The Library Web Site in 1999: A Virtual Trip to the Library

Monica Brinkley
Dublin City University Library
Brinkley Information Services

Paper presented at Internet Librarian/Libtech International '99
Olympia, London
March 29th 1999


Increasingly the face of the library most familiar to customers is the library’s web site including the ability to access library services via the Internet. The library web site can no longer merely serve as a marketing tool or library guide, nor simply as a gateway to Internet based resources. It is the virtual gateway to all of the library’s services, providing the user with knowledge of and guides to services, as well as the ability to link directly to those services. This presentation discusses the implications and challenges for library webmasters, the current requirements for web sites and some tips on seamlessly combining the mix of information and services



Last updated by Monica Brinkley


The aim of this paper is to examine how best to develop our library web sites into the future. Perhaps a more correct name for the paper might have been The Library Web Site in the Year 2000. However there is much cynicism about attempts to reach all goals by the arbitrary date of the year 2000. Every plan for the future that has been devised during the last five if not ten years have been aiming towards 2000. Given that this conference deals with the Internet where things change so quickly that there is no way one can predict how things will be a year from now, who would dare to guess where library web sites will be by the year 2000? In this paper, some issues will be raised which should influence how library web sites develop during the coming year, so that we are well equipped to integrate whatever new developments await us on the turn of the millennium.

In order to understand the current state of affairs, this presentation will begin by examining the history and development of library web sites up to their current state and status today, based on a study of library web sites in the UK and Ireland (LibWeb). Many of you will know this history well, indeed given how short a timespan is involved most of us here played an active part in it. However, tracking the development of our web sites and how they reached the stage of development they are now at, will enable us to stand back and hopefully gain a better understanding of where we should be going from here. Having thus set the context, the presentation will continue by looking at where and why there is room for improvement in library web sites, and how this improvement might best be achieved.


Library Web Sites Yesterday

Only five years ago Julie Still published a book, which presented a number of case studies of innovative Internet management and use by libraries at that time (Still 1994). This book now provides an interesting historical perspective on where libraries were in terms of the Internet at that time. In 1993 and early 1994, the cutting edge of library involvement with the Internet, as described by the various contributors to this book, consisted of the provision of Gopher or ftp based services to their users. The sort of services being developed comprised, for example, electronic short loan collections and other digitised collections. Copyright regulations greatly restricted the extent to which these sort of services could be developed at that time. The majority comprised material that was unpublished and thus unaffected by copyright, or involved pilot projects carried out in conjunction with publishers and offering a very restricted amount of material to a restricted audience for a restricted amount of time. Another service being developed by libraries then were gateways to databases and other resources available on the Internet at that time. Through a Gopher service, or simply a printed guide, libraries provided their users with telnet links to library catalogues around the world and to databases such as the Carl Database, now operating as UnCover. Perhaps the main role that libraries took on at that time was to provide training in the use of the burgeoning Internet. It should be noted however, that as recently as 1993 or 1994, the libraries taking an active role in the provision of Internet services were still in a minority.

The biggest barrier to libraries wishing to provide some sort of Internet service was a lack of technical expertise within the library community. Despite the development of roles such as systems librarian following the introduction of automated library systems, there was, and still is to some extent, a fear amongst many librarians of all things technical. At the time of Still’s book, the World Wide Web was still in its infancy and tellingly receives only brief mention. The Web however, provided a much easier method of both using the Internet and developing an Internet presence, than gopher or ftp had before that. The Web very quickly became the medium of choice for the provision of Internet services. The subsequent availability of Web authoring packages has meant that even the least technically minded librarian can now produce a web site. This has led to an explosion in the number of library web sites and to librarians taking a major role in introducing their users to the Internet and guiding their use of it. It is a rare academic library that does not have a web site in 1999, and public libraries are fast joining their academic cousins onto the Web.

Early library web sites tended to take a very similar format. General information about library services were provided such as opening hours, regulations, lending entitlements, staff lists etc. Very often lists of links were put together by subject librarians to Web and other Internet resources they felt to be of relevance to their users. This was perhaps seen as the most important function – providing some sort of guide through what was quickly becoming the maze of the WWW. The library web site of 1995 tended to be an electronic version of the printed Library Guide, with the added feature of providing a directory to free Internet resources.

The possibilities offered by the Web were recognised very early. It was obvious that the Web could be the perfect medium to provide undergraduate students with access to short loan collections, or to provide special needs users or distant learners with access to reading materials and information from their homes. The literature is full of reports of research projects and pilot projects that showed just how easy it would be to provide a truly virtual library service. However, copyright restrictions, mentioned earlier, and publishers’ hesitance continued to greatly hamper the realisation of the potential offered by the Web. Publishers were slow to allow their material to appear on the Web, or to introduce Internet services themselves. Electronic commerce had yet to begin to flourish and without safe and trusted commercial technologies publishers were understandably reluctant to offer a service when it was uncertain whether or how money could be exchanged. They must also have been worried, however, by the new direct competitor they were facing as information providers, that is the Internet.


Library Web Sites Today

The provision of general information relating to library services and guides to the Internet and Internet resources continues to be a major function of library web sites today. In more recent times, however, libraries have begun to expand these functions and develop other uses for their web sites.

In times of declining library budgets, the maintenance of a high profile has become essential to the library. It has become necessary for the library to promote their services both to their prospective users, but also to the paymasters who allocate budgets. The web site has come to be seen as the perfect medium to promote and publicise the services being offered by the library. To this end, graphic designers are often contracted to ‘design’ the library web site and the ‘home-made’ web site is fast becoming a thing of the past. Increasingly, library web sites have a professional graphic sheen to them, which is often to their detriment, not least in terms of download times. The plain text and simple graphics of library web sites of yore have been replaced by graphic-laden and technically clever web sites, which look great, but often take the focus away from the content.

While there is a very valid role for graphic designers in the design of web pages, librarians must take care not to lose confidence in their own knowledge of how information should be organised when faced with a graphic designer in full flow. It is worth remembering that librarians are the experts in the management and organisation of information for ease of access, what is needed from graphic designers is an overall ‘look and feel’ that fits around the librarian’s design of content and navigation. Also worth emphasising again and again is the fact that there are still a great many people dialling in to the Internet from their homes over the slower bandwidth of a telephone line. Indeed, many in academic institutions face even slower download times at busy times of day. For these users a graphic laden site is one not to be visited again unless absolutely necessary. It is possible to use the web site as a valuable promotional tool without going overboard on the graphics, by having excellent content and easy navigation. It is these features that will bring users back again and again. There are many examples of organisations who have succeeded in promoting themselves very well through their web sites without falling prey to these problems, e.g.

Another factor affecting the content of library web sites in 1999, is the huge explosion in the number and quality of both free and commercial information resources and services now available via the Web. The vast amount of information of varying quality that is now freely available on the Internet has led librarians to get involved in projects such as the eLib gateway projects (EEVL, SOSIG and so on), providing subject gateways to quality information resources. In fact, some libraries are going a step further and providing local gateways or discovery tools of specific relevance to their own users. For example, the ROUTES project in the Open University builds on the eLib gateways to provide access to resources of specific relevance to the courses it provides (O’Sullivan 1998).

For a long time, libraries’ and users’ demands for publishers to provide information via the Internet were ignored while the publishers tried to establish how to protect their profit margins while utilising this new resource. Despite the quality of a lot of the information that was being published on the Web, academics and researchers still felt that they would not gain as much recognition by publishing on the Web as they get from traditional publications. This fear would undoubtedly have been overcome eventually, because of the decided advantages offered by the Web, in terms of speed of spreading research findings in comparison with the traditional publishing cycle and the increased audience offered by the Internet. With the development of technologies that facilitate electronic commerce however, such as secure servers and the ability to restrict access by domain, publishers have been able to develop strategies to provide services via the Web, without threatening their income. With traditional publishers now offering Web based services, authors to some extent have the advantages of the Web (though the publishing cycle is still slow in many disciplines) while at the same time receiving the recognition associated with having their work accepted for publication by publishers of high academic reputation. More importantly for the library, the sort of services that librarians could only dream of just a couple of years ago are now becoming a reality. The potential to develop true virtual libraries and to deliver information straight to the desktop or home of the user is finally becoming possible.

More and more of the library’s subscription services are providing some Internet angle to their services. Many publishers and suppliers are adding a Web aspect to existing services, for example many journal publishers now offer their subscribers free access to electronic versions of print journals. Other information providers now offer Web access as an extra delivery option alongside CD-ROM or online services (e.g. EI Village, ISI Web of Science etc.). New suppliers have come on the scene who provide Web services unlike any traditional service. For example, Northern Light and UnCover provide free access to abstracts and indexes of traditional journal literature and then offer the full text of the articles identified for purchase on a per item basis.

It is worth noting here that these services are aimed directly at the end–user. They attempt to by-pass the intermediaries of library or bookshop and deliver information straight to the user’s desktop, precisely when they require it. This could be viewed as a great advance in the satisfaction of our users’ needs, or as a threat to the library as an organisation, depending on how librarians deal with it. The library can exercise its traditional role of evaluation and selection on these information resources, and subscribe to those services it considers to be worthwhile and value for money. Through the web site users can now get access to commercial sites ‘recommended’ (and usually paid for) by the library. In this way we continue to serve our users’ needs by providing a ‘buffer’ to or quality check on the Internet. The role of the library web site as a discovery tool for Internet resources has therefore taken on a new slant, by providing a gateway to commercial Internet services subscribed to by the library on behalf of its users, as well as to free Internet resources. As well as this, librarians have a valuable role to play as negotiators of good prices for these services, in particular when negotiating as a consortium, and as guardians of copyright on behalf of the publishers and service providers.

With the gradual addition of these services, the library web site has developed to where it is today. The four main functions that library web sites serve today are:

Providing a flattering view of the library as an excellent service well worth investing in. Aimed at prospective users, but also paymasters and funding bodies.

Providing core information about the library to its users – ranging from information on opening hours to how to apply for an Inter-Library Loan.

These range from introductions to the Internet, to help on specific products available in the Library, to in-depth guides to doing research.

Providing links both to free Internet based resources and to resources the library subscribes to on behalf of its users.

It appears from a study of library web sites in the UK and Ireland, that many library webmasters see one or maybe two of these functions as being their primary focus, with seemingly little agreement as to which of these functions is the most important. In many cases, the other functions are simply add-ons or omitted altogether.

Library Web Sites Tomorrow

While library web sites are relatively new in the grand scheme of things, they have developed rapidly over the last few years in terms of the functions discussed. However, library web sites have yet to reach a state of maturity or to realise their full potential as an information resource. The remainder of this presentation aims to look at how the functions and services discussed earlier can be integrated seamlessly together in the library web site. Again, looking at library web sites in the UK and Ireland, it seems to be the case that few libraries have managed to truly integrate these functions to provide as seamless and coherent a service in their ‘virtual’ libraries as they do in their physical libraries. It is by doing this, by truly considering the web site to be a virtual version of the library that the library web site can reach its full potential. No doubt there will be cynicism at the idea of the web site as a virtual representation of the full library service. However, your very attendance here today shows that you believe in the growing importance of our web sites. There are many reasons for this growing importance, and some of these will be discussed now, in order to illustrate why our web sites need to change.

Let us consider first of all the age old question: what exactly is the role of the library? It is broadly acknowledged that one of the main functions of a library is to provide its users with access to information that will meet their needs and to facilitate that access through some method of organising that information, such as classification schemes, and through guides and training. While the library serves many other functions, it is these that are our focus today, as it is in the fulfillment of these functions that our web sites may come into their own. Various factors are affecting the ease with which the library can fulfill these aims in traditional ways and making it necessary to reconsider the library’s approach to their fulfillment.

Factors Necessitating Change

Changing World of Information

The Internet has become a very important source of information, and as such must be included in the resources that libraries provide access to. Libraries must select and evaluate Internet-based information resources, whether free or subscription based, as they do traditional sources of information. That access must then be facilitated as much as possible, through some form of organisation, through guides and through training. All of this can be, and in many cases is, successfully achieved through the library web site, or through the provision of links to gateways such as the aforementioned eLib projects. Our traditional role has been to hold the user’s hand while they wade through the world of information resources – that role is more important than ever in the unruly realm of Internet information. As experts in the management of information, we must make the library web site the place on the Internet to find easy access to quality information. Our users must be able to feel confident that by visiting their library’s web site they will quickly find what they need with the guarantee that whatever information they find via the library will be credible, authoritative and current. With respect to Internet based information, libraries have for the most part been successful in providing access to quality information on the Internet. But what about other sources of information? During a recent discussion about Subject Gateways held on the Library Link bulletin board, one partaker remarked that users need to be told "what is best on the net" but also need to be reminded that "the best is still not on the net" (Library Link 1999).

User preconceptions of the service they expect from us greatly influence their subsequent satisfaction with that service. From quite early days, the library took on the role of informing and training users in the use of this great new information resource – the World Wide Web. Very often, however once the library had pointed the way to the Internet and provided some training in its use as a source of information, the user saw no further role for the library. This is a perception that is fast changing. Young users, for example undergraduates, who have known about the Internet all of their adult lives, consider it in the same way as any other information source. These users bring no preconceptions from the past of what a library service is or what an information resource is. However, we, the librarians, are still making a distinction. Many of the library web sites visited in researching this paper, make a clear distinction between information services, and Internet information services. Users must wonder why the library treats Internet information so differently to the other information resources it makes available. Library Catalogues rarely include records for information available through Internet or other electronic services, though this is rapidly changing. A good example of a library that has catalogued Internet sites and included links to them in their Web OPAC is Southampton Institute Library, On the other hand, library web pages tend to emphasise electronic information resources to the detriment of information about traditional resources. We must ask ourselves the question - why are we making this distinction and is it a valid one? As with other technologies, while the new user often starts off thinking that this is a great new resource, he or she rapidly begins to see the unrealised potential and to have heightened expectations of that resource. A frequent question must be – why, when can I get direct access to Internet services from my desktop, can I only find out about the library’s other services? Why can’t I access all of the library’s services straight from my desktop?


Changing Nature of Library Users

This question takes on an even greater significance when we look at the changing nature of library users. In the academic world there is an increasing emphasis on new modes of learning. Increasingly academic libraries are faced with users who are studying on a part-time basis, or by distance learning from their homes or via smaller regional colleges. All of these users have equal rights to access our services, and to expect the library to provide a service suited to their non-traditional needs. Public libraries too are coping with life-long learners, but also with special needs users, who are increasingly demanding that their rights to services be given equal consideration as the rights of their able-bodied counterparts. The power of the Internet and its particular suitability to information seekers such as these has raised the expectations of these users. Again the question is asked – why can’t I use the Internet to access all these library services you tell me about from my home or work at a time that suits me? They can’t be sure that it is possible, but they strongly suspect it might be. While the library fails to provide them with the information they need, when and where they need it, services like the aforementioned Northern Light or Uncover have the potential to replace the library as information providers. Why would a user travel 50 or 100 miles to a university library when the literature needed can possibly be purchased from Northern Light, for example, at a cost of between $1 and $4 per article? Indeed that barely exceeds the cost of the photocopier when the user reaches the library and certainly for a remote or special needs user is far less than the cost in terms of time and difficulties of travelling to the library.

The changing nature of information itself and the resources our users need access to and the changing nature of our users have made it increasingly difficult for the library to fulfill its aims in traditional ways. It may be the library web site that offers the solution to these issues. It is agreed that one of the library’s main functions is to provide access to information resources of all kinds and to facilitate that access. Is this not exactly what library web sites are trying to do? The library’s web site may be the perfect medium with which to fulfill this primary function of the library in the changing information world. As discussed earlier, Web sites today already serve the functions of promoting the library, providing information about library services, a guide to information services and a gateway to information resources. These functions must be integrated fully on library web sites for all services regardless of format, location or subject area. As much as possible the user must be provided with access to services when and where they want it, and that access must be facilitated through organisation, guides and training. Of course at the present time at least, this won’t be possible in all cases, for all formats or all locations, there is a great deal that can be done.

It may be useful here to summarise what it is the library is striving for:

How can this be achieved?

As has been discussed previously, most libraries have succeeded very well in providing excellent gateways to free Internet-based information, and are now providing access to subscription-based Internet services. A common approach is to divide access to services based on the type of information service involved. That is to provide separate menus to services based on whether they are free or subscription-based, or based on the format they are available in. For example, many web sites provide a page of links to telnet sites, a different page giving information about available CD-ROMs, and yet another page of links to Web sites. There is nothing wrong with providing access in this way, because at times our users may wish to access information by the format it appears in, but we must acknowledge that this is the most unlikely way a user approaches an information need. This mode of access should be an alternative route to the information rather than the primary route. A more useful way to provide users with access to known-items is however illustrated on the University of Liverpool Library web site,, which provides a drop down menu of direct links to its most popular services.

The truth of the matter is that the user doesn’t really care whether the library has paid for something or not, nor what format information comes in, so long as they can get easy access to the information they need. We must consider how a user approaches an information need. The most likely scenario is that a user comes to the library or the library web site thinking "I need information about the subject X or Y". This has been recognised by libraries since online catalogues were first introduced. The earliest studies of user responses to OPACs showed that even searches that began as known item searches often became subject searches, with the known item serving as an access point to the required subject area (the work of Micheline Hancock-Beaulieu provides much evidence of this). The majority of users approach the catalogue looking for the library’s holdings on a specific subject. Many libraries seem to have lost sight of this to some extent when it came to designing web sites. It must be acknowledged of course that a web site providing subject access is probably the most difficult web site to design and requires considerable thought and planning. Rather than simply listing the resources the library offers access to, each resource must be considered in terms of its suitability to various subject areas. Undoubtedly some duplication of links will arise, given that many resources are of use in more than one subject area. This is meaningful duplication however, and reflects the very nature of the ‘web’. This point arose during the Library Link discussion mentioned previously. It was suggested that "online subject gateways to all the resources which a library/information centre has access to … are the solution to providing comprehensive access for patrons" (Library Link 1999). There are many libraries that have very successfully designed their web sites around a subject tree.

Some good examples of this are:

A library’s desire to emphasise that some of the services they are offering cost money is very understandable, in particular considering that one of the functions of the web site is often to promote the library to those who control funding. It is important in any case that it be clear to users accessing the service from outside of the organisation that a service is for the use of the library’s registered users only. External users will then know why they cannot follow a link, and, if they are in fact registered users of the library trying to gain access from outside the organisation’s domain, they can discuss with the library the possibility of obtaining a username and password. Making it clear which services are for registered users only serves the dual purpose of highlighting the brilliant service the library is providing to its users (and that this costs money) and letting users from outside the library know why they cannot follow a link. It is easy to do this in a subtle manner, without designing the structure of our web sites with this aim in mind. For example, Waterford Institute of Technology simply mark each subscribed database with WIT only, see If we really wish to drive the point home, this text can easily be linked to a brief explanation that the library has paid for this resource and under the terms of the subscription must restrict access to it.

Library web sites to date have tended to provide excellent access to Internet-based information, to the neglect of more traditional resources. If library web sites are to fully serve the function of providing access to information and to meet the heightened expectations of our users, information must be included on all resources not just those that are Internet-based. Subject trees must include information on all of the resources that are available to users regardless of format: books, journals, databases, web sites etc. Of course there is no point in duplicating the library’s catalogue, however, the web site can successfully enhance and facilitate use of the catalogue.


To provide access to books, each ‘branch’ of the subject tree should provide links to the library’s catalogue and give information on keywords and classification numbers relevant to this subject area. Users should be told where in the library they will find material of relevance to this subject. Links should be provided to online books in the subject areas where relevant.


Journals subscribed to by the library for the subject area should be listed, regardless of their format. Of course, links should be provided to any that are available electronically, whether free or as part of a subscription. If one of the library’s databases contains the full text of some of these journals, then a direct link to each specific title should be provided from the list of journals.

Bibliographic Tools

Information should be provided about bibliographic tools relevant for the subject, again regardless of the status or format of those tools. Links should be provided to any that are in electronic format. Users situated within the library should be able to access networked CD-ROMs directly from the web site. The technology to do so is now widely available from several suppliers. ERL server technology provides an alternative means of linking users straight to full text and bibliographic databases from our web sites. Many of the bibliographic tools and databases we subscribe to are now web-based, e.g. the databases available through BIDS, and obviously links to these should be available from the relevant subject pages. A distinction between delivery methods should not be made on a subject page – the user looking for information on a subject does not really care how this information is delivered, only that they can gain access to it as easily as possible. Caswell makes the point that "From the 1970s through the early 1990s libraries had to operate under the concept of "for this resource, go to this machine and use this access mechanism; for that resource, go to that machine and use that access mechanism." As a matter of practicality they have frequently identified such resources by the service from which they are available, e.g. FirstSearch or DIALOG. All of this has tended to emphasize the access mechanism or the service at the expense of the resource. By comparison, the Web allows the library to push many of these issues into the background and to put the focus on the resource" (Caswell 1997). Another point worth making here is that users do not necessarily know what Firstsearch, or UMI Proquest, or EI Village are. Many library web sites provide links to these and other services without any hint as to what they are and why a user might want to use them. By embedding these links in subject pages, a user at least knows that a resource is of some use to this subject area, if not to the current particular need. Ideally it should be clear what the service is and in what circumstances it might be useful.

By designing web pages in the way described, easy, integrated, subject based access is provided to all of the information resources available to users. The traditional way of providing access by format is not without its uses and can therefore usefully be provided in parallel to the subject tree. In developing a subject tree in this manner, the aims of providing access to information and an integrated service have been fulfilled. To some extent by developing a subject tree access to that information had also been facilitated. However, there is more that can be done in this regard. It cannot be presumed that users understand the jargon that we use. The terms journals, databases, even web pages do not necessarily mean very much to a first year undergraduate student for example. It is part of the library’s function to facilitate access to information by helping users to understand the literature of their chosen subject field and to teach them how to extract the information they need from it. The library web site is the perfect medium for doing just this, by publishing guides or help pages for all of the services we provide. As Caswell puts it, "above all, the World Wide Web has made it possible to build an integrated user interface to electronic resources, which combines descriptive and computer-based training materials with access to a carefully chosen set of bibliographic, full-text, and Internet resources" (Caswell 1997).

Many libraries already include excellent help facilities on their web sites, e.g. University College Cork Library at However, to ensure that users access these help facilities, they should be embedded and integrated into the web site. Few users will sit down and read through all of the library’s guides and help pages on the web, or even on paper, before commencing to use the library’s services. They need to be able to access relevant help when and where they need it. What this means is that at any point in using the library’s web site a user should be able to access context-sensitive help when they run into difficulties or come across something they don’t understand. While this sounds like a major undertaking, in fact it is not. There are several excellent examples of help being provided in a way that does not disturb the advanced user but reassures the new user that help is always available.

For example, in the subject tree at Glasgow University Library at, buttons linking to further information or help are scattered throughout a subject page, without detracting from its major content. Buttons or one word links can be placed unobtrusively throughout the website, linking in the relevant places to guides to journal literature, how to search a database, how to search the OPAC, introduction to the Internet etc. University of Leeds Library does so most successfully, see

There is no limit to the amount of help users can be provided with. As before, access to this help can also be provided through an integrated menu linking to these same guides and help pages for the user who does prefer to read about the library’s services before accessing them.


Many library web sites have developed in an incremental fashion as new technologies and services became available and as new functions were identified that our web sites could serve. This paper has attempted to show that the time has come to take a step back from this incremental growth and to consider what it is we hope to achieve through our web sites. In doing this, the great potential that lies in those web sites and how they can help libraries to continue to offer excellent information services to users in the changing world of information becomes obvious.



Library Web Sites


Last updated by Monica Brinkley