy paragraph 6.3

[15] W3C - Web Accessibility Initiative

[16] The Center for Applied Special Technology

[17] RNIB Hints for designing accessible Websites

[18] Writing for the Web: A Primer for Librarians by Eric H. Schnell

[19] EARL: The Consortium for Public Library Networking


This is one of a series of issue papers which will be produced by the EARL Networked Services Policy Taskgroup. UKOLN, the Library Association and EARL member libraries participate in the taskgroup. Queries about the issue papers series should be addressed to Sarah Ormes, the project manager for the initiative:

Penny Garrod
The University of Bath
Bath BA1 7AY

Telephone: 01225 826711

UKOLN is funded by the Library & Information Commission, the Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Funding Councils, as well as by project funding from the JISC's Electronic Libraries Programme and the European Union. UKOLN also receives support from the University of Bath where it is based.

If you wish to comment on any issues raised in this paper, please use the Feedback option on the main Networked Services Policy Task Group web site.

EARL: The Consortium for Public Library Networking The Library Association UKOLN