UKOLN Running A Public Library Website

Report of a workshop organised by UKOLN in association with EARL, held 15/16 November 1999, at the University of Bath

Thirty eight people attended the workshop, which ran from lunchtime on Monday to lunchtime on Tuesday.

The aim of the two days was to bring public library web site managers together to give them an opportunity to share their experiences, learn about the some of the tools that are available to assist with the creation and maintenance of sites and to hear about some future web developments.

The emphasis was on the practical aspects of web site management, discussing issues that arise and the technologies that are available now to assist development and maintenance.

Presentations given at this workshop are available on the UKOLN website at This site also provides abstracts of the presentations, links to resources mentioned and a brief biography of each speaker.

The People's Network: the final frontier?

Workshop participates were welcomed by Lorcan Dempsey, the Director of UKOLN, and the session got off to an inspiring start with Chris Batt, Chief Network Advisor to the Library and Information Commission, giving his view of the potential of the public library web site.

Chris gave an introduction to The People's Network, describing the project's mission as being "to improve the quality of life for all citizens by facilitating the People's Network as a sustainable network of access points/learning centres that will provide a national gateway or channel co-ordinating all public sector information resources". People's Network Online, the official web site of the project, was introduced. The NETbase service on this web site shows how public access to the Internet now stands at approximately 40% of all 4,000 public library service points in the country, a huge increase from only 3% in 1995.

Chris's presentation emphasised the shift from 'place to space', from the library that (to some people) appears never to be open when they want to use it, to the 24 hour accessible public service portal and community grid. Examples were shown of how the Internet can be used to support traditional library services, such as access to the library catalogue and the reference enquiry service, as well as developing new services to position the public library at the heart of the community. Chris emphasised the need to develop, what he refers to as, "killer apps", that is those projects that will grab the attention of local authorities and those holding the purse strings and demonstrate what the public library can do. "Killer apps" are essential to convince funders that the library is worthy of further investment.

The biggest challenge to public libraries was felt to be the sustainability of web development, a point emphasised in the mission of the People's Network project. It was considered to be important to have a shared vision of where the web site is going and that this is an opportunity for public libraries to take the initiative and show what they can achieve.

Chris expressed caution about rushing into public/private partnerships, questioning the effort that would be needed to obtain funding this way and emphasised that the way forward should be through national co-ordination, something that is less likely with the constraints of private sector involvement.

Workshop participants were urged to realise the opportunities that are available to public libraries now.

The Building Blocks of the Public Library Web Site

The rest of the workshop was devoted to the practical aspects of creating and managing existing public library web sites.

Chris Webster from EARL discussed design and accessibility issues, quoting from guidelines issued by the WC3 (a consortium that develops common web protocols to promote its evolution and ensure interoperability) and the Government's recently released consultation document of guidelines for the use, management and design of public sector web sites.

Speakers from three Local Authorities then shared tips, hints and learning experiences about how they put together their web sites and the issues and problems that they had to overcome. The case studies chosen highlighted the different approaches taken in developing a web site. Elaine Jewell from East Sussex Libraries and Arts explained how initial development of their council's web site had been contracted out and further development had been led in-house by a project officer, employed for a specific period of time, for their web design and management skills rather than library or local authority background. The idea of initiating a time-limited approach was to show, in a short space of time, what the library could achieve. This was enough to win the library control of the whole county council site. The site is now continuing to be developed in-house with technical expertise bought in as and when necessary.

Simon Ransome from Suffolk County Council described a different model to that of East Sussex. Suffolk council was connected to the Internet relatively early, in 1995, and ICT development received a great deal of support from the council and chief executive. The council's site has developed with very little house style, which was thought to be more appropriate for very large sites. The logo and a consistently designed navigation bar are used through the site but different departments develop their own identity. The site is supported by three fully funded posts. A number of areas of the site were shown including the recently launched Book of Remembrance service from the Record Office that attempts to list details of those from Suffolk who were killed in the Great War.

Heather Kirby from Croydon Library Service spoke about Croydon Online. She explained that the site was developed from a clear set of aims and vision. Many of the initiatives involve working cross-sectoraly, which Heather admitted had proved to be hard work. It was explained that, for example, it can be difficult to ensure that web sites you may link to, but over which you have no direct control, are kept up to date. Despite the difficulties, working with other departments and organisations was felt to be a worthy experience. Working with the education department has, for example, enabled the library to access funding to develop the Skillsboost initiative. This funding would not have been available to the library had they not been in partnership with the education department.

To conclude the first day, Michael Day of UKOLN gave participants a quick introduction to metadata. The presentation covered the basics, defining metadata as "structured data about data that imposes order on a disordered information universe" and suggested that it can be thought of as the missing architectural component from the initial implementation of the web. The presentation focused on the use of metadata in resource discovery, and in particular the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative - which was described as "an initiative to define a core set of metadata elements for resource discovery on the Internet". Some of these elements such as title, creator/author and publisher are familiar from traditional cataloguing requirements, whilst others such as format and rights extend the description. Michael discussed tools, such as DC-dot developed by UKOLN, that can be used to create metadata in web pages. The importance of metadata was illustrated with a look at some services such as information gateways, which create simple resource descriptions that can be both searched and browsed and the Resource Discovery Network, which will allow cross searching of information gateways.

The Trials and Tribulations of a Web Site

The second day of the workshop began with the trials and tribulations of the web site manager, a discussion session that gave participants the opportunity to share experiences of web site management, to identify common issues and problems and work out collectively how to overcome them. The major themes that emerged from group discussions were:

Collaboration - 'joined up thinking'

The web site was recognised as being a useful device for getting departments to work together and it was noted that in some instances it might be easier to work cross sectoraly on the web site than in reality. In order to produce an integrated web site it was felt that it might be necessary to move away from traditional organisational structures.

Ownership of web site

All groups felt that it was very important that the library had a sense of ownership of the web site. One of the issues raised was that it can be difficult motivating staff to become involved with the development of the site and it was felt that devolving responsibility and providing all staff with access to Internet and email would encourage a sense of ownership. Having more staff involved with development could also ease the problem of keeping content updated. The promotional aspects of the web were noted and a good web site was seen as a way of "getting libraries recognised as significant players" within the corporate structure.

A strong sense of ownership of the web site would clearly help those that felt at present that they lack control over their web site and are reliant on others for updates and maintenance.


It was felt that there needs to be recognition, at all levels, of the resources, in terms of staff time that are required to develop and maintain the web site. Current problems include the lack of staff training and a lack of the tools required to do the job properly.

A succinct solution to the general discussion, that was met with much agreement, was that "librarians need to be whip crackers"!

To support the continuation of these discussions and to facilitate further sharing of experience, UKOLN have set up a Mailbase discussion list, lis-pub-web, which all workshop participants have been encouraged to join. At the moment, the list is limited to 50 members, so will not be specifically promoted, however this will reviewed and membership could be increased in the future.

A Tool box for Web site Creation and Maintenance

The penultimate sessions of the workshop focused on web site creation and maintenance tools.

Patris van Boxel, from the Internet training organisation, Netskills, gave a through overview of tools ranging from simple text editors to tools that automate management and maintenance functions. The workshop participants were able to see a number of these product demonstrated live during the presentation. The advantages of using style sheets to create web pages were discussed by Manjula Patel of UKOLN. Manjula argued that style sheets are useful as they separate presentation from structure and are efficient ways to make changes to a number of pages. The different ways of using style sheets were demonstrated and the results on web pages shown.

Issues of compatibility across products was raised in both of these presentations and it was emphasised that there is probably no one set of tools that are right for all situations and that different circumstances call for different approaches.

If I could start all over again …

The final presentation was from Brian Kelly, UK Web Focus, based at UKOLN. Brian spoke about the web development in the higher education community and suggested some lessons that public libraries can learn from this. He addressed the question of what is going to happen to the web next and how these new developments might be integrated public library sites. Brian highlighted some simple steps that can be taken to improve the quality of the web site, such as replacing a standard 404 (page not found) web page with a meaningful message customised with the organisation's brand image.

He concluded that although creating web pages may be easy, managing a corporate web site is not and that a vision of what you want your web site to be is essential to help with planning and resourcing. A clear message from this presentation, and the workshop as a whole, was the importance of collaboration and learning from the mistakes (and successes) of those who have gone before.


It is hoped that this workshop, and any subsequent events, together with the mailing list will provide support for web site managers and hopefully develop a 'sense of community' amongst practitioners. Should this event, or a similar kind of activity be repeated, it is hoped that the workshop participants and those on the mailing list would contribute to developing the programme and themes that such activities might address.

Web page by Sally Criddle of UKOLN.
Last updated on 18-Nov-1999

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