Using Microsoft Access and HTML to Produce Browseable Web Lists
Microsoft Access is a powerful tool for creating and maintaining databases. One of its many features is the ability to publish reports to the Web. The Schurz Library of Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) found a problem using the Web publishing features of Access. The library found its needs better met by directly marking up an Access report form with HTML. Doing so did not take sophisticated computer skills and provided the ability to output a report as one continuous Web page, saving the time of the reader. It is a method that can benefit other libraries.
One of Ranganathan’s five laws of library science is to save the time of the reader. One way in which many libraries have helped save the time of the reader has been to provide a list of periodical holdings. With a citation in hand, these lists give patrons a convenient way to determine whether the library owns a particular issue. Even with the advent of online catalogs, users have found a printed list of periodical holdings preferable to deciphering catalog records of serials.
For some time the Schurz Library has maintained a printed list of periodical holdings. The list provides the user with a call number, years and volumes owned, missing volumes, title change information, and volumes on microfilm for each title. More recently, information has been added for titles available in electronic full text.
In order to increase access to the list while decreasing the cost and time of updating, the library looked for a way to place the list on the Web. The printed list was available only in the library during open hours. This level of access was not meeting the needs of Indiana University–South Bend (IUSB) faculty and students, who increasingly used the library’s indexing services online from outside the library. Another problem with the printed list was the expense of keeping it maintained. The library’s periodical holdings are dynamic; titles change, cease, are added or canceled continuously. It was determined that this information should be included in the list as soon as possible in order to best serve patrons. Due to the expense of printing, only the master list at the reference desk was kept up-to-date with hand-written changes; multiple copies were published only once or twice a year. If the library published the list on the Web, then updates could be made cheaply whenever needed.
The Problem with Access Static HTML Files
The Schurz Library has found Access to be a powerful tool for maintaining the periodical holdings list. The design features of Access make it easy to create and edit tables, data entry forms, queries, and reports. Access has the tools needed to control the input and output of data, two essential functions of any database program. With Access, data input can be controlled by specifying the data type properties of a field and by creating a validation rule for data input into the field. Using combo boxes to create menus in a data entry form can also control data input. During data entry, an item from the menu is chosen to fill the field. Queries can be used to extract needed data. These data can be custom formatted by the use of report forms. Access not only is flexible, allowing new fields to be added to the database as needed, but it also has a global change feature. The library hoped Access could be used to place the periodical holdings list on the Web.
Microsoft Access offers three options for publishing data to the Web: data access pages, server-generated HTML files, or static HTML files. All three options have advantages. But not all options were appropriate for the needs of the Schurz Library. Data access pages allow one to change data via the Web. However, as with the online catalog, the library did not want patrons to be able to edit or delete information in the periodical holdings list. Server-generated pages, which provide up-to-date information from the database, require a Microsoft server that Schurz Library did not have.
The use of static HTML files to publish the periodical holdings list to the Web looked promising. The use of static HTML files requires a Web server, but not a Microsoft server, and would allow patrons to view the information without the ability to edit data. Nevertheless, the use of static files presented a problem. Access publishes reports to the Web in multiple pages instead of one continuous page. This is not a problem unless the report is long, in which case users must download page after page until they find the page with the needed information.
To illustrate the problem, consider a report containing all 714 records for periodical titles that begin with the letter J. If one used Access to publish the report, the report would consist of 145 separate Web pages. Furthermore, each page would contain only five titles. To use the report, patrons would need to download page after page until they found the page with the title they sought. A procedure such as this certainly does not save the time of the reader. If the library produced the Web database in such a way, it was doubtful that patrons would use it.
The problem became getting Access to produce a report in one continuous list without page breaks. Furthermore, the report needed to be read correctly by a Web browser as an HTML file.
The library solved these problems by directly marking up a report form in HTML and by saving reports in text-only format. Starting with a blank report form in design view, fields from records with their associated labels were placed onto the form. Next, label boxes were used to insert HTML tags into the report (see figure 1). Basic tags such as document type, header, and body were place in the report header and report footer sections of the report form. A paragraph containing information for search options was also placed in the report header. Since the list includes electronic full-text holdings, hot links to aggregator database Web sites were included. This was accomplished by using the HTML tags for URL.
Figure 1. Inserting HTML tags into the report.
To produce the reports, the correct query from the record source field of the report properties was selected. The file was then exported, making certain that it was saved as a text file. Saving the file as a text file removed the Access control code for page breaks, allowing the report to be produced as one continuous list that could be browsed. The final step was transferring the file to the Web server and changing the file extension from .txt to .html by renaming the file.
The end product consists of twenty-six separate lists, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each list contains all titles, listed alphabetically, that begin with that letter (see figure 2). One long list consisting of all titles was ruled out because it took too long to download and was too difficult to browse.
Figure 2. Browseable alphabetic list.
To use the list, patrons click on a letter to download a file of all journal titles beginning with that letter. Once the file is downloaded, patrons may either scroll the list to find a title or use the Find in Page command of the Web browser to search directly for the title. To use Find in Page, one holds down the Control key while pressing the F key or chooses Find in Page from the Edit menu. This command opens a search window where a search string may be entered. Executing the command will find the next instances of the search string in the page.
The list is browseable and superior to the Web reports created by Access for several reasons. First, it is still possible to use Access to maintain the database. Directly marking up the report form gives more control over the display of data than using one of the format options of Access or saving the print report form as an HTML file. By directly marking up the report form with HTML tags, the library was able to match the display of data in the printed list (see figure 3). This consistency between the forms of the list aids patrons who were accustomed to using the printed list to find periodical information. Because the list is browseable, it saves the time of the reader. Patrons only need to download one file per report. Additionally, using the Find in Page command of a Web browser, patrons are able to search a whole list at once. This command is not useful with the multiple Web page structure created by the Web publishing features of Access. Finally, it is an unsophisticated method of placing a report on the Web, one that does not require any programming knowledge beyond basic HTML.
Figure 3. Display of data.
Other libraries might consider using this method of creating browseable Web lists. Depending upon variables such as size of budget, periodical collection, and staff, this method may be a viable alternative to purchasing a commercial periodical holdings management service such as Serials Solutions. Yet its use is not limited to periodical holdings. This method of creating browseable lists might be employed to place the contents of a vertical file, a collection of ERIC documents, or an in-house index on the Web.
Scott A. Opasik ( email@example.com) is Assistant Head of Technical Services, Schurz Library, Indiana University–South Bend.