Web Magazine for Information Professionals


Interview with Jill Foster, director of Mailbase and Netskills.

So then, Jill; in the beginning…

Well, I came here as part of the Network group, and was involved in writing assembler programs for the machines that actually helped to run the network on campus. I wrote the user interface part so I tended to be the one that documented how the network worked as far as local users were concerned. When it came to the JANET regional user groups being set up I was then the one who got collared to go to some of the meetings. I got involved in national networking as it was then, then chaired my regional user group and then was vice chair of the national user group. Also, I was the one who had to deal with people who wanted to transfer files to Bitnet and back, and in helping them I set up some mailing lists for World Health Organisation diabetes researchers, on the Irish LISTSERV in Dublin. Basically, I felt that the network could really be of much broader use to the academic community than just to computer science people, physicists and networking people which were really the people that were using it at that time.

The other thing that was happening at that time (circa 1987) was that the JNT (Joint Network Team) were basically the purseholders as far as Networking was concerned, on campuses. They tended to be the people who gave down wisdom, and at that time there were a lot of people who were developing quite a lot of expertise within the community, but there wasn’t really a forum for people to share that experience. They (the JNT) didn’t have a mechanism that encouraged people to talk to each other electronically.

So, I pointed this out through the regional user groups and the national user groups and they said “speak at the annual JANET Networkshop (in 1988)” which I did, and after that they said “write a proposal for a mailing list service”. This I did, and it was accepted, and we had a look at what was available worldwide; LISTSERV, though the best around, was only available on IBM mainframes at that time. There were a few smaller mailing list software packages, but nothing that would really run on Unix workstations; so, having looked around, we decided to write our own code for Mailbase, and that’s how it all started.

Mailbase really started in 1989 to 1991. The first two year project was a pilot and the first group of lists that we ran happened to be for librarians; they set up a few lists, CHEST also set up a few lists and then there were a few other lists for other groups such as some of the CTI subject centres as well. We got various people on campus interested and they set up national lists within their own disciplines. Originally, we said that we wouldn’t set up any computing science lists, because it was a fairly small operation, and we wanted to be proactive in pushing networking out to places where networking hadn’t been before.

So, originally, we didn’t hold any networking lists or computing science lists, because we felt that those people could help themselves and had the means as well. With the people we were looking at, Usenet news would have been no good, because news tended to stay around for a couple of weeks on campus and then get ditched, and these people were occasional network users.

Lis-link is one of the biggest mailbase lists; how did that start?

That was one of the first groups, yes; Peter Stone was very much instrumental in lis-link being set up. He was the person who helped set up most of the library lists. He was very active in giving us feedback and was very keen to get the UK library community working together and discussing issues. We actually had a national advisory group from day one, and we had people from NISS on it, UKERNA - Phil Jones to start with, then Shirley Wood, and Peter Stone and a couple of others. Peter and the CHEST people were the first major groups of people who had lists on Mailbase.

When you started off Mailbase and its associated mailing lists, how large did you think it/they would get?

Well, I had a slightly different view of it; I wanted it tied up with promoting networking within subject groupsPicture of Jill and the second bid for the next phase of Mailbase after the prototype was to fund networked information officers for particular subject groups around the UK, connected with some of the subject funding councils and to have individual mailbase machines dotted around the country, running their collection of mailing lists. The Computer Board, which it was at the time, turned it down and said “no; we’ll fund you supporting groups and a Central Service, but not the individual information officers - go to the individual funding councils and ask them to fund the personnel”. ESRC was the only one that bit the bullet, and it has come out of it extremely well, with Nicky Ferguson and all he has achieved with SOSIG, and it has been quite a flagship from their point of view; ESRC appear as the forward looking research council.

So the original idea was to have a lot of mailbases around, hosting a small number of lists for a particular group, as opposed to hosting one large service. But it soon became apparent that people didn’t want the hassle of running their own service; they didn’t mind list administration, but they didn’t actually want to run the machines or software themselves. Therefore, we upgraded the machine a couple of times to cope with the increase in growth, but yes, it has grown, a lot; the original specification for the second chunk of money (the first chunk was for two years for a pilot), for the next three years, specified a machine and said that the funding we were requesting would be sufficient to host around about 500 mailing lists. We actually reached the 500 mark a couple of months before the end of the 3 years, so completely by chance we were pretty much spot on.

What about the future of Mailbase?

Well, you know the story of “Wells Fargo” - their mission is security - they used to have these stagecoaches, which carried bullion, and now, after time, they are into security and banks and driving money and gold around in secure vehicles. Well, Mailbase is about people communicating - encouraging people to use the networks to communicate. At present that’s by mailing lists, but in 5 or 10 years time, it may be by some other technology. We also are not completely wedded to the mailbase software; what we do is provide value-added service for supporting groups that want to communicate by mailing lists. Periodically, we look at other mailing list software to see whether they can provide us with a heavy duty mailing list service because we get a heck of a lot of traffic through mailbase and a lot of transactions on the lists.

Netskills - where and how was the idea for that conceived?

Very much at Mailbase, really, because Mailbase has never been just the mailing list side; it’s been about supporting groups and communicating and making use of the network. We used to run training sessions for subject based groups (we still do); and we ran training for social scientists with Nicky Ferguson; we also held hands-on sessions at and before the annual JUGL conference each July.

We also ran courses for university administrators at the AUA conference, as well as other courses; it was going quite nicely. That wasn’t just about Mailbase, that was about most JANET and Internet services. Last year, we ran three general courses; this was our first general training course, open to anyone, regardless of subject. We had 70 people on that; that was “Mailbase: Exploring the Internet”, an introductory workshop, and that went really quite well. Same format as the current 2 day Netskills sessions; overnight stay, with demos in the evening. We were then asked by JISC to run two more for new sites connected to JANET, which we did, in February 95 and March 95.

We were already involved in running workshops for developing countries for NATO and the Internet Society. The first was in Prague, Czechoslovakia. This allows us to help that country develop its own networking training further. This also allows us to raise the flag for eLib and JISC services; by explaining and showing how UK initiatives such as these work, it helps them develop their own networking strategies, resources and training. It also helped us as this was a real trial by fire for our training methods. We also benefited from close contact with experienced trainers from other countries.

How many people ae you expecting to train over the current lifespan of Netskills?

It depends what you mean by train, because there are presentations and training sessions, the presentations being of different lengths. What we are doing is to provide statistics on the various courses that we are running, and also the types of people that are being covered. We have already hit, if you like, a thousand people, but some were for example, “JANET user’s workshop” - there were probably 150 there, and that was a 40 minute talk as opposed to a hands-on workshop.

As you saw today [the interviewer was in attendance at the Netskills training session] , the feedback from people we have trained is pretty good so far [the most used word to describe the 2 day training session was “Excellent”]. However, the project has a long way to go, but we are confident, and constantly working towards maintaining quality, well-received training

When training people in a fast changing subject area as information networking, there are two main approaches courses seem to take with post-course training. Either the trainee is retrained at a later date, to bring him/her up to date with new skills, or the trainee is “enpowered” with enough basic skills to keep up with, and teach themselves about, new developements within this field. Which approach does Netskills take?

Both, really. We see one role as keeping current on behalf of the training community, so we can keep the materials current, and so people can take updated materials and use them to train others. We also have the Web-based materials, which can be used by individuals to update their knowledge.

There will be people who will want to come on refresher courses, and there will be people who want to progress from the basic course to an intermediate course or an authoring or service provision course. So there is really a mix of approaches to what happens to someone after their initial Netskills training.

How do you see the role and place of Netskills within the Training and Awareness section of the Electronic Libraries Programme? Do you see any problems with overlap between any of the projects/services within this area?

I was worried to start with, but I’m not so worried now. Edulib is much longer term. The point was raised that we were overlapping with EduLib in training trainers, but it’s a matter of scale. They are looking at a much longer term qualification and accredited course, and we are looking at skills training rather than education, if you like. What we’ve got is a short focused skills based session; we’re looking at giving them the tools and materials to train, as well as showing them how to tailor those materials. They will get a workshop pack, with for instance checklists of the equipment they need, registrations forms and all that, wheras Edulib is at the other end of the scale, for people who feel that they want to go further than that and take a professional qualification in the pedagogic side of it. I don’t think there is overlap; rather that it is complementary.

TAPin I was worried about, in that they were talking about developing materials, training people to use the networks, training librarians to be trainers. They very much overlapped with EduLib and with Netskills, but we’ve been doing quite a bit of the training for TAPin; we sent Brian to do their first workshop. They have two more sets of workshops, and we are we are definitely doing the next two day ones for them, which will be an introduction to the internet, very similar to the one we have just done now.

There are so many people to train that there is no point in being monopolistic about it; there will be people who have got their own training styles, their own training material and want to carry on doing that. We don’t have a problem with that, and I was quite happy for TAPin to carry on and do that, but at the same time we wanted to make sure that they knew that if they wanted to make use of us they could do, and that’s what they are doing.

Ariadne; again complementary (or should that be complimentary :-). We obviously try also, as a by-product of what we are doing, to raise the awareness of the funded services in the UK, because we are trying to give people good networking skills and a lot of investment has gone into Bids, mailbase and the elib projects for example, so that we are just really another vehicle, but we aren’t the main vehicle, for publicising other services. If we could publicise Ariadne as well, that really kills a lot of birds with one stone.

Is time officially allocated within the Netskills team for keeping up to date with new technologies and the like, or does everyone just keep their “eyes and ears open” with regard to developments in the networking world?

Depends what it is; there is a certain amount of time allocated within the original project plan for keeping current and up to date. Brian and Donal are the ones that keep up with e.g. VRML, the Java side of things and so on, and they feed back on it to the group. What we’ve done in the past, and we’ve done it with Mailbase as well, is to have a demo morning or afternoon, where we’ve each said that we will demo to the rest of the group something that we’ve found, or something that is fairly old hat from the our point of view but for the new trainers is actually quite new. Things like moos and muds, webchat, vrml and java, worldchat, so that people knew what was going on.

Out of the more recent networking concepts, such as frames, java/mobile code, VRML, developments with HTML and so forth, which ones interest or excite you the most?

As far as Java itself is concerned, this is quite exciting. Maybe not Java itself, but mobile code is an interesting development, particulary from the training point of view of downloading interactive tutorials and running them locally. Our policy on Netscape extensions (to HTML), and also on draught versions of the HTML specification, is to keep a watching brief and to alert people to them, as well as alerting people to the problems of proprietary tags such as the Netscape extensions that are currently around.

Any thoughts on what happens to Netskills after the current funding runs out?

We have to look at Netskills as a three year project, which is what we are funded for. So in our business plan, and in our project plans, particulary towards the end of our second year, we need to be looking at how to generate income to become financially self-sustainable if necessary. There are various ways of doing this. We currently make our training materials free, for academic use; we may have to licence them and to charge a small amount of money to cover updates (in other words to cover staff effort to update the materials). Similary, our workshops; we cover direct costs but our staff costs are covered by the budget, so we may have to make a larger charge for workshops in order to cover staff time as well. So there are ways in which we could generate income. It will probably take a year or so before we can tell if there will be a continued market for network training; my gut feeling at present is that there will be; it is changing all the time, people need updating all the time. In addition, the population, or user community is expanding all of the time. In one way the network is becoming easier to use, so therefore there is a less of a need to train people. On the other hand there are other possibilities; for example, a year or so ago not many people wanted to author; now, a lot of people are wanting to put teaching and research materials out there. The network itself is becoming easier to use, but their expectations of what they should be able to do are rising.

A personal view is that this is something that will be required after the end of the project, but how it is funded needs to be sorted out. Depends as well on the current funding and political climates.

Do you think that the eLib programme, as it stands now and as it is moving forward, is fulfilling its role in realising some of the requirements that came out of the follett report?

I suspect that some of the projects really won’t get anywhere, but some of them will.

Some won’t get anywhere?

That seems to be part of the philosophy of it; until you fund what is effectively in some areas an experiment, you can’t tell whether it’s going to be successful or not, but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s been a waste of money in doing that. I certainly welcome the concerted effort in looking at the issues of copyright and charging for electronic journals and things like that. We are really ahead of other countries in areas such as information gateways; this, for example, was something championed by Nicky (Ferguson) and taken up by quite a few others with funding from Follett, and I think that that in itself is really going to be of benefit to a large part of the academic community. As Lorcan once said “What we currently have is a flea market, and what we need is a Department store”, and that is currently what eLib are doing; we had a sort of flea market on the network, with bits and pieces of information, some of it good, some of it bad, and people had to rummage around to find useful bits. What you wanted to do was to go in and say “right; third floor: SOSIG - here’s all the social science information, all neatly packaged, labelled and priced; second floor: humanities and history” and so on.