Library Online  (shown in Figure 1) is the main library Web site/portal for the University of Edinburgh . Although clearly not a project site in itself, one of its functions is to provide a gateway to project sites with which the Library is associated .
In the last seven years or so it has grown to around 2,000 static pages plus an increasing amount of dynamic content, the main database-driven service being the related web-based Library Catalogue . At the time of writing (October 2003), a proprietary Digital Object Management System has been purchased and is being actively developed. This will no doubt impinge on some areas of the main site and, in time, probably the Catalogue: notably access to e-journals and other digital resources/collections. However, for the time being, Library Online and the Catalogue between them provide the basic information infrastructure.
The challenges include enhancing accessibility and usability; also maintaining standards as these develop. Problems exist with legacy (HTML) code, with increasingly deprecated layout designs and separating content from presentation. Addressing these issues globally presents real problems whilst maintaining currency and a continuous, uninterrupted service. It is, of course, a live site - and an increasingly busy one. There are currently over twenty members of staff editing and publishing with varying levels of expertise and no overall Content Management System, as such.
Policy has also been to maintain support for a whole range of older browsers, further complicating matters.
Fortunately, the site design was based on Server-Side Includes (SSIs) and a great deal of effort was put into conforming to best practice guidelines as they were articulated over five years ago. The architecture appears to remain reasonably sound. So an incremental approach has been adopted generally, though some enhancements have been achieved quite rapidly across the board by editing sitewide SSIs. A recent example of the latter has been the introduction of the "Skip Navigation" accessibility feature across the whole site.
A fairly radical redesign of the front page was carried out within the last two years. This will need to be revisited before too long but the main focus is presently on the body of the site, initially higher level directories, concentrating on the most heavily-used key areas.
Enhancements to accessibility and usability are documented in our fairly regularly updated accessibility statement . These include:
None of these features should be contentious, though precise interpretations may vary. Many have been built in to the design since day one (e.g. "alt" tags); others have been applied retrospectively and incrementally. All are, we hope, worthwhile!
Additional functionality with which we are currently experimenting includes media styles, initially for print. The original site navigation design was quite graphically rich and not very "printer-friendly". Progress is being made in this area - but who knows what devices we may need to support in the future? Perhaps we shall eventually have to move to XML/XSLT as used within our Collections Gateway due for launch soon. Meanwhile, for Library Online, even XHTML remains no more than a possibility at present.
Our approach to site development is essentially based on template and stylesheet design, supported by Server-Side Include technology for ease of management and implementation. This largely takes care of quality assurance and our proposed approach to content management should underpin this. We are moving towards fuller adoption of Dreamweaver (MX) for development and Macromedia Contribute for general publishing. Accessibility and usability quality assurance tools are already in regular use including LIFT Online and other resources identified on the site. It seems very likely that this will continue.
All this remains very much work in progress ... Upgrading legacy code, layout design, integration and interoperability with other information systems etc. Categorically, no claims are made for best practice; more a case of constantly striving towards this.
The main problems experienced - apart from time and resources naturally - have been:
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps stylesheets could have been implemented more structurally. Validity has always been regarded as paramount, while separation of true content from pure presentation might have been given equal weight(?) This is now being reassessed.
We might have derived some benefit from more extensive database deployment - and may well in the future - but we must constantly review, reappraise possibilities offered by new technologies etc. and, above all, listen to our users.
I have referred to some significant developments in prospect which present more opportunities to do things differently - but whether we get these right or wrong, there will always be scope for improvement on the Web, just as in the "real" world. Like politics, it seems to be the art of the possible - or should that be a science?
Steve Scott, Library Online Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For QA Focus use.