Hylife on the electronic frontier

October 9, 1998

Tony Durham sorts clumps from hybrids in phase three of eLib

The Electronic Libraries research programme, launched after the 1993 Follett report, is now in its third phase with 30 projects active at United Kingdom universities. The funding bodies' Joint Information Systems Committee spent Pounds 15 million each on phases one and two; phase three is smaller at Pounds 5 million.

Bigger and longer-lasting than the four-year, $24 million Digital Libraries programme with its six all-embracing mega-projects in United States universities, eLib has always gone for smaller and more focussed projects, sometimes pursuing several alternative approaches to a problem in parallel. Typical projects last two to six years and cost Pounds 100,000 to Pounds 500,000.

The latest round of projects includes several on the problems of managing a mix of printed and electronic resources in the so-called hybrid library. Hylife, led by the University of Northumbria, is developing a range of user interfaces for specific subjects and user groups. By contrast, a "uniform and coherent interface" is one of the aims of the Malibu project led by King's College London.

Malibu is attempting to define the services required of a hybrid library, and could therefore become a reference point for further projects in this area.

A "clump" is a group of libraries with electronic arrangements for cross-searching of all their catalogues. Scotland, Yorkshire and Greater London are areas where virtual union catalogues are being created with eLib funding. A virtual catalogue relies on software to launch simultaneous searches of several catalogues and combine the results on the user's screen. Meanwhile, outside the eLib programme the Consortium of University Research Libraries is creating a real union catalogue in Manchester by physically merging its member libraries' catalogues.

The grandest but vaguest goal of the eLib programme is the establishment of a Distributed National Electronic Resource (DNER). With funding through JISC and other channels, UK academics have established many digital resources and data services in art, literature, history and other subjects. JISC has been promoting the idea that these resources, while remaining where they are physically, should be brought under one umbrella with quality standards and shared technology.

The DNER would be a nationwide "clump" not just of catalogues but of online resources ranging from maps to movies. It could open up new possibilities for interdisciplinary research and teaching. On the other hand, many academics use only a limited number of resources, concentrated in their own subject area.

Perhaps the first result to emerge from the DNER research will be some indication of what services such a resource could provide, and what it would offer to researchers and teachers, over and above what they already get from existing services.

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