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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 002-131-E
Division Number: II
Professional Group: Government Libraries
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 131
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Intranets: a UK government libraries perspective

Stephen Latham
Foreign & Commonwealth Office
London, UK
E-mail: slatham@lrdln.mail.fco.gov.uk

[Views expressed in this paper are personal views of the author and do not represent official views of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or the Committee of Departmental Librarians.]


There are 3 main strands of Intranet development of relevance to UK government Library and Information Services: Intranets in individual government departments and agencies; the Librarians' Community of Interest on the Government Secure Intranet (GSI) ; and the proposed development of the GSI virtual library. These Intranet related developments provide an opportunity to build on existing arrangements for co-operation, sharing of best practice, and the development of more efficient and effective library and information services across UK government. The government Library and Information community is playing an important role in exploiting Intranet technology to support a programme of modernisation and joined-up government.



UK government departments and agencies are served by a well established network of Library and Information Services (LISs). Each department manages its own LIS focusing on the subject area and information needs of the parent department, but there is extensive co-operation between LISs in areas such as job opportunities, career development, training and co-operative procurement. With the rapid expansion on the Internet in the mid-1990s, the Web became an important source of information for government LISs, but management of government Web sites has tended to fall mainly to press and publicity sections, which are responsible for presenting and explaining government policy to the public. In recent years government departments have begun applying Web browsing and related technology to internal networks to form departmental Intranets. In many cases the LIS has become the natural home for management and co-ordination of these Intranets, which have been developed as tools for internal communication and information management.

A second strand of Intranet development has been the Government Secure Intranet (GSI), a private network based on Internet protocols, linking government departments. The development of the GSI has been co-ordinated centrally by the Cabinet Office with a view to providing secure E-mail within government, establishing shared information resources, and supporting a more coherent and "joined up" approach to policy making and service delivery across government. As part of the GSI project, a community of interest site has been established for government librarians and information managers. This contains a range of information and services of relevance to the government libraries community, and aims to support co-operation and sharing of best practice between government LISs.

A third strand of Intranet development is a proposal to develop a virtual government library on the GSI. Individual LISs provide access, often on their departmental Intranet, to a wide range of information sources including online catalogues, document collections, commercial online databases and news services. If developed the GSI virtual library aims to bring together some of these key sources of information as a central resource accessible to the whole GSI community. It may also provide access to individual departmental Intranets and involve further development of the Librarians Community of Interest. Although the project is at an early stage it has the potential to significantly enhance the range, quality and efficiency of Library and Information provision across UK government.

This paper describes how these three strands of Intranet-related development are affecting LISs in UK government, and the role which Librarians and Information Managers are playing in taking forward the process of change.

Intranets in individual departments and agencies

Over the last 2 years the prevalence of Intranets in UK government departments and agencies has increased rapidly. A survey (1) of 16 of the main departments and agencies in 1997 showed that 35% had an Intranet in place. The survey was repeated in 1999 (2) with a slightly higher response rate of 22 departments and agencies, and showed that by 1999 89% of the organisations had an Intranet in place with all other organisations were planning one. The following table shows the content of the Intranets:

Type of informationPercentage of organisations
Job vacancies89%
Formal material (annual reports etc.)83%
Staff directory83%
Daily news updates61%
Informal information55%
Bulletin board50%
Training materials50%

Almost all of the Intranets had a keyword search facility and online help and feedback facilities were also common. Just under half had links to the Web and a quarter of the organisations used some form of push technology such as delivery of online press cuttings. A quarter of the Intranets supported discussion groups, only 4 organisations reported using the Intranet for knowledge management, and just one had an online chat facility.

The survey, which was carried out by questionnaire with selective follow up interviews, explored the main reasons for the department introducing an Intranet. The reason most commonly given was to improve communications within the organisation. This was followed by "improving efficiency and productivity", and in equal third place "reducing printing and distribution costs" and "to capture corporate knowledge". The organisations used a range of techniques and approaches to planning the Intranet. 55% initially established a pilot system which was assessed in the light of user feedback before moving to a full system. 44% used some form of cost analysis in planning what information to make available, and the same percentage conducted a user needs analysis using meetings and interviews or questionnaires. Benchmarking against other organisations Intranets and an internal information audit were carried out by 17% of respondents.

Once in place the main form or training was expert users demonstrating the system, and this took the form of formal training sessions in just over half of the organisations. 39% of the organisations adopted a centralised approach to managing the Intranet with only a central Intranet team able to add material. A further 33% allowed individuals or sections outside a central Intranet team to add material, subject to a set of central guidelines. The guidelines covered content and also in many cases the look and feel of the site. No organisations allowed individuals or sections to add material of their choice in an uncontrolled manner. 72% of respondents indicated that their Intranet had a standard look and feel, with the other 28% having a range of different designs and navigation tools in different areas of the Intranet. The survey showed that Library and Information professionals play a major role in managing Intranets. In 33% of cases the Intranet was managed within the LIS, and in 50% of the organisations the Intranet was managed by an information management or publications unit, which often include staff with a background in Library and Information work.

Respondents were asked to indicate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements about their Intranet, and this proved to be one of the most interesting aspects of the survey. On the positive side the Intranet was generally considered to have improved communications, running costs were considered to be low in relation to the benefits, and there was universal agreement that the Intranet had been a positive addition to the organisation. On the negative side there was concern that users sometimes had unrealistic expectations, and there was a lack of understanding about how to use the Intranet. A number of survey respondents reported that there had been resistance to changes in working practices from some staff. There was also concern that in some cases the information wasn't well structured and organised, and that information was sometimes difficult to find.

Some of these negative points relate to the introduction of an Intranet and difficulties of responding effectively to the changes involved. User expectations need to be carefully managed in any information systems project, and Intranets are particularly prone to users basing their expectations on their experience of sophisticated commercial Web sites which may have different aims from an Intranet. Lack of understanding of Intranets can over a period of time be addressed by training, effective support and internal marketing of the system. Resistance to change can be a problem with any new information system, but is perhaps particularly a problem with Intranets where making best use of the technology may entail re-engineering business processes involved in the production and dissemination of knowledge and information. Organisational structures and procedures which have evolved for creating and managing paper based information may not be appropriate once there is a need to make the information available on an Intranet. Successfully introducing an Intranet is more than just managing new technology, or even managing information: it involves change in organisational structures and culture, and this can be the most difficult aspect of the whole project to manage effectively.

Some of the difficulties identified concern organisation and retrieval of information. Hypertext links which are characteristic of the Web environment provide a flexibility to link related ideas and concepts in documents and groups of documents in a way which wasn't possible with previous generations of information retrieval systems. But this flexibility presents a problem in that there is a multitude of different ways of structuring information and linking documents. Principles of good Web site design are beginning to crystallise, and greater attention is being given to designing effective key word search facilities making use of underlying thesauri and meta-tags embedded in Web pages for indexing and retrieval purposes. There is also increasing recognition of the need to design and structure Web sites in a way which minimises the administrative effort needed to maintain them, and this is leading away from the use of static HTML with fixed links towards the use of database solutions with navigation generated by meta-tags.

The librarians' Community of Interest on the Government Secure Intranet

Until the mid-1990s UK government departments developed discrete information systems to meet their own business objectives, and there was no systematic approach across government to following common technical standards to support inter-operability. By the mid 1990s Internet standards for network protocols, E-Mail and Web browsing had established themselves as de facto global standards. At the same time there was a growing recognition of the need for a telecommunications infrastructure and a common set of technical standards to support electronic communication and access to shared information resources across government. Standardisation around Internet protocols was the obvious route to follow, but the Internet itself was seen as an insecure medium for transmission of government information. The solution was the establishment, beginning in 1998, of a secure, private network linking the main government departments and agencies, and based on Internet protocols. This network, known as the Government Secure Intranet (GSI), was co-ordinated by the Central IT Unit (CITU) in the Cabinet Office. By February 2000 there were 46 departments or agencies connected to the GSI, supporting GSI browsing for 33,000 users and GSI E-Mail for 65,000 users.

One of the aims of the GSI was to establish a number of Communities of Interest supporting communication and collaboration between individuals and groups undertaking common activities in different departments and agencies. Library and Information specialists working in the UK government sector have over many years developed a extensive arrangements to support co-operation, sharing of best practice, and increased efficiency. These arrangements are managed by a cross departmental committee whose members are the heads of the main government Library and Information Services. The committee, known as the Committee of Departmental Librarians (CDL), has a number of working groups covering diverse areas such as training and education, career development, statistics of government libraries, co-operative procurement and IT. Activities and procedures managed by CDL include a system of job advertising to allow library and information professionals to transfer between government departments and agencies; bulk purchase discount agreements with key suppliers in the information industry; sharing of best practice in areas such as library management systems; exploitation by government LIS community of the Internet; and a series of guidelines on topics such as disaster management. The high level of co-operation and communication between government LISs meant that the GSI offered a good opportunity to establish a Community of Interest for government Library and Information specialists.

During early 1999 proposals were developed by a small CDL project board chaired by the chair of the CDL IT Working Group, in conjunction with CCTA (Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency), the government agency responsible for managing the development of the GSI within a framework defined by CITU. The project was completed in December 1999. The aims of the Community of Interest are as follows:

  • To share information and best practice
  • To disseminate information about the work of CDL and its Working Groups
  • To promulgate career opportunities and training and development information
  • To support co-operative use of resources

The Web site includes the following information and facilities:

  • Contact details for CDL members and members of specialist Working Groups
  • Details of the main government Library and Information Services
  • Details of the remit, activities and publications of specialist Working Groups
  • Job vacancies within government LISs
  • Minutes of CDL meetings
  • A wide range of documents produced by CDL and disseminated within the government LIS sector
  • A discussion group for the UK government LIS sector
  • Links to key resources on the Web
  • Information about training and career development opportunities

A Lotus Domino server hosted by CCTA holds the minutes of meetings, details of job vacancies and other documents which can be searched in full text. The remaining information, which is more static is held in a series of static HTML pages. Maintenance of information on the site is carried out by 3 individuals based in different departments and agencies, and documents and updates for the site are fed to these 3 authors from within the CDL community. Consideration was given to designating someone with authoring rights in each government Library and Information Service, but this was ruled out for the time being because of the cost of licences for the Lotus Notes software used to author and submit documents to the site. The cost of developing and maintaining the site is shared between the members of the community on an equal basis.

Paper or E-Mail distribution of documents has not been discontinued to date, partly because not everyone in the CDL community yet has access to the site. In the longer term it is possible that traditional distribution of documents may be reduced with individuals pulling down the required information from the site, or with E-Mail being used to alert individuals within the CDL community to the URL for new documents placed on the site. Shared between 3 people, maintenance of the site is a fairly modest task with all of the technical systems administration carried out by CCTA.

The main difficulty in maintaining the site is ensuring that all relevant documents are sent to the designated authors in an electronic format so that they can be added to the site. The CDL community is in the process of moving fully to E-Mail based distribution of documents. Some material for the CDL site cannot easily be obtained in electronic format and has to be optically scanned, a task which is both time consuming and often fails to fully replicate the original document with complete accuracy. Some problems have also been encountered with different departments using different word processing packages: to be accessible to the whole CDL community documents need to be formatted using a number of different file formats. These problems are likely to recede as government becomes more used to electronic communication, and problems of technical incompatibility are resolved.

A number of options are being considered for further development of the site. Possibilities include: expanding the community to include a wider range of government departments and agencies; expanding contacts information into some form of directory service; support for inter-library loan arrangements between government library and information services; establishing a knowledge base of common enquiries received by government LISs; and providing access to the online catalogues of government LISs.

The GSI electronic library

Apart from the Communities of Interest the GSI itself offers a growing range of information resources and services. Government departments are developing their own GSI Web sites which contain a range of information of relevance to colleagues within government, though not necessarily suitable for their public Web sites. There is an expanding directory giving contact details for individuals within the GSI community. Having largely established the infrastructure attention is now focusing on expanding content and facilities on the GSI. A number of knowledge management resources are being developed to share knowledge and best practice across government. The Librarians community has put forward a plan for an electronic library for government on the GSI. This might include:

  • A functional directory of "who does what" in government
  • Link to useful Internet sites
  • Commercial information sources
  • Access to existing online government library catalogues
  • Access to research databases
  • Statistical information sources
  • Government publications
  • A repository of central guidance and forms
  • Links to other GSI resources including the various knowledge management programmes

Much of this would involve building on existing information resources and services provided by individual government Library and Information services. Most government LISs maintain evaluated lists of useful Web sites, often on their departmental Intranet. CDL has established a number of co-operative purchasing arrangements which provide government LISs with bulk purchase discounts by aggregating the requirements of individual LISs. Government LISs devote considerable effort to ensuring that they have access to a comprehensive range of official publications and the databases needed to search them. The GSI electronic library could pull together these dispersed resources and allow more effective co-operation between government LISs.

Among the most interesting aspects of the proposal is the idea of providing access on the GSI to the online catalogues of government LISs. This would bring a number of benefits: while the collections of government libraries tend to focus on the subjects of their parent department there are areas of common interest across departmental boundaries especially in the area of official publications; co-operative arrangements exist within the government LIS community for inter-library loans, so that government libraries are used in preference to chargeable services such as the British Library. With separate online catalogues checking the availability of a publication in another government library usually involves ringing round. A shared catalogue offers the opportunity for more efficient location and ordering of resources in other departments. One of the difficulties faced by previous attempts to establish a shared government library catalogue has been the variety of library management systems in use across government and the technical incompatibilities which existed between some of these systems.

The GSI electronic Library offers the potential to overcome these difficulties. Recent developments in library management systems mean that they generally have a Web compatible interface. This provides a common technical standard to network catalogues across an IP network such as the GSI, which additionally offers a desirable level of security compared with networking on the Web. Networking catalogues on the GSI as discrete databases would be beneficial, but far more effective would be a unified interface providing seamless searching facilities across multiple catalogues. The Z39.50 protocol meets this need. The widespread adoption of this OSI application layer standard within the software architecture of library management systems means that a central portal on the GSI, configured as a Z39.50 client, would be capable of concurrently searching a series of distributed library catalogues which were linked to the GSI and configured as Z39.50 targets. By adopting this architecture the GSI electronic library could build on and integrate existing, distributed resources with a result whose value far exceeded the sum of its parts.

Modernising government: joined up library and information services

At the time of writing, the GSI electronic library is at a conceptual stage. In the past a limiting factor in taking forward collaborative developments within the government LIS sector has been the absence of a central resourcing. Government LISs bid for and receive funding within the parent departments. Where financial resources have been needed to support collaborative arrangements, such as the development of the Librarians Community of Interest site, the supplier has had to invoice individual departments an agreed proportion of the total cost. This is rather cumbersome and not all suppliers would be content to operate on this basis. The GSI is being developed as part of a wider government modernisation initiative (3) which, among other things, aims to exploit information and communications technology to support a more coherent and "joined up" approach to policy making and the administration of government. As part of this programme some central resources are being made available, and the GSI electronic library proposal is seeking some of its resourcing through this route.

The combination of a common technical infrastructure and a strategic and resourcing framework within which to exploit it, means that the GSI electronic library has the potential to provide a leap forward in the effective provision of library and information services for UK government. As it evolves the Librarians Community of Interest on the GSI would form part of this series of Intranet related developments, and in the longer term there may be strategic implications which could transform the whole basis of government LISs. For many years UK government library and information managers have been seeking to improve co-operation and collaboration in meeting the information needs of UK government. The three interlocking aspects of Intranet development described in this paper represent a major step forward in achieving this.


  1. Internet in CDL Library and Information Services: a report of a survey undertaken by the CDL IT Group. Unpublished report, 1997.

  2. The development of Intranets in government departments. Lucy Cuthbertson. MSc dissertation, City University, London. 1999.

  3. Modernising Government Cm 4310. London: The Stationery Office, 1999.


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