Article for High Tech Library Journal
January, 2003



Go Portal




Today's librarians know that the information portal is the wave of their library's future. Why? Because information portals integrate library-quality resources for searching, locating and delivering materials in any format – physical or digital.  It offers the most appropriate delivery choices, whether the materials are located internally or externally to the library's organization, all via a single search made on an easy-to-use interface.  That's why today's librarians recognize that the information portal is the wave of their library's future.  However, the process of implementing a portal in a library institution often seems overly complex, expensive, and overwhelming.  But if librarians carefully consider their library's individual circumstances, IT expertise and budget when selecting an open interface portal system, they and their patrons will reap monumental rewards.  This article will guide librarians through the portal implementation process by clarifying a portal's benefits for both librarians and patrons, together with outlining the technical issues related to installing a portal.




Since the advent of the Internet and the popularity of common web search engines such as GoogleŞ, library professionals have been battling to hold onto their traditional role of prime information provider in our society.   But, thanks to the information portal revolution taking place in libraries today, librarians are quickly regaining their important position.  They are offering patrons a single set of search results culled from what's on the World Wide Web plus their library's huge wealth of physical and electronic resources, all retrieved from a single search instigated on an easy-to-use single interface.  This means library portal users are not only getting the easiest access possible to information discovery and delivery options that far surpass what's provided on the Internet, they're also only being presented with information that's been evaluated to be scholarly and reliable, reflecting the library's zeal for accuracy and dependability.  In short, a library's information portal allows librarians to extend their expertise at organizing access to information (via activities such as classification and indexing) from just the physical print world to also include the digital, Internet world. 


Why do libraries need information portals?


Thanks to open architecture and industry standards, an information portal allows librarians to select a wide range of high-quality resources based on their relevance and then package this content – including web sites, Intranet and Internet search engines, internal databases, library catalogs, and external e-journal services – and seamlessly deliver it directly to researchers through a single customized interface.  The latest information portals even present information choices for printed or e-content delivery, enabling the library to promote their own stock first.  Portals also allow librarians to develop new services, such as personalized interaction (the "" experience), news services, electronic document delivery, OpenURL and reference linking services.  All of these appealing features make the job of cultivating new audiences for library services bound for success.


Another key reason researchers are returning to the library once a portal is in place is the remarkably easy access to the wide array of library-quality-only resources.  Without the aid of an integrating portal, users must access published information kept in discreet proprietary databases through an interface specific to each data source.  Each of these systems is closed, and the user must therefore conduct any transaction within that system, using the search terms of the proprietary database.  This approach is cumbersome because it requires both the knowledge of many proprietary search languages and ample time to search across up to 100+ databases.  But with an open information portal's resource integrating capabilities, users may discover and access both digital and physical information resources across multiple databases through what appears to them as a single request and delivery service.


Portals are also able to assist librarians with their internal processes.  Since portals route all request and delivery transactions through a single point irrespective of the searching route, they make auditing a library's resource utilization simple.  This streamlines the back-end delivery process, and less systems to become familiar with means lowers costs.

Another key benefit of information portals is the fact that their open architecture does not discard the existing library management system in which the organization has already invested.  A portal connects all the various software components already in place, adding value to them by extending their services without upheaval to library backroom procedures. 

The following chart summarizes the benefits which information portals offers both librarians and library patrons:

Information Portal                                                Benefit

One search across all resources transparently producing a single consistent result set.

One place for users to search for useful information.

Each search can be targeted at all relevant data sets.  Meta-data returned from one service can dynamically link to content from another service.

Improved use of resources and easier resource discovery.

A single "virtual data set" will be searched,

presenting a single result set increasing productivity of the system.

High user confidence and hence greater system usage.

Services from different suppliers can be dynamically linked together.

Users don't need to know about the existence of resources in advance – they can discover naturally.

All resource access passes through single channels.

Process and management improvements lead to easier access services for users.

Personalization options allow for delivery of new services.

More interaction and control for the user leads to a better user experience and increased services.

Opportunity for integrating access across the organizational divisions behind the information systems.

Organizational efficiency and less administrative barriers to use.

Information portal architecture does not discard existing library management systems; rather it puts a layer across them, which adds value to the investments already made.

Extended user services without upheaval to library backroom procedures. 


Technical issues for implementing a library information portal:


If an information portal is to achieve its full potential for users, there are several issues to be considered with implications for both systems and people across the institution.  For example, will a new information portal fit in with other portal projects and initiatives in the library's institution?  Will the new information portal be a separate interface or delivered as a channel through a wider student portal?  How will the new portal affect the library's internal processes, challenge departmental boundaries and raise questions regarding licensing and access?


The first step to answering these questions is to understand that the technical and architectural benefit of today's information portals allows the separation of the interface from the content beneath.  It's this that enables librarians to create a portal containing the resources that they need, rather than having to settle for a particular interface that comes with pre-defined content.  Once library portal users have completed a search, they select an item and the transaction then moves to the locate-and-request phase.  Portals utilize software tools that enable library users to submit requests to the locate-and-request services from third party interfaces, all behind the scenes of the portal's interface.  The portal system automatically establishes the appropriate copy or delivery service to satisfy the request, and if it's an online source, the content can be displayed immediately. 


Open standards such as Z39.50 allow portals to connect to many disparate systems and services to produce a single, coherent information environment.  But non-Z targets must also be made available if library's are to offer a complete mix of resources, which is where tools allowing the non-Z targets to be integrated come in.  This is why it's important for libraries to select information portal vendors whose component based tools are available separately.  This enables them to select only the tools they need to build onto the "legacy systems" with which they're happy, allowing them to make the most of the investment they've already made.   For example, if an organization already uses a library management system, they can use some of the more sophisticated portal software available to make it part of an information portal.  Or if they've already purchased e-journals, they can maximize that investment by implementing open linking technology to directly link end users to external citation services.


The Portals Implementation Checklist:


The following outline will help librarians streamline the technologically challenging process of implementing a new library portal.  It considers all the relevant functional, organizational and strategic issues and presents the key options available at each stage of the process, from discovery to delivery.


What are the strategic issues to consider when going portal?


The primary issue is how the new information portal will fit into the overall institution portal strategy.  Hence, librarians implementing a new portal must establish whether their institution has or is planning to implement any of the following:


  Content management system

  Virtual or Managed Learning Environment (VLE/MLE)

  Campus portal


If it is, then it is vital to identify the key goals for implementing an information portal, and how it will inter-operate with these other portal initiatives.  Specific issues to consider include:


  Is single-sign-on an organizational goal?

  What is the library's role in the portal environment, i.e., should there be an information portal dedicated to the delivery of information services, and if so, how does this differ from the other portal products?

  What key issues, both in the library and in its organization, are being resolved by implementing an information portal product?


What is the relationship between a library's information portal and its OPAC?


Today's OPACs can offer more than just access to the library's physical holdings.  Some libraries now catalog electronic journals alongside hard copy titles and use the OPAC as a gateway to electronic information services.  Other libraries are using e-serials management tools.  So, how should these products be used within a portal environment?  Specific considerations include:


  Where should self-service functionality be?  In the new portal or still in the OPAC?

  What about up-to-date holdings information?  Will the portal display the library catalog's holdings?  If not, what's the alternative?


Must a library's new portal come from its library management system (LMS) supplier?


With the growing adoption of standards in the library world, libraries today have the opportunity to integrate solutions from different suppliers and are no longer tied into using a sole supplier.  The key issues when considering a portal solution from a vendor who isn't your LMS supplier include:


  What standards can the library's portal use for searching?

  What options are there for using OpenURL and reference linking?

  Can the library's new portal link to information in the library's OPAC?  How can this be achieved?

  How will the portal and the LMS talk to each other effectively?


How does the library currently deliver electronic information services to its users?


It's essential that libraries undertake an audit to establish which resources need to be integrated and what mechanisms are being used to deliver content to users.  To help this process, librarians can undertake a user requirements analysis to establish what resources they use by asking the following questions:


  What's the relationship between the library's website and the portal?

• Does the organization currently write static HTML about the electronic resources in use?

  Is a database tool used for electronic information services?

  Should the portal replace these tools?


What problems will the new information portal solve?


  •  A personalized experience?

  •  Authentication?  Will a single-sign-on connect to all the library's electronic information services (EIS)?  How is this possible?

  •  A heterogeneous interface?

  •  Better utilization for the library's EIS?  Does the portal offer integrated searching and linking?

  • Remote access for off-campus use and distance learners?  How?  By proxy servers or sign-on?


What features are needed in the information portal?




  Gateway?  Describing the library's EIS?  Searching and browsing for the most appropriate EIS?

  Mixed media searching?  Mixed media retrieval?

  Linking and document delivery?  Full-text resources and hard-copy requesting?

  Management information, i.e., usage statistics?

  Marketability of the portal's benefits to users?  Which users?  What benefits? (see the portal benefits table above)


What content is accessible through the library's new portal?


Librarians must establish what key resources they want to be accessible through the library's new portal, and whether it's searching or linking that these resources would primarily be used for. 


  Can the portal split up resources for linking and searching?  Should it?

  Primary or secondary resources?

  Full-text versus non-full text?

  Searchable versus non-searchable?

  Where do aggregators fit in?

  What about linking to full text?

  What about push and pull technologies?


Does the library have the skills needed to implement the portal?


It is crucial that the library's staff have either the in-house IT knowledge required to implement a portal or they choose a vendor who offers a managed service in order to relieve the overhead of managing your portal solution.  Librarians embarking on a portal project should administer an IT skills audit in the library.  The audit should assess the library's position regarding:


  •  XML, XSLT, proxy server knowledge,

  •  Standards such as: Z39.50, OpenURL and Dublin Core. 

  • The architecture of the portals the library is evaluating.  Can the library's organization and its existing internal skills support them? 

  •  The on-going overhead and staff needed to maintain the portal.

  •  The hardware implications and costs involved.


The Bottom Line


With the growing proliferation of disparate information systems in today's Internet and digital age, a multitude of software tools designed to connect these resources have emerged on the market, many which offer solutions to different parts of the puzzle.  That's why knowing how to choose the most efficient and cost effective approach, both in the short and long term, is difficult for libraries.  Yet by carefully navigating this complex process and hence benefiting from the latest information portal technology, librarians are able to satisfy the trend for instant library-quality information, which translates into significant economic advantages for the library.