Newcastle's base metal that harbours a vein of information resources

April 11, 1997

The colour and noise of commercial development on the World Wide Web can often screen out vastly more useful academic Internet tools. These tools remain net friendly in their use of bandwidth and users' time.

Mailbase is one such tool. It was developed at Newcastle University, centrally funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee of the higher education funding councils for England, Scotland and Wales and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. It is effectively free to the academic community.

Non-academic users can access the archives posted to the Mailbase web site but list owners must be from the academic community. Mailbase has grown rapidly since its inception in 1989 under the guidance of director Jill Foster and manager Morna Findlay, from a first year base of 55 subject lists and 1,700 members. There are now 1,600 lists on the service covering the widest range of subjects, with more than 110,000 people subscribing in the United Kingdom and overseas, particularly the United States and the European Union.

In February, the service handled 15 million mail messages. Michelle Embleton, on the help desk, fields between 200 and 350 enquiries each week.

The Mailbase system allows researchers and academics to communicate and collaborate using email over the Joint Academic Network (Janet), which links most of the UK's institutions of higher education.

Jill Foster and her team worked from the premise that the inexperienced user often finds mailing lists difficult to set up and use; with this in mind, Mailbase was developed to make group communication easier across Janet. The list owner has full control over its content and access management, with the Mailbase team managing the delivery system. Subscribing to a list is relatively simple and the help desk can usually iron out any early problems.

Groups of academic and research staff with a common interest contribute information to lists in the form of email messages. Messages are collected together and stored in monthly archive files for later retrieval. Larger files, for example reports and papers, may be placed individually on the Mailbase server. This information is then readily available to all list members, and an electronic community is quickly established. A group may have just one list, or a set of lists with very specific discussion topics. By sending a message users can talk to all list members interested in a particular subject. Users can make reports, minutes of meetings and documents available for group members to retrieve.

A list owner oversees the running of the list and controls the level of access to it. All the routine tasks such as dealing with members joining and leaving a list are performed by the Mailbase server program. One of the main aims of Mailbase is to encourage the non-computer specialist to use the service. This is reflected in the variety of subjects covered: chemists, historians, artists, administrators and librarians all use Mailbase to keep in touch. The World Wide Web service enables Internet users anywhere to browse and retrieve the publicly available information held on Mailbase.

The Mailbase team believethe service has combined the speed of the fax, the friendliness of the phone, the permanence of the post and the flexibility of the computer into one easy-to-use package.

For more information see www.mailbase.ac.uk or send email to mailbase-helpline@mailbase.ac.uk

CRITERIA FOR ESTABLISHING A NEW LIST AND CONTINUING SUPPORT

* Should primarily benefit UK higher education and research

* List owner should have an "ac.uk" style email address

* Significant percentage of members with "ac.uk" addresses

* Mailbase lists should be directly related to research and teaching within the UK HE community or support of these

* Acceptance of new lists is dependent upon capacity being available on the Mailbase Service

* Mailbase does not establish lists for undergraduate students.

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