Game, dataset and match

July 14, 1995

Derek Law describes moves to make new database services available to academics.

For some years users of Janet (Joint Academic Network) have been becoming familiar with a growing list of acronyms - Bids, Bubl, Chest, Hensa, Midas, Niss - which represented the Joint Information Systems Committee's attempts to provide relevant services to the academic community. These services are available to all Janet users and, in some cases, on the Internet at large.

This has been so successful that it is planned almost to double the number of services by December. Circular 5/95 was issued by JISC in May, and bidding and selection has moved so rapidly that the new services should be on the network within six months of being requested.

At its meeting at the end of June JISC approved the contracts for the new services, which will extend the concept of the distributed national electronic collection described in The THES in February. The committee aims to make a large set of resources available, which will offer services of value to every section of the Janet community, free at the point of use. More datasets have been purchased, two new services are being launched and there is an initiative to identify worthwhile and relevant Internet resources.

The expansion of bibliographic datasets which began with the phenomenally successful Bids service at the University of Bath continues with the selection of Edinburgh University as a new data centre. By the autumn it will make available Biosis, Palmer's Index to the Times and Chadwyck-Healey's Periodicals Contents Index. This last is particularly welcome since for the first time it will be possible to offer humanities scholars a comprehensive index to 19th and early 20th-century journals.

This ready access to information in periodical literature should have a significant impact on scholarship, particularly when linked to the document delivery service described below. Other non-bibliographic data has been purchased and Spot satellite data will be placed at Manchester University, while a dozen Royal Society of Chemistry journals will be added to the Bids service at Bath. As an experiment in dataset provision, a CD-Rom deal has been negotiated by the Combined Higher Education Software Team. The English Poetry CD-Rom published by Chadwyck-Healey will be made available through Chest at an extremely low, centrally subsidised price. Should this prove a popular method of making multiple copies of important datasets available, further deals will be considered.

The first major new initiative is the development of the Consortium of University Research Libraries database, to be housed at Manchester University. Until now Curl has consisted of the catalogue records of a dozen major libraries and was aimed at other cataloguers as a way of sharing such records.

Development work will turn the database into an online catalogue for public use which will make accessible at a single point records from most of the major libraries in the country. Plans are under discussion to enrich the database with the records of collections funded under the recent Non-Formula Funding Initiative to support research collections in the humanities. The Curl libraries will offer an inexpensive document delivery service.

The second new initiative is the Arts and Humanities Data Service. The overall management contract has been awarded to King's College London and some 20 expressions of interest have been received from institutions willing to run the subject services on the initial list. These are: historical documents and derived datasets; literary and linguistic text materials; art-historical and archaeological images and artefacts; music, film and other time-based materials. The expressions of interest will be considered over the summer, and the services should be made available in the early autumn. If successful it will expand into other subject areas.

Working both through its information services subcommittee and through the Follett Implementation Group for IT, JISC is making a concerted effort to tackle the problem of the anarchic state of resources on the Internet by providing access to a selected and managed set of Internet resources. It starts from the premise that it is neither feasible nor desirable to catalogue the whole Internet and that it is more productive to provide access to a limited set of resources which can be made reliably available and well documented. Thus far JISC effort has concentrated on supporting the popular and substantial listing of network resources supplied by Bubl, the Bulletin Board for Libraries. No single standard has yet emerged in this area and it is hoped to focus United Kingdom activity by working on standards.

The Roads (Resource Organisation and Discovery in Subject-based services) project is a consortium of groups based at Bath, Bristol and Loughborough along with a commercial company, Bunyip Information Systems (http://ukoln.bath.ac.uk/roads).

The project will work with international partners to improve UK participation in this important emerging area and will support the other subject based services with tools, advice and guidelines. A number of different resource discovery services have then been supported of which the first two are some way ahead. Probably the best known is the Social Science Information Gateway - Sosig (http://sosig.ac.uk) which is based at the University of Bristol and is co-funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It points to hundreds of resources in the social sciences, giving full descriptions with keyword searching.

Biomedical and health information is covered by Omni (Organising Medical Networked Information) with a consortium led by the National Institute for Medical Research (email: f-norman@ nimr.mrc.ac.uk). It will use the same underlying structure as Sosig to cover biomedical resources of interest to the research community. Four other projects have been approved. Project Adam (Art, Architecture, Design And Media) addresses the needs of the art and design community and is led by the Surrey Institute of Art and Design with a server based at the University of Northumbria. A more conventional service covering engineering (the Edinburgh Engineering Virtual Library) will be based at Heriot-Watt University, while the Institute for Historical Research will cover material in history, with its IHR-Info service.

A Northern Ireland consortium led by the University of Ulster aims to make available the resources of the Linen Hall Library on the Northern Ireland conflict. The provision of complete documents rather than their descriptions makes this a different type of initiative, and the response of evaluation partners such as the University of Central England is awaited with interest. These will work with the Roads team and will have the goal of identifying, evaluating and cataloguing the resources in their subject area while stimulating the creation of nationally-based resources and encouraging use of networked services through training and documentation. The programme will run over a number of years.

Further datasets are under consideration for education, law and business studies while discussions are taking place with the United States National Library of Medicine to allow the Visible Human Body, a three-dimensional digital scan of a human cadaver, to be networked nationally at a UK mirror site. The first arts and humanities data services should be selected and in place this autumn, while the conclusion of the feasibility study by De Montfort University on a national higher education image archive should allow the first projects to begin in this area. Some university manuscript archives are working to make their records available on the network; a review of work is planned for 1995/96. Traffic across the Atlantic "fat pipe" is growing all too rapidly. For example, the Hensa Netscape mirror site at the University of Kent receives 350,000 calls each week, a figure growing by about 15 per cent a month. A small committee is working to develop a national policy for mirroring and caching, which should be implemented early next year.

It is a matter of some envy to American colleagues that while they may undertake much or perhaps most of the development work on the Internet, systemic implementation is something which they can never achieve.

The design and implementation of services to a firm national plan is something done well in the UK and as its recent publication Exploiting Information Systems in Higher Education: an Issues Paper showed, JISC aims to stay in the forefront of service delivery.

Derek Law, director of information services and systems at King's College London, is a member of JISC and chairs its information services subcommittee.

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