Subscript for a free and easy system

October 11, 1996

JISC will extend and embrace new models of funding and delivery in its strategies towards the year 2000.

The Joint Information Systems Committee's new five-year strategy recognises the importance of balance between technology and the content it can deliver. Major planks of the strategy are a pervasive networking infrastructure for higher education and a plan for wide-ranging developments in national information services.

This is part of the advance of the "virtual university", with services such as electronic teaching materials, bibliographic and statistical datasets and full-text journals distributed to students in geographically remote areas or in their own homes and workplaces. Academic and administrative information will be digitised and networked. The environment in which staff and students work will see the introduction of multi-service workstations which integrate telephony with multimedia information. Smart cards will give access to physical and virtual facilities. The formation of the committee for electronic information is one of several organisational changes made by JISC to support its strategy. The CEI will integrate the service and development aspects of JISC's national electronic information programme for higher education.

We are starting from a strong baseline of an enormously successful programme of dataset provision at designated national data centres. The explosion in use of datasets such as the ISI citation indices and the Embase biomedical database by students and in research practice over the past five years is internationally unrivalled. It has played its part in producing graduates with advanced information skills.

This has been fostered by the cardinal principle of free access at the point of use, underpinned by subscriptions. Universal reach has been another underlying principle, with attention being paid not just to the needs of scholars working in disciplines well versed in electronic communication, but also to fostering developments where there is yet to be a critical mass of electronic activity. On the development side the Electronic Libraries Programme (eLib) has represented a new model of JISC funding and application. Its structured bidding and project methodology, together with the strong emphasis on evaluation, dissemination and exit strategies, is likely to be adopted more widely in other areas.

We are now nurturing some 60 projects whose potential impact on teaching, learning and research communication models extends well beyond the library. An important element of CEI's work is to exploit these emerging projects for the whole higher education community and consider how best to scale them up to become part of the national information services portfolio. We may well wish to consider clustering projects into service groups to provide, for example, distributed national document delivery, large numbers of electronic journals in discipline clusters, and an integrated approach to subject navigation of the Net. We will also need to pay attention to the issues of digital preservation and the technical complexities of integrating such diverse applications.

This will be considered in the context of plurality of funding - from national and institutional sources, from the private sector and other sectoral interests, in a variety of arrangements. Already new models are being established, for example, with the Knowledge Gallery, where Kodak, Sun Microsystems and others are working with the higher education community to set up a national images service. We have just established a National Digitisation Centre, involving the University of Hertfordshire, Cimtech - a university company - and International Imaging Limited, a highly successful company already renowned for its work in the field of document conversion and image capture services. This will digitise at least one million pages of printed text a year, providing a service to higher education at very competitive rates and with limited public sector risk.

Other partners are based outside the United Kingdom - eLib has established a range of international relations with similar programmes and supporting bodies and we are seeing fruitful partnerships in research effort, the mirroring of digital materials, awareness raising and service development, with bodies such as the Coalition for Networked Information and the Research Libraries Group in the US, the European Libraries Programme and other national European programmes. A major focus for the CEI will be to ensure beneficial exploitation of these approaches.

An important area in which we will wish to develop our thinking is that of charging models. JISC has already signalled a wide ranging review of charging algorithms and clearly there needs to be some coherence between the networking and electronic information aspects of policy. CEI will be concerned to preserve the benefits of the "free at the point of use" model, while recognising the diversity of the organisations we serve and their potential ability to take up services. We need to develop pricing structures which encourage the occasional user and the participation of smaller, specialist institutions in the overall programme.

Another development is the attention paid to content creation (as opposed to dataset acquisition), to maximise access to materials available within higher education, and to extend the types of material covered. We will be hosting a meeting in December to determine community needs in the area of moving images. We will support the Arts and Humanities Data Service in building up digital resources in key humanities disciplines. We hope to scale up a number of existing eLib and other projects, and build on the national journals site licence initiative. Coverage will be extended towards critical mass by digitising journal backruns and primary source materials and creating resource banks for use in teaching and electronic study packs. Much of this activity will be done in close cooperation with publishers.

Our vision is the creation of the national distributed electronic resource, integrated with other international efforts. We will work closely with others: the British Library has signalled its intention to develop a digital library programme, the research councils are key players, as are others already mentioned. Of course this does not come cheap. Our full programme will be developed with wide participation, and to be of most value needs to integrate closely with the emerging information strategies at institutional level.

We are well poised to ensure that higher education in the United Kingdom has a national information infrastructure second to none, a resource base and opportunities for research communication which can be exploited by all institutions irrespective of distance or the richness of on-site provision.

Lynne Brindley is librarian and director of information services at the London School of Economics and chairman of JISC's Committee for Electronic Information.

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