Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Public Libraries: Managing the Virtual Branch

Sarah Ormes reports on the recent Public Libraries Web Managers Workshop held in the University of Bath.

The Public Library Web Managers workshop is a relatively new event for UKOLN. Held for the first time in 1999 [1] it aims to provide an annual opportunity for public library web managers to share their expertise, learn from each other's experiences and keep abreast of the latest Web technology developments. The emphasis of the event is always on the practical aspects of developing and managing a public library web site.

'Managing the Virtual Branch' built on the success of the previous year's workshop. In response to feedback from last year's workshop, Managing the Virtual Branch was longer, had more speakers, included hands-on training sessions and had a social programme for the evenings. Once again the workshop was held at the University of Bath in October.

Managing the Virtual Branch was attended by 39 delegates who came from all over the UK. Most of the delegates were from local authorities and either were already developing a public library Web site or would be taking this role on in the near future.

The Talks

A brief summary of all the presentations is given below. All the speakers' slides are available from the workshop's Web site [2] along with their e-mail addresses, biographies and links to further information. Readers of this article are encouraged to use the resources available on this site as this article only provides a brief summary of each presentation.

As part of my role as UKOLN's Public Library Networking Focus I gave the opening presentation for the workshop [3]. The presentation was entitled The Public Library Web Site 2003: The Virtual Branch and gave an overview of the sort of services public libraries could be providing via their Web sites in three years time. It emphasised that the public library Web site may become the preferred access point to the library service for many users.

Paul Miller (UKOLN) then gave a presentation about the UK Government's Web Guidelines [4]. These guidelines were published last year and provide guidance on the development of government web sites. They give advice on the management, design and content of public service web sites and so had great relevance for public library Web managers.

The rest of the opening afternoon's programme looked at case studies of actual public library Web sites. Three librarians from different authorities talked about the development of their own Web sites and the online services they are currently providing.

Joanna Clark (Essex) talked about Euroguide, a gateway to European information on the Internet developed by Essex Libraries [5]. This freely available gateway is based on the ROADS software and aims to guide members of the public through the maze of information provided online by the European Union. By linking to Euroguide all public libraries have a cost effective alternative to creating their own collection of links to EU information.

Helen Wood (Hillingdon) explored in her case study how her authority has used its web site to promote literature [6]. The Hillingdon library Web site gives readers the opportunity to review books online, look at their covers and find out about reading promotions in the library.

In the final case study, Don Yuile (Shropshire) talked about how he developed a WAP version of the Shropshire library site [7]. WAP is the protocol used to make Web pages accessible over mobile phones. He talked through the issues he encountered in developing the WAP version of the site, the free online tools he used and how he is going to develop the site further.

Don Yuile's presentation closed the first day of the workshop. Delegates had just enough time to check into their on campus accommodation before reassembling for the evening's entertainment. When the workshop was planned in the summer a bus tour of the city of Bath seemed like a fun way to spend the first evening. What wasn't expected was that on a cold, wet and dark October evening the bus company would send an open top bus! The workshop delegates were soon divided into the hardy and bedraggled (who were going to sit on the top deck irrespective of the weather) and the sensible and dry (who retreated to the relative warmth and comfort of the lower deck). A reception at the city's Municipal Art Gallery followed the bus tour and the large glasses of red wine helped people to warm up!

The second day of the workshop was opened by Andy Powell (UKOLN) whose presentation was entitled 'Making Your Site More Dynamic' [8]. His presentation gave a clear guide to Java, JavaScript and the use of Perl. He also explained how Web forms work and the scripting needed. He also briefly touched on personalised Web sites and the kind of programming they require.

Justine Kitchen (RDN) then explored the best ways to manage large collection of links [9]. In her presentation The Public Library as a Gateway to the Internet she explained how many internet users are simply overwhelmed by the amount of resources available and find focused link gateways extremely useful. She discussed how libraries could provide such gateways without them becoming difficult to manage and maintain.

Design issues were covered in a paper by David Egan and Joanne Widdows (National Library for the Blind) [10]. Their presentation, Accessibility and Your Web Site explained why accessible design is important and what its key elements are. To drive their point home they used speech reading software to access a number of Web sites - those web sites which hadn't used accessible design were painfully obvious. Over lunch delegates were able to access their own sites using the speech reader and quickly found out their own accessibility design flaws.

The final presentation on day two was given by Adrian Tribe (Birbeck, University of London) [11]. In his paper Data Protection and Your Web Site he outlined how data protection laws apply to web sites. He surveyed UK public library Web sites and found that 71% are not complying to the current Data Protection Act. He demonstrated very effectively why data protection is so important and how public library web managers can develop their web sites without contravening the act.

Parallel Sessions

Four parallel sessions were held on the afternoon of the second day of the workshop. The point of these sessions was to provide delegates with the opportunity to learn some practical skills and/or be able to explore in discussion groups pertinent issues in more detail.

The topics for the four sessions were

The Stylesheets session was led by Manjula Patel (UKOLN). It took a "hands-on" approach to learning about the basics of style sheets. Participants learnt why style sheets are useful in both designing and maintaining Web sites. They created their own HTML documents with styles incorporated in several different ways and validated their own style sheets using an online validation tool. They also explored the current state of the art in style sheet activity, its benefits and drawbacks. All the learning materials created for this session are available online [12].

The Online Magazine session was led by Marieke Napier (UKOLN). This workshop provided an overview of the process of setting up and implementing an online magazine. It covered the key areas of thinking through what you want, technology and resources, design, content, publicity and promotion and finally evaluation and auditing. Other common issues such as access, electronic format, editing and delivery were also considered. The development process was illustrated by brief case studies of magazines that have addressed some of these issues. A few of the prominent electronic journals in the library/networking communities were assessed and considered to see if they work well or not. The workshop involved lots of hands-on tasks and group work. All the learning materials created for the session are available online [13].

The Career Development of a Web Officer was led by Peter Griffiths (Home Office). It examined the skills required for Web work, and asked which are appropriate for public library Webmasters and Web staff. It covered employers' current requirements in Web work, and examined what the specialist recruitment agencies consider to be the core skills. Notes from the session are available online [14].

The Auditing and Evaluating Web sites was led by Brian Kelly (UKOLN). In this hands-on session participants tried out a range of tools which can be used to evaluate and audit Web sites. The session made use of tools which can evaluate both individual pages and entire Web sites. The session concluded with a group discussion which formulated recommendations for further work, both by the delegates themselves within their own organisation and by national or regional bodies. Again notes and resources from the session are available online [15].

Once again the delegates were only allowed a few hours rest before that evening's social programme kicked in. The workshop dinner was held that night in a converted train station in the centre of Bath. Although the meal didn't finish until gone 10 pm some delegates were still spotted heading off to the pub instead of back to bed!

The final day of the workshop consisted of four presentations in the morning. Marieke Napier (UKOLN) kicked off with a presentation entitled Publicising Your Web Site with Search Engines [16]. Her presentation explored how to get your Web site listed in search engines most effectively. She explained how metadata can help improve your site's listings in search engines and the kind of problems which may be preventing your site from being listed.

Pete Cliff (UKOLN) then outlined the importance of good Web site infrastructure for the long term development of a web site in his presentation Behind the Scenes - a Guide to Web Site Infrastructure [17]. He provided key tips on how to design a web site from the beginning for growth and longevity. He explored why a database driven web site may be the best approach for very large web sites.

Martin Belcher (ILRT) opened the final session of the workshop with his presentation Commissioning a Web Site. This presentation focused on how to commission a web site from an external agency [18]. He explained that the key to a successful relationship with an outside agency was in having an effective design spec. He gave examples of good and bad specs and outlined the crucial elements which should always be included. He emphasised that if you draw up a bad spec you're very unlikely to get the Web site you wanted.

Due to popular demand, Brian Kelly gave the closing presentation [19]. Ever the pragmatist Brian's presentation was titled Externally hosted Web services and focused on a range of Web services which can be used for little or no cost and which require minimal technical support. He argued that public library web managers simply may not have the resources available to set up and develop complicated interactive services. He highlighted how some interactive services (such as online votes) are provided for free online and can be easily integrated in public library web sites. However, he also pointed out that using such services means giving up a degree of control and having to hope that the service remains reliable and free!


'This was perfect, it covered all the key elements I wanted covered'.

'This was one of the best courses I've attended. Content was excellent'.

'Ideal coverage for my current needs'.

The above comments have been taken from the feedback forms for the workshop. Admittedly the workshop was very intensive with an awful lot of new ideas and information being presented in a short space of time. However, the delegates seemed to thrive on this information barrage and debate was always lively both in the sessions and in the coffee breaks and evening events. For many public library web officers maintaining the library web site is a rather solitary experience. Often the web site is seen as the responsibility of one person only and so they seldom have the opportunity to bounce ideas off other people or share experiences. One of the most pleasing outcomes of the workshop was the sense of community it developed among the delegates as they relished the opportunity to share ideas, expertise and plans for the futures of their web sites.


I would like to give thanks to every one who was involved with the planning and running of the workshop. Special thanks must go to all the speakers who obviously spent so much time and effort putting together such excellent presentations. Finally special thanks must go to Joy Fraser and Birgit Kongialis, UKOLN's events organising team, who made sure everyone knew what they were doing, where they were staying and when they should be there!


  1. Running a Public Library Web Site - 1999 workshop Web sites
  2. Managing the Virtual Branch - 2000 workshop web site
  3. The Public Library Web Site 2003. Presentation by Sarah Ormes
  4. Government Web Guidelines. Presentation by Paul Miller
  5. Euroguide. Presentation by Joanna Clark
  6. Promoting Books Online. Presentation by Helen Wood
  7. Developing a WAP enabled Site. Presentation by Don Yuile
  8. Making Your Site More Dynamic. Presentation by Andy Powell
  9. The Public Library as a Gateway to the Internet. Presentation by Justine Kitchen
  10. Accessibility and Your Web Site. Presentation by David Egan and Joanne Widdows
  11. Data Protection and Your Web Site. Presentation by Adrian Tribe
  12. Hands On Guide to Working with Stylesheets. Facilitated by Manjula Patel
  13. Developing an Online Magazine. Facilitated by Marieke Napier
  14. The Career Development of a Web Officer. Facilitated by Peter Griffiths
  15. Auditing and Evaluating Web Sites. Facilitated by Brian Kelly
  16. Publicising Your Web Site with Search Engines. Presentation by Marieke Napier
  17. Behind the Scenes - a Guide to Web Site Infrastructure. Presentation by Pete Cliff
  18. Commissioning a Web Site. Presentation by Martin Belcher
  19. Externally Hosted Web Services. Presentation by Brian Kelly

Author Details

Sarah Ormes
Public Libraries Focus