Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Subject Trees: The Exeter Experience

Ian Tilsed, Computing Development Officer at the University of Exeter Library, describes the building of the main University subject tree, or index, of Internet Resources.

The exceptional growth of the World Wide Web over the last few years has brought with it an additional and ever-expanding source of information to those with access to the Internet. Building upon the work of many gopher servers, the WWW has quickly become the popular medium for provision of information on the networks. The development of intra-nets within businesses is a testament to the accessibility of the WWW model. However, the proliferation of Internet resources, from topical sites to electronic journals, has posed a significant challenge to the information profession. Issues regarding the quality, accessibility and classification of Internet resources have all become legitimate discussion points for librarians and information scientists throughout the world and they will remain so for the foreseeable future. What follows is an account of one academic library's practical approach to Internet resources and the issues that were encountered when developing a set of library web pages.

The University of Exeter Library first began to develop its own web pages during late 1994. Under the guidance of a Library Web Working Group (chaired by the Education Faculty librarian and consisting of the Science Librarian, Systems Librarian and the Computing Development Officer), the core set of pages describing the library service were put in place and made available to the world. The various issues encountered during this time have been documented elsewhere but, briefly, the Computing Development Officer took on the role of Library Web Editor, checking pages and advising on HTML tagging and style.[1]

Having established the central library web pages, attention turned to the classification and accessibility of Internet resources. There was a desire to offer some sort of service to the University as a whole, providing guidance to available Internet resources in a manner that offered maximum accessibility. The structure of a topical 'listing' or 'subject tree' of Internet resources became the chosen approach, although this was by no means a new apparatus or technique. NISS and BUBL had long offered some sort of resources listing, the 'Virtual Library' was in existence and at least one UK academic library (University of York Library) had started creating web pages with the same purpose. Nor was the decision to develop a 'subject tree' without its critics, some believing that the existence of NISS and others made the venture a fruitless 're-invention of the wheel'. However, the resulting discussion did help to clarify the intentions and purpose of the 'subject tree', an informative exercise that strengthened its basis.

The Exeter Subject Tree was never conceived as a 'rival' to the more established resource listings. From the outset the subject tree has been designed and built with its target audience in mind - the staff and students of the University of Exeter. Only those subject areas that are appropriate to the teaching and research of the University are covered. The result is that some academic subjects do not appear, whilst other more unusual disciplines, such as Complementary Health Studies, are present. Additionally, it has never been intended that each subject listing should be comprehensive - the fast growth of the WWW, along with resourcing issues, prohibits the attainment of such a goal.

The job of searching the Internet for resources and creating and maintaining subject 'branches' is the responsibility of the relevant subject librarians. Whilst some libraries have specifically appointed network information specialists, in Exeter the task of keeping up with Internet resources is seen as an integral part of the subject librarian's role. This alone has had some training implications. Each subject librarian is not only responsible for finding the resources; they are also responsible for the actual creation of the HTML pages and their subsequent maintenance. To assist, a Subject Tree Style Guide has been developed and a template made available. In addition, all those involved with the tree receive training in HTML tagging. With such a diverse group of people it was inevitable that some colleagues would take to tagging more quickly than others. One of the tasks of the Library Web Editor therefore is to assist in the tagging of pages and to pass on relevant developments in HTML.

With the Subject Tree Style Guide offering only general comments on structure and presentation, the actual content of each subject listing varies. Some subject 'branches' (particularly in the social sciences) carry short evaluative descriptions of each resource, whilst others offer links with minimal commentary. Currently the resources are grouped according to theme or sub-discipline within each subject area, rather than by any classification scheme. There has been much discussion in the information profession about the merits of classifying Internet resources according to Library of Congress or Dewey, and this has been considered as a means of structuring the Exeter Subject Tree. However, at the present time, it is felt that the current system of listing, in accord with local academic requirements, offers better accessibility.

In some cases, the work on the Subject Tree has led to the development of separate web documents, thus contributing to Internet resources in general. Roy Davies, Science Librarian, initially had a section within one of his subject branches on finding e-mail addresses of individuals. The material for this section eventually became too extensive for the subject tree format, so a separate guide was developed, based on the material.[2] His document is now widely accessed from all over the world. My own Library and Related Resources Guide also started out as a section of the Subject Tree but quickly outgrew the format and is now a separate and frequently accessed resource. These are but two examples of many documents that started out as parts of the Exeter Subject Tree.

There is the inevitable resourcing issue, however. The current method of creating and maintaining the Subject Tree adds an additional task to the workload of those involved. Whilst a significant amount of time is spent creating the tree in the first place, there is still a considerable ongoing commitment to the maintenance of the resource, particularly in checking existing links and searching for new resources. With increasing term-time pressures on subject librarians, maintenance of the pages has, for many, not surprisingly become predominantly a vacation activity. Software to check hypertext links is now being investigated, but this offers only a partial reduction in the task of maintenance.

Reaction from around the University as a whole has been favourable. Many academic colleagues regularly use the Subject Tree pages as starting points for exploration of the WWW in classes and many assist in development by submitting URLs for investigation and possible inclusion. During the re-design of the University departmental home pages this summer, a link to the relevant subject 'branch' was included in each, further anchoring the position of the Exeter Subject Tree within University academic life. Additionally, access statistics have shown that the Exeter Subject Tree has also been widely accessed from beyond the University, with other sites carrying links to selected parts.

So what of the future? Alongside the ongoing commitment to maintaining and developing the pages of the Subject Tree, there is the intention to take aspects of the subject listings one step further. Building on the development of Networked Learner Support within the information profession, the Library Web Working Group is exploring the possibility of creating electronic teaching resources in conjunction with academic departments. The structure and nature of the Subject Tree will also be reviewed, to ensure its continuing contribution to the serving of information needs within the University and beyond.

[1] See M. Myhill et al, 'Keeping the Threads Together: use of the World-Wide Web at the University of Exeter Library' in Vine, 99, June 1995, pp.15-18.

[2] See Finding E-Mail Addresses of Individuals by Roy Davies.