Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Subject-Based Information Gateways

Linda Kerr and Roddy MacLeod attended the recent CEI meeting at the Policy Studies Institute, London.

The JISC Circular 1098, issued in August, invited full proposals and expressions of interest from institutions and/or consortia interested in participating in the development and extension of the work of the Subject Based Information Gateway (SBIG) projects, which are part of the Access to Network Resources (ANR) programme area of eLib. The aim of the projects, which include ADAM [1], Biz/Ed [2], CAIN [3], EEVL [4], History [5], OMNI [6], RUDI [7] and SOSIG [8], supported in several cases by ROADS [9], is to help end-users in Higher Education Institutions by providing access to quality-tested collections of Internet resources. The Committee for Electronic Information (CEI) wishes to extend the gateway concept, and interested parties were invited to attend a meeting at the Policy Studies Institute, London, on the 17th September to discuss the Circular. The format of the meeting was a short presentation by Chris Rusbridge, Director of eLib, followed by a question and answer session.

In his presentation, Rusbridge outlined some of the intentions of the CEI as expressed in the Circular. The intention is to obtain a more complete subject coverage than at present, but the level of funding available will not allow for a large number of subject gateways. The proposed service will therefore have to develop partnership programmes in order to extend subject reach, and these may include agreements and partnerships both within and outside the UK. A meeting to discuss international cooperation between subject gateways was due to take place the next week at the European Conference on Digital Libraries. The CEI have suggested an organisational model similar to that of the AHDS [10], with a Network Centre responsible for overall strategic management of the resource discovery network and co-ordination of various subject services. The Network Centre will take on responsibility for some areas such as the provision of training, service-wide technical development, overall collection policy, and evaluation, but implementation will need to be flexible. Although the Circular states that control will be from the Network Centre, Rusbridge pointed out that it would have a wide range of relationships with the subject services, and a flexible approach is expected.

An interesting fact to emerge from the meeting was the hope that between £700,000 and £1million will be available for the service in the first year, with the level of funding reducing over three years. The amount intended for the Centre has not yet been fixed. The Network Centre, in collaboration with the Subject Services, will be expected to devise exit strategies for the service. Full proposals to provide the Network Centre are required from institutions or consortia by 5th October, and expressions of interest from potential Subject Services are required by 2nd November. CEI are expected to make a decision about the Network Centre on 12th November, so that some level of operation would begin in January 1999. The Centre will operate fully from July 1999. The Subject Services will be finalised between late January and early March 1999, and will operate from August 1999, so that there will be continuity between the old and new services.

The CEI realises that it may not be possible to achieve full subject coverage, and the topology of the subject landscape will be driven to some extent by the bids received. It was gently suggested that parties interested in running more specialised subject gateways would be wise to link up with a larger gateway. A sausage with spikes metaphor was used - the spikes being the levels of high coverage in selected specialised areas within a broader subject gateway. In this way, subject specialists could be accommodated rather than leaving everything to big gateways. On the question of whether eLib will act as a matchmaker between potential subject services, the best way forward seemed to be for expressions of interest to make it clear if they were open to suggestions: in some cases they might be encouraged either to match up with other services or revise their funding proposals. The lead site in any proposal must be from the higher education sector, but Subject Services can incorporate organisations from outside higher education, or outside the UK.

There were questions about the relationship between the proposed Network Centre and certain existing services. Rusbridge explained that BUBL [11] might wish to bid to become a part of the new structure. As NISS [12] is only partly funded by JISC, its role could not be dictated, but it was hoped that unnecessary duplication would be avoided. The AHDS is at present a data centre, but it might wish to bid to add Subject Service functions to its mission. The CTI Centres are currently under review, which complicates matters, but they too seemed good candidates to add Subject Service functions at marginal cost. CEI is clearly hoping that there will be some available synergies when the dust of the review settles.

Whilst use of ROADS would not be prescribed, it was indicated that any potential service would need to address the question of interoperability. ROADS staff were available to discuss such issues, and commented that ROADS already has several interoperability capabilities including the ability to cope with Z39.50 and Dublin Core. On the question of support for various value added services which have been developed by some SBIGs, Rusbridge suggested that there might be scope for developing fee based additional services, and that these might well contribute to an exit strategy.

The overall impression given at the meeting was that the CEI intends to be flexible in its approach both to bids for the provision of the Network Centre and the Subject Services - good bids will be considered carefully and may be encouraged to match up with other bidders - and to the functions of the Network Centre with respect to the Subject Services.


Author details:

Linda Kerr
EEVL Project Officer, Heriot Watt University
Roddy MacLeod Senior Faculty Librarian, Heriot Watt University