Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Mailbase: Unique Electronic Discussion List Service for UK Higher Education Tops 100,000 Users

Morna Findlay and Elaine Blair report on the passing of a milestone for UK academia's premier Mailing List resource.

The National Mailbase Service has this month welcomed its 100,000th user!

Mailbase is a national service which provides electronic discussion lists community and information sharing facilities for the UK higher education and research. It is based in the Computing Service at the University of Newcastle. Uniquely in the world of Higher Education, Mailbase was founded especially for communities who are relatively new to using the Internet and offers a high level of user support. For example, the friendly Mailbase Helpline staff deal with 2,500 queries per month. (email them at mailbase-helpline@mailbase.ac.uk)

Phil Satchell, Project Officer at the Open University's Office for Students with Disabilities, was this month the 100,000th person to join a Mailbase electronic discussion list. Phil's Office provides support to students who need to use technology in order to be able to study. Phil joined the Mailbase list dis-forum@mailbase.ac.uk saying

"It is very important that I stay abreast of developments in my field. One of the best ways of doing this is by sharing information with colleagues across the country (and across the world). Dis-forum provides an environment both for obtaining good advice and for contributing something to problems facing other people. There are few formal opportunities to share such specialised information and Mailbase is invaluable: when you're faced with new problems, there's always someone who has solved it before!"

Mailbase was set up by Jill Foster (Mailbase Director) in 1989. The intention was to provide a facility to enable easy communication between groups of UK higher education and research staff. The service has grown rapidly from 55 lists and 1,700 members in October 1990 1,400 lists and 100,000 members in October 1996. The service now receives a three year rolling grant from the UK Higher Education funding bodies.

Joining the Mailbase community couldn't be simpler: all you need is an email address and a networked computer. As most academics already know, email is spontaneous, quick, low tech and is delivered to you in your normal working environment. Whereas email is essentially one-to one Mailbase facilitates group communication: the email medium takes on the feel of a Common Room.

Mailbase discussion lists cover topics as diverse as: low-cost sewerage, 18th Century culture, library acquisitions, mycobacterial diseases, organic chemistry, editing newsletters and forensic linguistics.

Each list is managed by one or more list owners, who deal with mail problems and member queries. To assist list owners, Mailbase holds regular workshops in Newcastle. We are interested in running mobile workshops for list owners. Please contact the Mailbase Helpline, if you think that you could offer us facilities at your site.

Mailbase is a working tool for UK academics, researchers and associated support staff. It allows daily collaboration regardless of geographical distance, with the result that list members can do real work with people they might otherwise never have met. In his review of Mailbase for issue 3 of ARIADNE, Terry Hanson concluded that it is "hard to imagine academic life without it". Mailbase can be used for making (or answering) enquiries, distributing research material and data, holding electronic meetings and much more.

Unlike Web-based resources that require users to visit the various sites, information via Mailbase is delivered to your personal mailbox. Nevertheless, in 1994 Mailbase created one of the first Web-based services in the country, providing searching facilities, extensive documentation and "hypermailed" message archives. All open lists and list archives are available on the Web, so you can browse and search for lists and resources that are relevant to your subject area. Mailbase can also be used as a limited directory service to find names and email addresses. The use of hypermail means that all URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) that are included in email messages to Mailbase lists become live links when the messages are archived.

The Mailbase staff believe that email and discussion lists will survive and complement the Web, just as electronic media complement the telephone and postal services. With this in mind, the team is now beginning to look other interactive methods of collaboration, such as video conferencing via the Internet.

Mailbase have a set of Web pages at: http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/.