UKOLN AHDS Launching New Database Services: The BIDS Experience


This case study focuses on two of the database services that were created and operated as part of the BIDS [1] service: the ISI service and the IBSS service. It describes the experience of launching and supporting these services and discusses lessons learned that might be of value to the creators of other services. The experience demonstrates how a professional approach to service design, support and delivery reflects well on service creators, service operators and the sponsoring bodies. It also demonstrates how community involvement at all stages has a range of important benefits.

The ISI service was the first, and is probably still the best known of the services sponsored by the JISC. Launched in 1991, the BIDS service provided access to the bibliographic databases (or citation indexes) supplied by the Institute for Scientific Information. It was the first large scale, national, end-user service of its kind anywhere in the world. Originally launched as a telnet service, a Web interface was introduced in 1997. This service was replaced in 2000 by the Web of Science operated by MIMAS in which both the data and the service interface are supplied by ISI.

The BIDS IBSS service was launched in 1995. Introduced with a similar interface to the BIDS ISI service, it provided access to bibliographic data indexed and supplied by the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences [2] team based in the library at the London School of Economics (the BLPES). This service was also originally launched as a telnet service, with a Web interface being introduced in 1997. It continues to be operated by BIDS under Ingenta management.

Although these events took place several years ago, much of the experience gained continues to be of relevance and importance to new services being launched today.

The Problem Being Addressed

When the first ISI service was launched, there were no similar services available, and this presented a major challenge when it came to developing a strategy to bring this new end-user service to the attention of those who could benefit from it. By the time the IBSS service was launched in 1995, it was a more mature market place and the process had become somewhat easier, though a number of the original challenges still remained.

The basic problem was that of creating effective communication channels where none existed before.

Approaches Taken

The solutions adopted to these issues of communications were manifold and arguably each had a role. New services should consider which of the methods described could be effective for their particular needs.


For both the services mentioned, consultation took place at a number of different levels. As soon as BIDS had been established, a Steering Group was formed. Chaired by a senior librarian, it had representatives from major research libraries, politicians and the BIDS service itself. It provided a valuable sounding board for strategic development of the service, but more importantly from a promotional point of view, it provided an information channel back to the home institutions of the members on current and future service developments. As IBSS is itself a JISC-funded service, it has its own steering group which provides a valuable sounding board for service performance and developments and a forum for announcements.

When the original BIDS ISI service was launched, it wasn't clear how to set about designing an end user service for such a disparate audience. An important contribution to the success of the service was the establishment of a working group to help with the service design, including functionality and screen design. Drawn from a large number of different institutions, most of the members were librarians with experience in the use of online and CD-ROM based search services. As well as supplying important knowledge and experience of good design, like the Steering Group members, they became natural ambassadors for the new service.

Shortly after the first BIDS service was launched, a BIDS User Group was formed. Subsequently, when MIMAS and EDINA were established the group widened its remit and became known as the JIBS user group [3]. Again this group became a two-way communication channel, lobbying for change and improvement, but also becoming a natural route for disseminating information about the services and their development to intermediaries and thence to end-users.

In summary, one of the important factors in the success of these services was community involvement in all stages of service development, as well as the actual service launch.

Launching The Services

The BIDS ISI service first became publicly available on 18th February 1991. In the run-up to the launch, regular news bulletins were sent to a new mailing list set up in Newcastle on the service which became known as Mailbase (now replaced by JISCmail [4]). This helped keep all the supporters of the new service in touch with progress on how the service was being developed prior to launch. This enabled us to advertise a series of launch events and demonstrations which were held at various locations around the UK near the time of the start of service.

When the IBSS service agreement was signed in 1994, a more sophisticated approach was taken with a formal press release being issued by the library at LSE (BLPES). When the service itself was launched in January 1995, a series of joint IBSS/BIDS launch events were held around the UK including live demonstrations and 'hands-on' sessions.

Managing Expectations

It is very common for project timescales to become invalidated by a range of different factors, many outside the service-provider's control. It is important to keep key stakeholders informed as soon as practical of any likely changes to published timescales, even if new dates are difficult to confirm. Regular postings to mailing lists provided a very useful vehicle for keeping people up to date on progress with service launches or the introduction of new features. This was especially important when published dates were close to the start of the academic year.

Training And Publicity Materials

A key feature of the early BIDS services was community involvement in the design and writing of a wide range of support material. Although these experiences may not be directly applicable to the present day environment, the general principle of involvement is still valid as an important factor in successful launch and support of new services.

With funding from a central training materials initiative, a suite of ISI service support material (flyers, posters, user guides, training materials) was developed with the aid of around 24 volunteers from 20 different institutions. The design of these materials formed the basis of similar materials developed later for additional services such as IBSS.

Service Development

Both of these services (ISI and IBSS) went through a series of developments during their lifetime. Managing service development is an important issue. In general at any given time there will be pressure from a number of parties for changes to be made to a service. Each potential development will have costs as well as benefits. The benefits have to be assessed and prioritised in the context of their value to the service and its users as well as the cost in terms of time and effort. Developments can be typically either low or high value and low or high cost. Relatively low value improvements may still be worth making if their cost is also low. On the other hand, high value developments may still not be justified if their cost is judged to be excessive (or there may be a case for additional funding to carry out the development).

For the ISI service, an example of an early and important, though costly development, was citation searching (searching for all the papers in the database that have identified or cited a particular work in their list of references). Because this was a unique feature of the database (the indexing of all the citations for each paper), all concerned felt it was vital that the facility should be created. It is interesting to note that monitoring of user activity after citation searching was made available showed disappointingly low levels of use of the facility, despite extensive publicity and the creation of documentation and training support materials, etc. In practice the vast majority of searches are simple words or phrases from titles or abstracts, or author names.

Service Monitoring

Services such as BIDS-ISI and BIDS-IBSS need to be monitored. Funding bodies are keen to establish whether their investment has been wisely spent, and service providers need to judge performance against an agreed set of criteria. The JISC's Monitoring and Advisory Unit (now the Monitoring Unit [5]) drafted Service Level Agreements for each database service. Quarterly reports demonstrate how the services have delivered against the benchmarks agreed. These include usage levels, help desk activity, registrations, documentation and support material, promotion and marketing activity and hardware availability.

This monitoring has been very useful in establishing the high levels of popularity of these services and demonstrating the quality of service delivery. The figures can also be used to extrapolate likely future usage growth and permit planned increases in resources before the service starts to deteriorate.

Lessons Learnt

In this short document it is only possible to draw a limited number of conclusions from more than a decade of experience of running these services.


The chances of success of any new service will be greatly enhanced by making constructive use of widespread consultation. This can cover a wide range of activities including such things as service functionality, interface design, and desirable facilities.

Launching A New Service

Consideration should be given to marking the launch of a new service in some suitable manner. Depending on the type of service, its intended clientele, and the predicted take-up rate, it may be appropriate to hold a formal launch event at a strategic location; this often means London. Alternatively, the announcement could be made at a suitable conference or exhibition. It is unwise to rely on only one or two methods of announcing a new service. Try to think of as many different appropriate routes to both decision makers and potential end-users. The timing of a launch is also important. Be aware of the academic year cycle, and try to avoid the period immediately before the start of the academic year. Probably the optimum time is mid-late summer term, before staff go on holiday but after most of the student pressure is off.

Managing Expectations

It is a good strategy to keep people informed as to the progress of a new service as launch day approaches. As soon as delays appear inevitable, let people know, even if a revised date hasn't been fixed.

Training And Publicity Materials

This is one area where the world has changed significantly from the days of the first BIDS services. Most students and many (though not all) staff are much more computer literate and are frequent network users. The general expectation is that a network service should be intuitive to use and not require extensive training or help. Nevertheless it is important that potential subscribers (if it is a paid for service) and users are aware of the scope and limitations of a new service. So some form of descriptive publicity or promotional material is still relevant, and serious consideration should be given to at least some paper-based material as well as online information. Using professional designers for paper-based material is well worth considering.

Service Development

Launching a new service is only the beginning, not the end. Mechanisms for feedback from users and purchasers should be established. The service should contain contact details for help and advice. Presentations and demonstrations provide forums for discussion and constructive criticism. Find out if there is an existing user group who will extend their remit to cover the service.

When changes are identified and implemented, ensure that the change is publicised well in advance. Unless the change is an important bug fix, try to make the changes infrequently, preferably to coincide with term-breaks.

Service Monitoring

Discuss with the JISC Monitoring Unit a suitable set of parameters for measuring performance. Benchmarks will normally be established in a Service Level Agreement. Set up procedures for recording the information and then delivering it to the MU at quarterly intervals.


  1. BIDS,
  2. International Bibliography of the Social Sciences,
  3. JIBS User Group
  4. JISCMail Service,
  5. JISC Monitoring Unit,

Contact Details

Terry Morrow

Tel: +44 1373 830686
Mobile: +44 7733 101837


Terry was Director of the well-known BIDS service from 2000 until September 2003. Previously he had been the Marketing and Training Manager for BIDS from the beginning of the service in 1990. He is now an independent consultant and a member of the UK Serials Group Executive Committee.