Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Milestone for Mailbase: Ten Years Value-Added Service to UK Higher Education

Elaine Blair discusses Mailbase services ten years on.

The Millenium will also mark the tenth anniversary of the Mailbase Service which is the premier provider of mailing lists for the UK HE community. Mailbase began in 1989 as a pilot project to help and encourage non-technical staff to use computer networks. It now provides the best current "push" communication technology (email messages) combined with an up-to-date and continually up-dated interface to services such as searching, archiving and owner interaction/control via the Web. The first Mailing lists were set up in early 1990. Mailbase now has over 2,300 lists and 165,000 members worldwide with members at every UK HEI.

While Mailbase staff provide the core service, they are helped in the day-to-day administration and management of a list by volunteer list owners. There are over 2,000 of them providing much of the ‘front line’ support. They are responsible for publicity, queries, dealing with failed mail and stimulating discussion. In this article, one such list owner reflects on her experiences in running the physio list.

Mailing Lists

The first group of lists on Mailbase was for librarians and they and other information professionals continue to be enthusiastic users of the service. There are now over 100 library lists on Mailbase, which range from general news and discussion (lis-link), to specialist lists for user education (lis-infoskills) and inter-library loans (lis-ill). As Mailbase has developed, its lists now cover a wide range of academic and support areas such as radio-studies, mining-history, web-support and teaching-on-line. Case studies of how three particular communities (eye-pathology, allstat and history-child-family) use Mailbase can be found at: http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/docs/case-studies.html

More than just mailing lists

Mailbase is, however, more than a simple list hosting service. It offers value-added features such as the Helpline, support for list owners, training sessions and training materials.

Mailbase relies on volunteer effort from list owners, who frequently form the first point of contact for users. Support effort is therefore concentrated on list owners to help them administer their lists. Regular workshops are held in Newcastle and London and all new list owners are offered additional help with their list. This 'handholding' could involve a member of the Mailbase team co-owning a list until the new owner is confident enough to go it alone. There is a specific list for Mailbase list owners, which is used by the Mailbase team to convey important messages. Peer support is available through the owner-talk list, which list owners can use to discuss Mailbase and list ownership.

The Helpline staff deal with around 800 e-mail queries per month such as requests for help with using Mailbase, queries from list owners about list management and notification of e-mail address changes.

Training is also available to groups of users and Mailbase has recently offered ‘regional’ promotional seminars in Yorkshire, North West England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Midlands. Training materials which can be used by local trainers or as self-study material are available at: http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/docs/support.html These include presentations and quizzes for users and list owners and practical exercises in using Mailbase.

Web service

The Mailbase Web service began in 1994 and hypermailed archives were piloted on the library lists in 1995. Hypermail is a program which converts e-mail messages into web pages and URLs in these messages into live links. Searchable hypermailed archives of list messages are now available for all public lists. Each public list on Mailbase has its own standard home page with links to message archives, files, joining and leaving details etc. List owners can upload files such as conference proceedings and reports, for members to retrieve by e-mail or from the web. By adding a collection of html files to a list, the list owner can in effect provide a mini web-site for members.

To assist list owners, Mailbase has recently developed a web interface (http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/admin) for list administration. This interface enables list owners to, for example, add and remove members and files. Owners of closed lists can choose to have password protected web pages for their lists.

The Mailbase Web also provides extensive documentation on Mailbase and related items such as dealing with junk mail, copyright issues and guidelines on using lists.

From the Front Line - Heather Upfield writes:


For the past 5 years, I have been listowner of Physio, a Mailbase list for physiotherapists, which was created in 1993. [1]Throughout its existence, physiotherapists have supported the list energetically, and it is regarded throughout the profession as a quality list and plays a major role in physiotherapy education worldwide.

As the focus within physiotherapy (along with medicine and other healthcare sciences) is directed totally at patient care - whether in undergraduate and postgraduate courses, research, or out in clinical sites - at all levels, improvements in healthcare are the primary concern. The dynamic of the list blends the academics' need for the input of the clinicians (who have access to the patient population, and can advise the academics on which areas are requiring research), and the clinicians' need for the expertise of the academics, who are bringing improvements in patient care to the front line, with an immediacy not possible in traditional paper methods. The inclusive nature of the list, supporting as it does the breadth of cultural experience, and different geographical locations of PHYSIO's list members, brings unique interpretations of Physiotherapy theory and practice to inform both teaching and research

List Owners’ Workshops

Twice a year, Mailbase runs Listowner Workshops at Newcastle, to inform new and potential listowners on how to run a list, using presentations and hands-on sessions. These informative workshops are a prime source of support for listowners and give them the opportunity to learn firsthand from the Mailbase team and to discuss listowner issues and problems with them and other listowners. The workshops ensure that all listowners have regard for the quality of the lists that they run.

Management of a list can be a permanent source of anxiety for many listowners (even the very experienced!) - How many messages will I get? How much time will it take? What do I do with arcane failed-mail messages? Most listowners are not 'techies', but academics, who are fitting in listowner responsibilities around a busy working schedule.

On several occasions, as a [supposedly!] experienced list-owner, I have been invited to give a session on 'How to get a list going' at these workshops, and I have enjoyed meeting other list-owners, from very different disciplines, and being able to share list management hints. There is always something to learn, and these workshops provide an ideal link between Mailbase and Client.


The Mailbase User Group meets with the Mailbase team at Newcastle, two or three times a year, to discuss issues about Mailbase from the point of view of the users of the service, both listowners and members. As an MBUG member since 1994, I have been privileged to have been a party to the growth and development of Mailbase, from behind the scenes. I have watched staff come and go, the birth of Netskills, the development of the WWW interface, the increasing value-added Mailbase support role and, with some admiration, have seen a very small and dedicated team develop Mailbase over the years, into the service it is today.

Further information

If Heather has inspired you to start a list or if you’d like to know more about Mailbase, then check out the Web site at: http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/ where you'll find all the information you need. Or else contact the Mailbase team at mailbase-helpline@mailbase.ac.uk, or write to:

University Computing Service
University of Newcastle


[1] Upfield, H and Salter, P,(1998). Physiotherapy in the Global Village: 5 years of PHYSIO, Physiotherapy, 84, (12), 592-597

Author Details

E. Blair,
University of Newcastle

H. Upfield,
(list owner 'PHYSIO')
Dept of Physiotherapy
Queen Margaret University College
Email: h.upfield@shore.qmced.ac.uk

J. Whitaker
(Chairman of the Mailbase Users Group)
IT Support Manager
Academic Office
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT
Email: j.s.m.whitaker@bham.ac.uk