Building an Internet Gateway
The Library of the International Labour Organization created a gateway to Internet sites in the areas of work, employment, and social issues titled WorkGate. This article describes the design decisions that went into the project, such as the number of information resources that could feasibly be maintained and the selection criteria for including these resources. The actual development of the gateway involved the building of an underlying database and Web-based interfaces, the selection and description of Internet sites, and the creation of taxonomy to be used in classifying sites and browsing. While the gateway has been favorably received, ranking search results in a small database of brief records remains a problem. An unexpected benefit of the project was the opportunity staff had to share information about sites that would prove useful in their daily work.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the United Nations’ specialized agency that seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognized human and labor rights. The ILO’s strategic objectives are to promote fundamental principles and rights at work, create greater opportunities for decent employment for women and men, enhance social protection, and strengthen social dialogue. The ILO Library supports the organization’s mission by providing knowledge-sharing services in the areas of work and sustainable livelihoods and the work-related aspects of economic and social development and human rights. 1 Library clients include ILO constituents (the governments of 176 member states as well as employers’ and workers’ organizations); external clients, such as researchers in social and labor issues; and more than 1,900 ILO staff located at headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and in forty field offices around the world. In addition to providing reference and information consulting services, the library continues to develop and make available the Labordoc database (www.ilo.org/labordoc), a catalog of more than 350,000 bibliographic references, and the multilingual ILO Thesaurus of labor, employment, and training terminology. 2 In 2002 the ILO Library launched a new service, WorkGate ( www.ilo.org/workgate), a gateway to Internet resources in the area of work, employment, and social issues.
What is an information gateway? Gateways are online services that provide references to selected, high-quality information resources on the Internet. However, in addition to providing links to networked resources, they also provide descriptions of those resources, including descriptive metadata, content descriptions, abstracts, subject keywords, and other controlled vocabulary. 3 A gateway allows users to quickly discover resources on a particular subject through searching resource descriptions or by browsing based on a classification system or taxonomy. 4 Although the development of an information gateway at the ILO was hardly an original idea, the process of creating a gateway for a specific subject area and the design decisions made in developing this resource may prove useful to organizations considering similar projects.
The idea of building a virtual library or gateway to Internet resources on the world of work had been independently suggested by several library staff members. They perceived that, in response to the growing volume of information on the Internet, ILO staff and stakeholders needed Internet resources that had been identified, evaluated, and selected for their high quality and relevance to ILO concerns. Users also needed a coherent, logical structure to easily access those sites and some assistance in using and navigating these resources in order to save their time and effort. After considerable discussion by professional staff, the decision was made in mid-2001 to proceed with the creation of an information gateway. Seven library staff members, primarily reference staff, agreed to undertake the selection and description of high-quality Internet sites in addition to their regular workload; two library students who were completing a practical internship at the library also worked part-time on the project. The author, who was the systems librarian and one of the original proponents of the gateway, was assigned the role of project coordinator as well as those of technical support and interface designer.
Even before the project began, much thought went into determining the size and scope of the gateway. Given the very limited resources available and the ever-changing nature of Web sites, it was agreed that the gateway should not include more Internet sites than could be reevaluated by library staff as part of their normal reference work on a minimum six-month rotation. Preliminary tests indicated that it took between thirty and seventy-five minutes to describe a new site (including testing, evaluation, description, and classification) and about half that time to review a previously described site. On the basis of these estimates, and supposing that each staff member could devote about ten hours per month to this work, it was determined that the gateway should include no more than three to four hundred sites.
The team charged with developing WorkGate began by establishing selection criteria. Everyone endorsed the policy to select only high-quality sites that were of value as a reference tool. A set of criteria was developed based on the following factors:
- relevance of the site to the ILO’s mission;
- authority of the person or institution responsible for the site;
- objectivity of the information provided;
- currency of the information;
- likely permanence of the site;
- originality of the information;
- scope (particularly in providing an international perspective);
- accessibility in terms of ease of navigation and use;
- any endorsements or recommendations that the site had received. 5
Much discussion went into whether Web-accessible commercial databases and search engines should be included, since this practice would duplicate information available elsewhere on the library’s Web site and would result in listing many commercial resources that were only available to ILO staff. In the end, the team chose to include them for the convenience of ILO staff, but added an indication that use of these particular resources was restricted. The most critical issue was avoiding duplication within the library’s main bibliographic database and catalog, Labordoc. The development team decided that individual documents, whether available in print or electronic format, including those on the Internet, would continue to be cataloged in Labordoc, as documents changed relatively rarely and users cared little whether a document was in print or electronic form. On the other hand, Internet sites as a whole, being inherently more dynamic and difficult to describe and requiring more explanation in terms of how to use and navigate them, would be described in WorkGate. As the ILO is an international organization with three working languages, the information in the gateway as well as the user interface would be provided in English, French, and Spanish.
Early in the design process, ILO considered participating in OCLC’s CORC project.6 CORC was at that time moving into an operational phase, and while the ongoing cost structure had not yet been decided, the cost to an OCLC-contributing library would probably have been reasonable. In the end, however, the ILO Library decided not to participate in CORC for three reasons. First, the need to revise descriptions created by staff who were experienced searchers but not trained catalogers would introduce costs and complexities into the project that were not thought justified at this early stage of the gateway’s development. Second, the multilingual aspect of the gateway would have been difficult to implement using the essentially unilingual structure underlying the CORC and MARC formats. Third, producing a user-friendly output from the CORC system was felt to be time-consuming, cumbersome, and difficult to update. Even using CORC data, a local database with a Web interface or an extensive set of processing scripts would have been required to produce anything like the simple, easy-to-use, and attractive interface that WorkGate users would require. Other initiatives have been developed since then, such as Renardus (http://renardus.lub.lu.se), an integrated search-and-browse access to European subject gateways, and these may offer interesting future alternatives to CORC as a way of sharing gateway information.
The actual development of the gateway proceeded in three separate paths. First, computer systems necessary to support the gateway were developed. The choice of a database system was simple: the ILO’s IT department had selected Oracle as the organization-wide database standard and provided the necessary licenses to the library free of charge. The author, who was also the interface designer, had never worked with Oracle or its associated PL/SQL programming language, but he had experience developing and implementing a variety of Web interfaces using the Common Gateway Interface (CGI), including the development of a large Internet gateway of Canadian government information. It took approximately twenty days over the next two months to design the application and develop three separate PL/SQL-based Web interfaces. Two simple interfaces were created for system administration, and a more visually appealing interface was developed for end users; the latter used cascading style sheets, a multifunction tool bar, a simple search capability, drill-down browsable menus based on a hierarchy of subject classes, and a breadcrumb navigation device indicating the context of the current page within the hierarchy.
While the software development was taking place, the full project team was also meeting on a regular basis to discuss the selection and description of Internet sites. A starting pool of sites was compiled by combining the personal bookmarks of the library’s reference staff, and then adding other sites suggested by documentation specialists at ILO headquarters and field offices. Staff was also sent on Internet treasure hunts to look for sites in specific subject areas that were underrepresented, or to find additional sites in languages other than English. Afterwards came the difficult process of evaluating and whittling down more than fourteen hundred possible sites to the three or four hundred maximum number of sites that could be included in the gateway. The development team held meetings over the course of three weeks to affirm that sites met the selection requirements, and debated and determined the relative merits of different sites so that only the best in each individual area would be retained. Once the sites were selected, staff tackled the job of creating a description of each site, including the assignment of up to three different categories drawn from a structured list of subjects, using the interface to the Oracle database.
The development of this structured list of categories—in effect, a taxonomy for the ILO—was the third major part of the gateway project. Over a period of more than twenty years, the library had developed the ILO Thesaurus for the description of books, articles, and other materials in the Labordoc database. However, with more than four thousand descriptors, and half as many nonpreferred terms, the thesaurus was too large to use in describing a small collection of Internet sites, and its organizational scheme was inappropriate for browsing purposes. In addition, different departments within the ILO had been developing databases or other information resources for which the complete ILO Thesaurus was overkill, and staff in these departments frequently expressed a need for a more limited and structured controlled vocabulary that was still specific to the ILO’s areas of expertise. The WorkGate project seemed the perfect opportunity to develop and test a taxonomy that could serve to describe more simply all the main activities and interests of the organization. Therefore, under the guidance of the head of the library’s technical services unit and with WorkGate as the first (but not only) intended use, a taxonomy was developed for work, employment, and social issues. Originally intended to include about three to four hundred terms, the first official version of the taxonomy contained more than six hundred terms, of which only one quarter are currently used in WorkGate. In addition to subject terms assigned to the individual records, displays in both alphabetic and classified order of the full range of categories used in WorkGate are available on the Internet site (see figure 1), including see-also references where these have been established. In terms of narrowing from general to more specific terminology, in finding related topics, and as a search aid, the taxonomy has proven useful for WorkGate, and promises to be equally as useful to other in-house information services.
Figure 1. WorkGate Home Page
During the development of the project, a number of design decisions were revisited. For example, the original intention had been to rate each Web site for quality, but staff felt that rating sites proved too difficult to do consistently and objectively, and the idea was dropped. To offset the need for users to drill down through multiple levels within a hierarchically structured taxonomy to arrive at a specific but popular topic, a favorite topics link was added to the main WorkGate tool bar, linking users directly to a list of subjects popular with users and important to the ILO. The intention to build a multilingual gateway was also abandoned due to resource constraints. Although the software will support other languages, the user interface was made available in English only, and sites were described only in the principal language of the site, with multilingual sites or sites in a language other than the three working languages described in English only. This decision simplified gateway development at the risk of discouraging non-English speakers, and at the expense of often incomplete search results, meaning a search for an English full-text keyword will not find any exclusively Spanish-language sites, and a search using a French keyword will find only French-language sites, and not sites in English or Spanish.
WorkGate was completed in late 2001 and released for general use by ILO staff and via the Internet in early 2002. It drew praise from ILO staff and consultants, particularly for its ease of use and information architecture. On the otherhand, it also drew some negative comments, particularly in terms of its full-text search capability: searching for a general term like management often resulted in the retrieval of irrelevant sites, such as those concerning agricultural or emergency management or using a data management system. In fairness it must be said that this is a problem for many similar gateways, such as the Eldis gateway on international development (www.eldis.org), and that given the limited size of WorkGate, it is never hard to find the relevant sites amongst the dozen or so references that such a search returns. Although many relevancy-ranking algorithms are difficult to apply to a small database consisting of short records, the need for some method of ranking or grouping of search results may have to be reexamined in the future.
At the completion of the project, staff were asked what they felt were the most and least successful aspects of the project. While a number of valuable suggestions for improving the site were made, in general participants felt the gateway had met its objectives, and that it was easy to use. Interestingly, some of the benefits of the gateway project were quite independent of WorkGate itself. The project coordinator had feared that the occasionally lengthy meetings to discuss the selection of Web sites would be among the least successful aspects of the project. Instead, appropriately enough for a project aimed at sharing knowledge, reference staff appreciated the opportunity to discuss with colleagues the relative merits of different sites, and felt that by doing so, they had discovered new resources that would prove useful to them in their reference or instructional work.
As of late 2002, the content of WorkGate had already been updated several times, in keeping with the commitment to ensure the data resources it describes are current. The work of the project team has been integrated into regular activities and a member of the public services staff has taken on the responsibility of WorkGate editor. Much work still remains to be done in promoting the service to both staff and the constituents of ILO—namely trade unions, employers’ organizations, and governments throughout the world. However, the experience in developing this service has already proven to be valuable, not only in helping users find high-quality information quickly, but in demonstrating the role that libraries and librarians can continue to play in a world of networked electronic information.
References and Notes
1. The ILO Library was formally known as the Bureau of Library and Information Services. For more information on its history, see Eleanor Frierson, Joëlle Kargul-Maccabez, and Sue Luzy, “Information Service in the International Labour Organization: A Seventy-five-Year History,” IFLA Journal 22, no. 2 (1996): 98–101.
3. This definition is derived from that given in the DESIRE Information Gateways Handbook. Accessed July 14, 2003, www.desire.org/handbook.
5. Other gateways may use additional evaluation criteria, such as subjectivity (interactivity) in Liz Lawes and Jessica Crilly’s “The London Institute’s i Page: Creating and Maintaining an Academic Gateway Web Site,” Art Libraries Journal 27, no. 1 (2001): 31–35.
6. See, for example, Thomas B. Hickey, CORC–Cooperative Online Resource Cataloguing, 1998. Accessed July 14, 2003, www.oclc.org/research/publications/arr/1998/hickey/corc.htm.
Ron Davies (email@example.com) is Senior Systems Librarian for the International Labour Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.