Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Interface: Dennis Nicholson

Chris Bailey finds a crusader at Strathclyde: Dennis Nicholson.

Dennis Nicholson is the head of Library Systems at the University of Strathclyde, where he has been responsible for the installation of two generations of library systems. In the library community at large he is best known as the driving force behind the BUBL Information Service [1] and is also involved with a number of Scottish collaborative initiatives.

BUBL began life as the Bulletin Board for Libraries under Project Jupiter at the University of Glasgow. Funding for the project ran out in 1991 and Nicholson, with a group of colleagues, took on the service on a volunteer-effort basis. The database continued to be mounted and supported at Glasgow but the development and editorial work moved to Strathclyde. After mainframe services were withdrawn at Glasgow, the service was moved to UKOLN at Bath.

Dennis Nicholson

“BUBL provided an opportunity to mount a crusade to get librarians involved with the development of networked information services” states Nicholson. The initial priority was to sell the service as the primary awareness tool for the UK library community. In collaboration with Peter Stone of the University of Sussex he set up the Mailbase e-mail discussion list LIS-link [2]. The two initiatives grew together, with LIS-link initially providing a mechanism for distributing BUBL current awareness bulletins .

From a text-based service initially run by volunteers, BUBL developed first into a gopher and Web-based service at UKOLN, then, in 1997, into a Web and Z39.50-based service located at Strathclyde University. JISC-funded since 1994, with an annual budget recently doubled to 100,000 pounds, its importance was recognised in 1995 when it won the Institute of Information Scientists’ Jason Farradane award. “In the early days” says Nicholson “there was a great deal of satisfaction in getting people involved and interested, and in making contact with others similarly motivated, often at an international level.” But there are always frustrations. “We can never move fast enough to keep up with the speed of change.” He has some grumbles about the bureaucracy involved in running the service. “I sometimes feel we are expected to spend too much time on administration - time that might be better spent on service development. ”

BUBL is funded primarily to do two things. It offers fast and reliable access to selected Internet resources of academic relevance covering all subject areas, and it also provides a support service to UK librarians involved in network-based services. Asked about overlap with other JISC services such as NISS’s [3] NetFirst and eLib subject gateway projects such as OMNI [4] and EEVL [5] , Nicholson indicated that he felt there was less overlap than was sometimes supposed, but that all players, and particularly JISC, recognised this as an area that needed sorting out. Cost and value for money were important questions and BUBL, he felt, was very competitive in this respect “The BUBL approach, including its subject tree, is popular with users, who like to be able to browse as well as search. And BUBL provides a range of unique features, such as specialist support for particular groups of librarians. The recent Acqlink service for acquisitions librarians is an example.” Access figures continue to rise. “The service is still developing, and has a healthy future. ”

Nicholson has also been involved with two generations of CATRIONA projects. CATRIONA (CATaloguing and Retrieval of Information Over Networks Applications) [6] was a collaborative British Library-funded project involving Strathclyde and Napier Universities, and the National Library of Scotland. It examined the possibility of a Z39.50-based distributed catalogue of Internet resources integrated with hard-copy library OPACs. CATRIONA II, funded by eLib, involves all the SCURL (Scottish Consortium of University and Research Libraries) institutions. CATRIONA II is looking at approaches to university management of electronic resources and surveying electronic resources on selected Scottish campuses. The surveys for Strathclyde and Napier Universities are already complete, with those of Edinburgh, Stirling, Abertay and St Andrews well underway. There have been some interesting results. “Over 90% of respondents at Strathclyde and Napier said that desk-top access to research materials held at other UK universities was either important, very important, or essential to their research.”

A key aim is to investigate whether universities have the institutional will to manage electronic resources with a view to providing services. This ties in nicely with information strategy initiatives. “It is interesting how research like this can change your perceptions. I began by thinking that the development of research-level services would be of most interest to universities. In fact the need to protect and exploit teaching material may be just as significant a motivation for managing services.”

Nicholson is actively involved in various Scottish collaborative projects. Is there something distinctive about the Scottish environment? “I think so,” he replies. “The Scottish library and information community is the right size to favour collaboration and co-operation. There is a sense of community and national identity - everyone knows everyone else - and there are several structures which facilitate co-operation.”

Looking ahead, Nicholson is a key player in SCURL’s bid to JISC for a Scottish CLUMP. “This is a joint vision which could provide the basis for a confederated Scottish virtual library.” It weaves together threads of strategy from many sources - from SCURL projects and others outwith higher education, from local library IT strategies, and from BUBL and CATRIONA I. “It is a vision of an integrated co-operative future with minimal duplication of effort. Every systems librarian’s dream.”


[1] Article on what BUBL contains,

[2] Lis-link mailing list,

[3] Netfirst Web Site,

[4] OMNI (Organising Medical Networked Information) subject gateway,

[5] EEVL (Edinburgh Engineering Virtual Library) subject gateway,

[6] Catriona II eLib project Web site,

Interviewee Details

Dennis Nicholson,
Manager, BUBL,
Email: d.m.nicholson@strath.ac.uk
Tel: 0141 548 4529