Web Magazine for Information Professionals

NISS: National Information Services and Systems

Annette Lafford and Oren Stone talk us through NISS, one of the major sources of on-line information for academics and librarians

NISS. What does it mean ? What does it do ? Why ? Answers to these questions will strike different chords for everyone reading this article, depending upon your experience of networked information resources and the type or area of work with which you’re involved. Can NISS help with your work ?

NISS provides information services for the education community, and specifically for the UK higher education community. Electronic information services, so you’ll need a computer. What sort of information ? A wide range: details about education, its organisation, committees, funding; material produced by education, reports, catalogues, directories; resources used in education, teaching materials, databases, journals. Anyone in the community - staff, students, researchers - with a networked computer and a suitable WWW browser can access NISS services [1]. A text only interface is available if you prefer to telnet [2]. Information needs in education are many and varied, and whilst the scope of material NISS accommodates is vast, we clearly cannot guarantee that every item you need is available directly. But we often know where that information can be found, and provide onward links to get you to there as quickly as possible. So, what exactly can you find via NISS services?

Higher Education is multi-faceted and its organisation and operation is a complex mixture of interests and initiatives. With never enough money. So it’s often useful to be able to see what the Funding Councils are saying and doing. A great deal of information from the Councils is available via our Education area [3] - reports, circulars and other publications can be easily accessed in electronic format, and are usually published on-line in tandem with printed versions. A similar situation applies to groups and committees further down the organisational structure of HE. JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) for example, which itself funds or manages other services and groups such as AHDS (Arts and Humanities Data Service), MIDAS (Manchester Information Datasets and Associated Services), and the Electronic Libraries (eLib) projects, provides extensive on-line documentation about its activities - and don’t forget that you can connect to each of the JISC services themselves from NISS too. Links to material about the UK’s Research Councils are included in our Education pages as well - the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), to give just one example, offers news and details about its extensive range of work. The benefit of NISS for anyone wanting to find information of this sort is that it is collected together within the Education area, and you can gain a good idea of how the various committees and so on are related to each other, as well as investigating particular reports or other items that each might produce. In common with NISS services generally, this education material is kept up to date and expands to accommodate new material as it becomes available.

Other education-oriented information takes a different viewpoint - that for example of existing or prospective students. In addition to a comprehensive collection of links to campus information servers at HE sites, you can also find a page which focuses on prospectuses and other admissions information. UK education of course attracts students from outside the country too, and details from the British Council’s education information service might provide the answers to enquiries of this nature.

Ever since it began in 1988, NISS has provided national information services for the education community from within that community, and it is therefore perhaps not surprising to find that the scope of the education-related material it offers access to has grown, over the years, into a substantial collection. Whilst the HE sector remains our primary concern, we have also grouped further education and schools material into two further sets of pages - the points of contact between the three sectors increase in number all the time, and finding out about what goes on elsewhere in education is likely to become ever more important.

Rapidly changing news and updates about various events of interest to people working or studying in HE are included in another area on NISS, called the Noticeboard [4]. As its name implies, the sort of information you can find there are details of conferences, training courses and the ever-popular job vacancy pages. Since this type of information tends to have a short life-span it’s always a good idea to dip into Noticeboard now and then to keep up to date, and since the conference and jobs notices are grouped by subject disciplines it’s a simple matter to bookmark the particular pages which match your interests.

NISS conference page

A record located in the NISS system

Information produced within, or used by people working in education manifests itself in a variety of forms, and many resources of this sort are available via NISS. Sources of such material are not restricted to the UK either - someone working in an academic discipline such as geography for example will, from time to time, want to access world-wide information within this discipline. Our Directory of Networked Resources [5] lets you track down sources of information starting from a subject-oriented perspective. It is based on the fact that every link to an external resource on NISS is ‘catalogued’ as an entry in a database, and assigned a classmark (the classification used being a simplified version of UDC, which is superficially similar to Dewey Decimal Classification) and descriptive elements. These entries are visible as the ‘[Info]’ page accompanying all external links from NISS, and available via the results screen after any search using the ‘Search’ button. The descriptions are not as detailed as traditional library book catalogue entries - or as detailed as those in the NetFirst [10] database - but they are recognisably ‘library-type’ records. The database therefore underlies the whole structure of the NISS’s main on-line service, and as well as being fully searchable (from any Search button) it is visible in various output formats in the Directory structure - browsable by inverted ‘Subject Tree’ UDC menus, by UDC classmark ‘library shelf order’, and by alphabetical subject heading. Choosing the alphabetical topic order for example allows you to pinpoint resources on Africa’s History, or Cartography, Economics or Telecommunications. Many of these resources will in themselves provide a selection of onward links to other sources of related information - NISS can often furnish a single starting point of this sort which subsequently leads on to much additional material from a diverse selection of information providers - and in the context of subject-oriented collections, these providers include the subject oriented gateways and services set up by the HE community as part of JISC’s ANR (Access to Networked Resources) initiative.

Electronic sources of information can of course also supply details about more traditional media. Not all the material you may want is available on-line - books and various printed documents, journals and tapes are still necessary aids in all educational matters. NISS can help here too. Our Reference & Bibliographic area [6] offers links to library catalogues at HE institutions throughout the country (and also includes Ireland), so it’s a simple task to check to see whether another site has a copy of that particular text you require. There’s also a page of bookshops and publishers for those occasions when you need to purchase an item you cannot obtain elsewhere. Other general reference material can also be found in this area, including on-line dictionaries covering a multitude of languages.

However, many large datasets and directories widely used within the education community are available in electronic format, and we have collected some of these together on NISS’s Datahosts page [7]. Citation indexes and services, such as the BIDS-ISI service, can be accessed via this page, so can several of OCLC’s database services such as FirstSearch. Chemists will find a link to the CrossFireplus service here, and people working in literary fields can connect to the Oxford Text Archive … the Datahosts collection is very varied in scope and subject focus, and represents only a subset of all the resources of this type which can be accessed via NISS.

As part of NISS’s commitment to increase coverage of ‘news information of all sorts’ our News area [8] has been greatly expanded this year. Since the number of on-line versions of national dailies is now something approaching 2,000 world-wide, we took the opportunity to present a selection of these from all the individual countries in Europe on our pages, so that users would at least have the chance to select ONE national daily from the country of their choice on this continent without having to go to other places on the Internet and rummage around for suitable links. The selection of one particular national daily from any single country for presentation over another has not been based on any specialist knowledge, so please send your comments to the News editor via the Comments button if you know of a better one than that which you find on NISS. (We have already altered the entry for Flemish-speaking Belgium in response to feedback from academics with better local knowledge.) In the future, if feasible, we may enter into mirroring arrangements with important national dailies that are slow to access from the UK.

Business and financial information is a field which depends very much on currency of information for its value. NISS’s Business and Industry service provides full text journal articles on general business trends at a competitive site subscription, and Biz/Ed provides valuable material on business education for the community. But these resources form only half the picture.

Business studies need raw data to fuel their work. Much of this appears and disappears in the form of daily stock market reports, hourly share price updates and information on tickers updated in real time, which is constantly changing - it may never be enshrined or fossilized in periodical articles. While a lot of this data costs money and is only available by subscription, there is also a certain amount available free. If this area interests you, have a look at the new Business News page [9], (accessible via the NISS News page). NISS is attempting to select and collate business news data on a world-wide basis, starting with the UK but working outwards through the United States and Europe, using a tabular schema which is designed to help users track information of a specific kind within each resource presented to them, with the minimum of investigatory effort. Opposite each resource is indicated the kind of information most strongly represented within it; you can access that information directly by clicking on the Info Button in the appropriate cell. If the resource - or some significant aspect of the resource - requires you to register, there is a direct link to the Registration information in the appropriate column (signified by a clipboard). If you have any suggestions for the improvement of this interface, which is still experimental - or if you have any comments or criticisms - please mail them to the News editor using the Comments button.

The range of material available via NISS is extensive, and grows all the time. Although NISS can often provide a depth of information within particular areas such as Education [3], our services also offer a valuable starting point when you are looking for information resources across a spectrum of subject interests. A separate service hosted by NISS which can also help with such a task is that of the NISS NetFirst Service [10]. NetFirst has been made available free of charge to the UK Higher Education community via NISS services under an agreement between CHEST [11] and OCLC. Once a higher education institution is licensed to use NetFirst, all staff and students at that institution may access it. Almost all UK Universities have signed the license agreement - hence it is pretty well universally accessible to people in the UK academic community. NetFirst is essentially a hot-linked database of Internet resources - not a Search Engine, but a mirror of a ‘library catalogue’ type database produced in the USA - containing roughly 70,000 records, and added to at the rate of several hundred a week. The resources are selected by OCLC (the database providers) on the basis of their usefulness to librarians and library users. NetFirst covers all subjects, and though most of the resources in NetFirst are sited in the USA, a large number are from elsewhere, including countries outside the English-speaking world. At present, about 5% of the database comes from the UK, mostly from universities; OCLC are aiming to maintain this level of UK representation. The resources in the database are classified (Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress) and the user interface offers search and browse facilities.

NISS, then, provides information. More specifically, it provides services which enable members of the education community to access electronic information resources which can help with their work or study. NISS is of course only one of a growing number of WWW information providers and hosts within the community, and in addition to material that we administer we also aim to include onward links and pointers to all such services, so that everyone who uses NISS is given the best possible opportunity of finding exactly the sort of information they need at that particular time.


[1] The NISS Web Site,

[2] Telnet to NISS,

[3] Education area,

[4] Noticeboard,

[5] Directory of Networked Resources,

[6] Reference and Bibliographic area,

[7] Datahosts page,

[8] NISS news area,

[9] NISS Business news page,

[10] Netfirst service,

[11] CHEST Web site,

Author Details

Annette Lafford, Information Officer, and
Oren Stone, Information Officer
Email: niss@niss.ac.uk
Tel: 01225 826036