Designing and Managing Information in the Fast Lane
First Monday
Designing and Managing Information in  the Fast

Lane

Internet users have come to expect that the Internet is the place to go for quick access to current information. Indeed, as a recent user of a Web site maintained at the UIC Library comments [1], anything but current information is a sign of mismanagement and irresponsibility on the part of the content provider. As this user asserts, the World Wide Web is the place to for quick access to current information and the print medium is better suited to older information. Perhaps this response is a reflection of the relative newness of the medium. Many users come to the Internet with naive expectations about the quality and extent of information on the Internet. They do not understand the often intricate and constantly shifting issues involved in digitizing information for the client/server-based Internet, nor do they think of electronic life span of digital information. As a librarian involved in a number of digital information projects, the question of how to digitize information for the long term (more than the next six months) is the starting point for any project. Obviously librarians working as Web site designers and information managers want their sites to be as aesthetically pleasing, useable, accurate and dynanmic as current technologies allow. But how do we balance the demands of the fast lane of rapidly changing and evolving client/server technologies and user expectations with the responsibility of long term information management and preservation? This paper will address practical steps toward balancing these questions by reflecting on a number of testbed projects at the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

Contents

Introduction
Chameleon Librarians
Developing Information for the Virtual User
Balancing Design, Content & Functionality
Conclusions
Notes

Introduction

Developing information retrieval systems is always a difficult balancing act between form and function. Today many of the assumptions about information users that have served creators of electronic content in more established formats such as CD-ROM and local access databases have been rendered obsolete by recently emerging technologies (particularly the World Wide Web), complicating this endeavor further. Not only is this a new environment we are now designing in, it is changing at a daunting pace making relative experts out of anyone with an understanding of and skilled in the latest innovations. In this environment, experts seem to be generated on-the-fly much like a lot of Web-based content.

Although there are numerous guides to authoring HTML and designing effective and useable Web sites, there are few resources available to help more experienced content providers of Web-based information systems to organize and manage their sites for the future. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to such professionals is to develop and maintain a holistic approach to managing information in the fast lane of the information superhighway. This paper puts forth some practical approaches to planning, developing and managing information for the long term in this dynamic environment, rich in both opportunities and potholes.

Chameleon Librarians

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) [2] has embarked, over the past several years under the auspices of the Great Cities Initiative, to explore numerous models [3] for addressing how to bring traditional library values and librarian expertise to the organization and management of information in this new and slippery environment. Some of these projects include the Chicago Public Library Web site (http://cpl.lib.uic.edu/), the Illinois Learning Web (http://www.uic.edu/~ tej/ilw/), the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (http://uicdocs.l ib.uic.edu/ccfr/), t he Illinois Department of Employment Security (http://uicdocs.l ib.uic.edu/ides/), Online, Incorporated's publications (gopher://online.lib. uic.edu/), the Apple Library Users Group (http://www.alug.apple. com/), and most notably the U. S. Department of State Internet services (consisting of a Gopher archive at gopher://gopher.state. gov/, Web sites at http://www.state.gov/, http://secretary.stat e.gov/, http://search.state.gov/ , an FTP site at ftp://ftp.state.gov/ and five LISTSERV distribution lists [4]. Each of these projects has been accompanied by a unique set of opportunities and challenges. However, they have all reinforced our roles as librarians in the digital age. Highlighting the expertise and values we bring these projects will clarify the assertions in this paper.

  • Many of these projects have required the technical expertise of systems librarians in advising on hardware and software programming decisions. Systems librarians have also served as server administrators, database managers, content developers, and technical support specialists.

  • Acquisitions roles are also relevant to the digital environment as library staff have adopted the roles of receiving data files via the Internet, validating the data for transmission errors, tracking and securing missing documents, reviewing files for completeness and accuracy and converting files from a number of proprietary formats for electronic access. This later responsibility has also led to expanded roles for librarians who find themselves in the position of developing access mechanisms via file conversion and interface design.

  • In addition to the technical side of library roles of designing and managing content for the Internet, library staff assume public services roles in the electronic environment. Librarians provide assistance to users with accessing and navigating an often bewildering information environment, provide technical assistance in understanding the broader context of the information landscape (mediacy) and provide reference desk services and specialized services to remote users from around the world who access the information from a multitude of platforms.

  • These public service roles also translate to collection development issues. Detailed log analysis and the high volume of email user feedback and reference inquiries provide much data for librarians to decide about new content areas to develop. Through our public service roles, librarians are in a unique position to understand user research and information needs, to determine what information is available and to look further by finding unpublished information sources, to identify and select content for local electronic publication, and to advocate to infomation providers to make new documents.

  • And finally, librarians are in a unique position to assume consulting and advocate roles. Through our active efforts to develop the content that users need, librarians serve as catalysts for the information explosion and advocates of free and equal access to information for all. This later advocacy role also translates to our historical role as advocates for preservation of information for future generations of users.

This brief anayisis of why and how librarians at the UIC Library have been involved in digital information projects establishes why we are in a unique position to balance the many forces impacting the evolution of digital information. The roles librarians have taken in these projects show how this new environment has challenged us by altering and often blurring the traditional library sciencedistinctions so we can perform these responsibilities. Librarians involved in these projects have needed to develop the ability to assume quickly and effectively any of these varied roles as a particular situation evolved. The key to the success of these partnerships is the staff's flexibility in responding to the changing needs of our users as well as our partners. What would have at one time been considered "public services" staff have become, in many instances, as technically skilled in Web server administration as our technical "systems librarians". Our systems librarians have in turn focused their skills on training and consulting with the public - roles not generally associated with traditional systems librarian position descriptions.

What do these changing roles reveal about the values and expertise librarians bring to designing and managing information in the fast lane? Although role distinctions are often blurred and hard to pin down from day to day, our common understanding of what librarians do is reaffirmed as we all become more flexable and proactive. Although our distinctive roles are being challenged by our current environment, they do show that our professional values are as, if not more, relevant as ever, and that librarians cannot hide behind static notions of their roles if they are to function well in the Internet environment. What are these values and how are they relevant in this new environment?

  • Easy, universal access for the broadest population possible
  • User-sensitive navigation tools
  • Context sensitive indexing and retrieval tools
  • Information preservation
  • Direct re-shaping of content in response to user needs
  • Training & empowering of users for self-sufficiency (mediacy)
  • Mentoring to help content providers to understand issues related to electronic information storage, retrieval and use.

Although these roles may look very different on the surface they are really just iterations of the skills librarians have been trained in and experienced with, within a new and shifting environment. This reinforces our traditional professional values and indicates the need to further take advantage of opportunities that challenge our day-to-day roles. In fact, our ability to confront the changing information landscape has made us leaders in helping our partners and our own staff begin to respond the technological challenges facing them and take advantage of these opportunities for their benefit. When you look at the matter from this perspective, managing bytes is really no different from managing molecules (print resources).

Developing Information for the Virtual User

Why are the experiences detailed here relevant to the broader, non-librarian information manager and content provider? These observations are important because just as the traditional internal library roles are merging and evolving, the relationship between librarians and the rest of the world are shifting - the entire communication and information paradigm is being transformed. As a result, new partnerships are developing between professionals in a wide variety of fields, including publishers, the entertainment industry, technology enterprises, utilities, service industries and government. Time will show that the most successful projects will be those that take advantage of this redefinition of information by bridging expertise to give users better access to more reliable information resources.

As more sophisticated means of tracking and measuring Internet site usage are emerging every day, electronic information content providers are in a position of better knowing who users are and what their information needs and habits are. Yet, this data isn't enough to manage a site effectively. These tools cannot determine user expectations and needs. They cannot reveal how electronic information is used.

What the data shows us is that there is no such species as the user of electronic information. We can assume nothing about our new virtual users and how they are accessing the digital systems we develop. A look at typical data available to Web site administrators through access log analysis tools reveals the diversity of users on the Internet. A look at the Web browsers accessing the U. S. Department of State Web site shows us how difficult it can be to address one of the most heavily discussed issues for content providers - how safe is it to author content that is specific to a particular browser of version of the HTML specifications?

During the month period of November 1996, 526,000 users accessed the U. S. State Department Web site. Of those users, the top five Web browsers in use were: Netscape Navigator (84%), Others [5] (11%), Mosaic (all versions - 2.6%), American Online Web browser (1.7%), and Microsoft Internet Explorer (.6%) [6].

Looking a little bit further at the Netscape Navigator browser usage reveals that the is also little that can be assumed about Netscape usage. A substantial percentage of users (30%) accessed the site with Navigator versions up to version 1.22, the majority (60%) accessed the site with versions between 2.0 and 2.10 (2.02) and only 10% used version 3.0. This demonstrates a huge discrepancy between browser capabilities available to users.

A related concern with many Web site administrators is how users find their sites. There is frequently discussion about the usage of HTML meta tags and the practice of "spamdexing" or index spamming [7]. This issue is complicated by the rapidly evolving information indexing and retrieval tools being made available to Internet users. The speed and depth of such search tools and indexes in truly impressive, yet, it is important to remember that most of these sites are not in the information retrieval business. Such sites are marketing tools and indexing standards are not as issue. Consequently, the use of tagging to improve retrieval can be a dubious endeavor. However, a look at from where users are connecting to a site can give designers an idea of what search tools and subject guides to pay close attention to if they are using HTML tagging to improve the accessibility of their sites.

Again, the U. S. Department of State logs for the month of November 1996 provide a good data set. Although hundreds referring sites were recorded for the total number of 526,000 site accesses, eight sites stood out [8]. Of these, the YAHOO! Guide (http://www.yahoo.com/) accounted for 50% of the connections. The AltaVista search engine (http://www.alta vista.digital.com/) accounted for a distant second at 17%.

Both examples of the data available to content providers brings us to the question of Who do we author for? Do we author for the lowest common denominator and thus ignore may newer technologies that can add quality or content to our sites or do we use more advanced technologies that might that may not be as ubiquitous and thus cut off users?

Balancing Design, Content & Functionality

Obviously, balancing design, content and functionality is an issue that needs to be evaluated with each specific resource's mission and characteristics in mind. There is no easy formula for balancing these often conflicting issues. However, the UIC digital library projects, that form the basis of this discussion, provide useful guidelines of issues to consider before designing a site. Decisions to make include:

  • Multiplicity & redundancy: Should data be provided in ascii, html, sgml, pdf, or dynamic (via Perl scripts, Java or and SSI server side-includes) formats or should data be provided in multiple formats?

  • Interface design options: What does the use of high-end, dynamic, frames based or graphical interfaces bring to the content of the site? Would the site be better suited to a low-end interface given the mission?

  • Accessibility & searchability of information: How do the selected data formats and interface decisions impact the accessibility and searchabilty of the content?

  • Naming conventions and site structure: Will priority in designing the structure of the site and the file naming conventions be given to easy manageability for content providers or easy access for users? For instance, should file be named according to an coded scheme or using obvious names?

  • Standards & uniformity: Will a uniform design be enforced though out the site or will various types of information be presented differently? Will update dates and statements of responsibility and authorship consistently provide a content for the information presented?

  • Archiving methods: Will older data be archived or simply removed from the site? If older data is archived, how will it be managed long term without holding back the further development of the site and how will it be distinguished from current data and thus not mislead users erroneously?

  • The role of feedback and user expectations: Given the ease of receiving user feedback, how will user responses be evaluated and acted upon? Given the ability to respond to a single user's needs, how will the ability to be responsive to users be balanced while preventing a groundswell of input driving the development of the site.

  • The implementation of new technologies: How will new technologies be evaluated and implemented in a site? Will old files be converted, removed or left as is thus offering users differing types of access to information on the same site?

In addressing all of these issues, the central reference point needs to be a well-defined mission and appropriate guidelines for fulfilling that mission. Taking the time to develop and record a mission and guidelines will not only help consider these issues, it will also provide a reference point for new challenges as they develop.

Conclusion

The Internet, and the World Wide Web in particular, are presenting the an unprecedented opportunity to make information available to users free of many of the constraints (or benchmarks) of the print world. Although this is a time of incredible opportunity, ignoring the many challenges to making information available in the digital world can lead to unexpected complications for Web site developers. Keeping some of the few simple principles described here in mind can help temper this threat. Most importantly, developers need to be consistent and be sure to provide a context for their information. They need to sit back and not be consumed by the rapidly changing environment and the accompanying hype and evaluate trends in the context of what they are striving to achieve. They must never forget the user and what we understand about what information users want and how they can gain easiest access to your resources. By working together, librarians, publishers, and information creators can guarantee that viable and useful resources are developed with the user as the focal point.

The Author

Thomas E. Jevec is Electronic Services Librarian & Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Universit y Library. He has managed Gopher and Web sites at since 1995, taught Internet courses to other librarians since 1994 and been an avid user of the Internet, computers and multimedia since 1992. His academic Web site is at http://www.uic.edu/~tej/ and his consulting site is at http://www.jevec.com/

Electronic mail: tej@uic.edu or tom@jevec.com.

Notes

1. Anonymous user comment regarding Gopher archiving of dated material:

"...some of the info is VERY old...That may be good enough when you are talking about printing ...like in the old days, but the Web is supposed to be easier than that. Please try to have documents updated on a regular, rapid basis, not seven or eight months late. Any customer who looks up info and is misled because your database is out of date... Now, I know ALL the arguments why that list is not current, but I don't buy it, not in the computer age."

2. Based on the presentation "Putting Content onto the Internet" delivered on 16 October 1996 for the LITA/LAMA conference, Pittsburgh, Pa.

3. N. R. John, 1996. "Putting Content onto the Internet," f i ® s T - m o ñ d @ ¥, Volume 1, number 2 (August), at http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/477/398

4. Information is available for these lists at http://ww w.state.gov/www/listserv s.html

5. The "Others" category is compromised of 112 distinct Web browsers not represented in the top four browsers accessing the site.

6. Other common browser usage was as follows: Lynx (.8%), Netcruiser (.8%), IBM Web Explorer (.6%), Harvest (.5%), and Prodigy Web browser (.5%).

7. See K. Murphy, 1996. "Cheaters never win: marketers reveal sneaky ways to grab top search results," WebWeek, Volume 2, number 6 (May 20), at http://www.webweek. com/96May20/undercon/cheaters.html, and S. Silberman, 1997. "Net mom battles 'spamdexing' by sex site," Wired News, (February 11), at http:// www.wired.com/news/story /1978.html

8. The appearance of the Daily Bikini site (http://www.th edaily.com/bikini.html) was a surprise. However, further investigation revealed that the U. S. State Department Diplomatic Reception Rooms Site (http://www.s tate.gov/about/diprooms/ ) was profiled as a site of the day during the period analyzed.


Copyright © 1997, First Monday

Designing and Managing Information in the Fast Lane by Thomas E. Jevec.
First Monday, Volume 2, Number 8 - 4 August 1997
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/545/466





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