Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The SURF Foundation

Jaqueline Pieters describes the evolution of the SURF Foundation, a major IT co-ordination service for the Dutch academic sector.


The SURF Foundation was established in 1987 to co-ordinate the implementation of a multi-year plan for the improvement of the application of information technology (IT) in Dutch universities, schools for higher vocational education and research institutes.

In the course of its activities SURF has become a nationwide supplier of services. These services are primarily provided through its operating subsidiaries: SURFnet bv and SURFdiensten bv. SURFnet manages the computer network of the same name. SURFdiensten deals with licensing agreements in the fields of software, hardware and information services. During the past few years, intensified co-operation with Pica (Centre for Library Automation) and the Royal Library has substantially broadened the provision of information services on the network.

Scientific Information Supply

Today, information technology is integrated in research in all fields of science. For most of the applications a basic infrastructure is sufficient. There is one area where higher education and research are confronted by enormous challenges: the supply of scientific information. In recent years, the main effect of IT in the supply of information has been one of substitution: existing functions were carried out more efficiently. This applied to online catalogues which replaced card indices and microfiches, but it also applied to data storage on CD-ROM, to optical character recognition and electronic document transmission via e-mail, file transfer and fax. Publishers and libraries were very keen to use these tools as they are easily integrated into existing processes. Their advantages are indisputable and easily measured.

Business process redesign

It is quite a different matter when it comes to the transformation effect of IT. This involves significant changes to the organisation of information supply, known as business process redesign. In principle, digitisation makes all traditional information carriers superfluous. This not only goes for paper, but also for photographs and film, audio and video tapes. All kinds of information can be converted into bytes enabling it to be combined with multimedia - or should we say unimedia' - documents.

Secondly, such digital information is independent of time and place thanks to the worldwide infrastructure which extends to the workplace. Researchers need no longer leave their desks to search for and consult the literature.

The information supply chain

This transformation has had a different impact on each of the five parties that can be distinguished in the present information supply chain: Author, Publisher, Intermediary, Library, Researcher/Student.

The advantages for scientists in their role as researchers and authors are self-evident: not only do they have faster access to vast amounts of information which, in addition, is available in much 'richer' formats, but their own publications also benefit from these innovations. Digitised information can lead to an identity crisis in scientific libraries. Traditionally, libraries derive their right to existence from their own collection, but shortly end-users will be able to get their information from America just as easily as from their local institutional library. This also weakens the university's position.

In addition, publishers and national centres are increasingly assuming those tasks which were performed by libraries (title descriptions and subject retrieval). On the other hand, owing to the abundance of information, end-users will require intensive support. The libraries will be able to provide such support.

Not only scientific, but vast economic interests are involved in the availability of information selected on quality and relevance. This is clearly demonstrated by the turnover and profit figures of the large scientific publishers like Elsevier Science. The high cost of their publications are mainly due to the fact that publishing is a peoples business and therefore expensive. IT will not essentially alter this, even when paper is substituted by bytes on a large scale.

Surf foundation logo In their turn, publishers are entering into partnerships with media corporations while software companies are starting to offer information services. As yet it is unclear where these developments are heading, but no doubt the market mechanism will be playing an increasingly significant role in the information supply chain.

The situation in the Netherlands

In 1991, in the first Dutch trend report on information technology of the Scientific Technical Board of SURF the writers warned Dutch university libraries that they would become the "book museums of the 21st century" if they did not respond effectively to the opportunities and threats of IT.

Now, four years later, a great deal has been achieved. Libraries and computer centres are co-operating much more closely within the institutions so that requesting and retrieving literature at the workplace has become quite normal. Moreover, Pica offers virtually transparent access to the collections of all scientific libraries. In this way, the purchasing of books and subscriptions can be coordinated. The SURF Foundation and SURFdiensten are working on transparent and affordable access to the databases of third parties. After library data, full text material is also becoming more readily available electronically, so that the ideal of complete documentation at the workplace is gradually becoming reality.

All this combines to give shape to a virtual Netherlands Scientific Library. In 1993, at the same time when in UK an investigation was undertaken into how to deal with the pressures on library resources caused by the world-wide explosion in academic knowledge and information which resulted in the "Follett" report, a steering committee on this subject was founded in The Netherlands, first as an autonomous Committee, later as a committee of the SURF Foundation.

The Stuurgroep Innovatie Wetenschappelijke Informatievoorziening [Steering Committee for Innovation in Scientific Information Provision] (IWI), which is elected from board members of the universities, the Royal Library, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Royal Scientific Academy, has presented last year a number of innovative proposals in its 1996-1998 Planning Report which will contribute to this. The present facilities appear to fulfil a distinct need of the users, as the rapid increase in SURFnet traffic is mainly due to searching on-line catalogues, databases and information servers.

The Stuurgroep IWI aims at the stimulation of the innovation of the supply of scientific information. This stimulation effects:

WI Planning Report 1996-1998

In November 1995 the multi-year plan of IWI came out. The plan presents a number of innovative projects in different fields. The budget of IWI is 4 million a year: 2 million of the Ministry of Science and Education and 2 million of the participants

National projects

Support projects

Institutional projects

From September 1st 1996 six national projects, three support projects and seventeen institutional projects will be executed.