Web Magazine for Information Professionals

How to Grow Gossamer and Keep It Untangled

George Munroe describes the experiences in establishing a large institutional web site.

Note: The Web Pages for the Queen's Webmasters Guild can be found at http://boris.qub.ac.uk/webmasters/


This is a personal view of the events at the Queen's University of Belfast which have lead to the present mobilisation of all 'units' in contributing to the information service. The experiences described are of interest to any web site where a large number of people are involved. The 'gossamer' refers to a collection of flimsy webs, fragile because of their once uncertain life span on 'renegade' servers. The 'untanglement' refers to a co-operative environment in which everyone can contribute freely, with no knots of dispute holding up progress. The story extends over the past three years. It covers the first attempts to have World Wide Web, the 'web', supported at Queen's (The early days); how a group of server managers, the 'webmasters', took a lead in co-ordinating development across campus (The webmasters group); how the University officially recognised the importance of the web (Official moves); the coming together of all appropriate parties in a web initiative (Real progress); and the first tangible result of that initiative (Project Silverlining). I close with a brief backward glance at what I regard as important lessons we've learned and with a forward look to the ongoing challenge at Queen's.

The early days

In October 1993 Jill Foster (Mailbase and Netskills, UK) introduced me to George Brett (then of CNIDR, US) in the foyer of the Europejski Hotel in Warsaw, at the registration desk of the 93 Network Services conference. George sat us down, pulled his Apple notebook out and, with his usual enthusiastic "Have you seen this?", gave an impromptu demo of the first beta Mac Mosaic web browser, adding an entertaining touch by opening a 'kookaburra' call from the excellent Australian National University site, holding his notebook to our ears to ensure we didn't miss a note. This was a memorable landmark in my work with World Wide Web. The realisation that this software would now be freely available to every networked PC and Mac worldwide, started to 'boggle' the mind.

I went home with little doubt as to how to make my own presentation at the conference available to all those who hadn't been as fortunate as I to attend -- yes, my first bash at HTML. I needed a server to put the files on. I used an ordinary Unix workstation with anonymous ftp enabled and quoted the URLs with 'ftp://...' -- enough to publish documents while I tried to persuade Computer Centre management to put more resource into the web. However this was still a relatively unproved system and many thought it was another fad which would soon pass. But my own embarrassment, at not having a proper web server, grew to the point that I ditched a lot of development work from my Unix box to make room for the NCSA httpd software. And in the early Spring of 1994, the University had its own web home page, running from a 68030, 8 Mb RAM, 140 Mb hard disc workstation, which was also acting as the University Gopher server, ftp server, and test popmail server -- those were the days!

Meanwhile other servers had started to appear on campus, independent of the Computer Centre. Tom Looney had forged ahead in the Institute of Computer Based Learning and other sites were starting to regard this server's top page as the University home page. It was important to 'catch' other local servers before we ended up with anarchy. So the concept of a very simple home page on one server pointing to other University unit home pages on different servers was born. This was discussed over regular Friday morning coffee breaks with others in the University who were interested in improving any or all aspects of information services. My very basic server was nominated as the 'front door' to the campus web and stalwarts of the new age, such as Mark Handley from UCL, who maintained an invaluable list of pointers to home pages at a national level, were informed that Belfast was 'on the map'.

At this time, Spring 1994, the University had decided to fund a number of projects to demonstrate and encourage use of our new SuperJanet link. I was in a position to advise those drawing up proposals and... with a web based Geosciences electronic journal project led by Brian Whalley (and now sponsored by John Wiley Publishers) and an Orthopaedic Surgery image database on the web led by George Kernohan (now part of a large EC project), we eventually managed to secure a brand new web server with oodles of RAM and disc (relatively speaking).

The new server was named 'boris' after the spider in an old 'Who' number, and boris soon started picking up hits as several other mini- projects were given some web space. The value of small projects, many of which were managed by students, should not be underestimated. Shane Murnion's ARC/INFO tutorial, Michael McGrath's GAA pages, Ben Aldred's markup of Computer Science lectures, Ed Smyth's collection of pointers to scientific resources, and Tony Bowden's local entertainment guide, to mention but a few, all became 'popular' at home and abroad. And when a friend brings back a tee shirt from holiday with a URL on it referring to one of your machines, or the BBC asks the University for an interview because some of your pages were mentioned in the Washington Post, then you know these guys are doing pretty good PR work for you!

The Webmasters group

At the end of May 1994, myself and a colleague from the School of Psychology, Gavin Bell, attended the first international World Wide Web conference at Geneva -- the 'woodstock' of the net, as I dubbed it later (and Brian Kelly hasn't let me forget since). We reinforced friendships, some of which had only been 'virtual', and made lots of new friends. We picked up some more mini-projects for boris, such as Gavin's SIGWEB (special interest group on the web) or Mark Pesce's (see Time Magazine, 11 November 1996) initial VRML pages. As we sped back across Europe on the TGV we speculated on the theoretical maximum bandwidth of fibre optic, and whether it would be enough! We knew the web was going to get bigger.

We decided to try and connect the web activists across campus through more than a haphazard coffee morning. Gavin's youthful enthusiasm was an inspiration. We put together a presumptuous web page, linked from the Queen's home page, describing the 'web team' at Queen's. This had the desired effect of attracting others who wanted to be associated with any concerted web effort. Within a few months we had an informal email discussion list going and a proposal for a formal face to face meeting. This took place in November 1994. Ten attended. A mission statement was agreed, a list of areas of development which should be addressed, and a schedule of formal monthly meetings for the coming year.

This webmasters group grew steadily in numbers and in the conviction that the group was doing something that undoubtedly needed done. The mission statement was (and still is) "to assist in the co-ordination and development of an evolving on-line information service at Queen's by facilitating the co-operation of server managers and the controlled introduction of emerging technologies". The aim was to guide policy, not make it. Notes were taken at meetings and published on the webmasters' pages. Representatives from the Library and the Information Office were invited. Efforts were made to alert University management to the existence of the group and the importance of 'officially' developing a University web service. However, and more important, the webmasters group was not just a 'talking shop'. Members believed that the University would 'catch on' to the web soon and that until then they were obliged to lead the way. So, for example, John Pelan collated recommendations for server configurations, Stephen Trew worked on guidelines for information providers, Stephen Fitzpatrick spent weekends building an indexer program, Allan Lee and Gareth Keane made time to build a flexible web based email directory, John Knowles researched ways to add metainformation to web pages -- all with the support of the whole group.

By 1995 the Computer Centre had commissioned a new central web server, to replace mine as the home page bearer. An individual from another group was asked to take charge of this. My own small group, Information Services Group or ISG, (just four of us now) had responsibilities which involved a lot of 'firefighting' in other areas, but I made time to coach my staff about the web. They were the kind of conscripts any general would envy! Soon they were building Computer Centre pages on 'boris' and trying to involve staff from other groups. I openly presented ISG as the bond between a central computing service and the webmasters, endeavouring to make that liaison part of the work of the Computer Centre. At the end of 1995 one of the team, Christine Cahoon, took over as the webmasters convenor; Majella McCarron has become the web systems expert within the new Computing Services; and George Dunn is leading the organisation of administrative information at the top levels of the new web structure. After 18 months and a change in Computer Centre management, former 'clandestine activities' are now openly recognised as important work which should be lead from a central service.

Official moves

In the Autumn of 1995 the University formed a World Wide Web steering group. This was not well publicised and infrequent meetings were not reported publicly. This was frustrating to the webmasters group. The chairman of the steering group, was, and is, a tireless champion for the web. However he was not aware of the webmasters perception of being 'left out'. Assumed channels of communication were not working and an uncomfortable period of tension between the steering group and webmasters ensued. The storm broke when the steering group published a set of regulations for the use of the web at Queen's. The webmasters prepared a letter to the chair of the steering group, expressing their views on the matter. It was some time before dialogue began... but begin it did, with one phone call, and once it did new friendships were firmly established. A revised set of guidelines, bringing all viewpoints into play, was prepared. Where there is a common goal and little self interest, minds will come together.

In January 1996, the Secretary of Academic Council at Queen's established a 'high powered' editorial board for the University. The purpose was not primarily to exert editorial control over electronic publication, but to actively promote the use of computer mediated communication, as realised with an upsurge in new electronic mail accounts, and, mostly, the web. This editorial board subsumed the earlier role of the web steering group and boasted a membership which included senior managers and vice chancellors of the University. Meetings were few but communication was good. Informal briefing meetings took place between individual members of the board and webmasters. There was openness, a will to learn about the technology, and on all sides a commitment to build, and build well. Within months the editorial board had agreed that the webmasters group should be represented on the board.

Real progress

With the knowledge that the University was now fully behind efforts to develop the web and with growing encouragement from (the newly renamed) Computing Services management, my own group organised a special meeting in April of this year.

We took the opportunity of a visit from Dave Hartland (Netskills), who was over giving courses in Northern Ireland, to call together all senior individuals with an interest in training and the network. The attendance was excellent. Many views were expressed about how to demonstrate the web's potential and persuade people to invest some time and effort in it. The conclusion was that the University needed to train staff at three levels: first everyone should be encouraged and enabled to read the web through basic use of a browser; secondly a group of core information providers should be identified and trained to 'author' material and be able to advise and encourage others to do so in an acceptable manner; thirdly a small number of individuals should have advanced authoring expertise to compile 'high profile' web pages. Of these three, the second was most important. It was agreed that a training programme would be organised, a University initiative. A Pro Vice Chancellor would authorise all necessary measures. The first step was a briefing for all directors, to affirm the commitment to the web as clear University policy.

The briefing took place. The webmasters group was formally recognised and the Vice Chancellor fully endorsed the proposed programme of web 'proselytisation'. It was explained to every director that their unit would be expected to provide information via the web, that a core provider for the unit should co-ordinate this, and that the director, as head of unit, was ultimately responsible for all the web pages connected with the unit. The director of Computing Services confirmed the commitment of central resource to the co-ordination and support of a revitalised information service.

Project Silverlining

My group discussed and planned the content, trainers, format, timetabling of a 'training programme' for core providers. We involved webmasters, Library, Computing Services training unit, Institute of Computer Based Learning (ICBL), and a few other relevant individuals. Finally it was set. Six weeks of training courses over August and September, five half day modules, each module delivered 12 times. Estimated audience was up to 150 nominated core information providers or 'cips'. All of my team were involved in the training, plus two from Computing Services, two from the Library, one from ICBL, two others from the webmasters group, and the director of an academic school. This was a combined effort. The format of all modules was three teaching sessions interspersed with two practical sessions and a coffee break. The sessions were informal and relaxed, encouraging questions and comments. The aim was to teach concepts and working procedures whilst building a tier of support reaching all the way through the University and consisting of this larger team of core providers.

The implementation would not have been possible without the active leadership of a Pro Vice Chancellor. During June letters were sent to all unit heads asking them to nominate a core information provider and to register that person on the training programme. A follow up letter was sent in July and an open version published in the University's newsletter. The person nominated was expected to "have knowledge of the structure and operation of your unit, have reasonable organisational abilities, and be experienced in wordprocessing and general computing and network use". And it was made clear that "this person will be key in how your unit is presented to the rest of the University (and the world)".

We set up a new server for use on the courses, and as the prototype for a new central server which would replace the current central web server. We created a directory structure for University units which matched the existing management structure of the University.

August came and went; around 120 core providers attended the five modules. They learnt about HTML, HTTP, URLs, authoring, conversion tools, good wordprocessing, CGI, Java -- and lots in between. We told them what was possible and what wasn't. They got involved in talk and debate about the best ways forward. Most were enthused. A few may have been a little 'bewildered'. They all learnt that they had a part to play and that they would be listened to. As an initiation process the training programme was a success. There was an overwhelming consensus that the modules gave the core providers new knowledge, useful in their work. The greatest result was the formation of a body of core providers, on the ground, working together and now with a voice listened to by senior management. Throughout the courses we noted issues that were being raised, and have taken these to the editorial board. Already funding has been approved for a new central server which will 'quietly' replace the small server which we set up for the courses as the new repository of all unit home pages. Every unit at Queen's will have a URL which identifies their pages as a path on the new central server. The changeover to the new central server system is planned for January 1, 1997. All unit home pages, started during the practical sessions of the training programme, will be ready before that!

As a first follow-on step to the training programme, we established an electronic discussion list as the main communication channel, for the core providers to talk to each other, and with webmasters and Computing Services. We also produced a sixth workbook, supplementing those from the five modules. This contains reference material, such as: summaries of the recommended 'format' of home pages; how to use the central graphics library to maintain a consistent look and feel across different unit pages; useful bookmarks for HTML reference; the Queen's recommended metatags. Monthly face to face forums or 'clinics' have also been organised. The first took place on November 6, with over 60 core providers attending. The meeting included useful discussion on refining unit templates (proposed during the training programme). The director of Computing Services and our Pro Vice Chancellor were present to listen to comments and answer questions.

The name 'Silverlining' -- the venture has been about revising and revamping, not starting again from scratch. We've built on work done by many in the past and added the quality trimmings.

Closing remarks

At the time of writing this University has a battalion of willing and able core information providers, drawn from every University unit, led by Computing Services, supported by webmasters, and all fully endorsed by senior management.

I am confident that we have laid a solid foundation for ever improving information exchange within and without Queen's. The experience to date suggests that the web is driving a rationalisation of information resulting in an integration of systems that could only have been dreamt about a few years ago. With the continued support and encouragement from our site 'champions' this will undoubtedly continue. The gossamer's intact, the tangles are taken care of, we're on our way -- at last!

People are important. Involve all those who have something to contribute. Win their respect. Don't expect to be able to dictate. Work with the enthusiasts. Listen. Build partnerships. Channel the energy. Some up front support from the top works wonders. Think about and plan your underlying web structure so that you do use an order that fits with other systems so that the web can be used to 'efficiently' and very 'effectively' tie all your information together.