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University of Oxford
Director of University Library Services and Bodley's Librarian

'Creating the Distributed National Electronic Resource':

Presentation to the JISC Community Briefing Day, London, 20 January 2000

Don't you just love all the acronyms we churn out all the time? JISC, FIGIT JCEI, RDN, DNER; and so it goes on endlessly… It makes you wonder if acronymitis is a disease endemic to the information community. Or perhaps it's a pathetic attempt at encryption, by which we try jealously to guard our precious knowledge, for the benefit of initiates only? Or maybe it's just part of an instinctive desire to brand everything, to label it, to mark it as ours?

Well, whatever it is, I'm afraid I've had to succumb to it with a vengeance, if only because it's virtually impossible to talk about the Distributed National Electronic Resource without exhibiting all the signs of terminal acronymitis! Perhaps I should offer a prize to the one who can accurately count all the acronyms I actually use in this presentation?

Of course, the burning question for me to answer this morning is: what exactly is this DNER that we hear so much about just now? And since most of you have come along today to be initiated into the mystic rites of JISCerie, it's my job as Chairman of JCEI to try to demystify for you what we hope will prove to be the favourite acronym of the new millennium. "eLib is dead (well, almost, anyway): so long live the DNER!"

Well, as I'm sure you know, the JISC thinks that the DNER is so important to its mission that it has identified it as one of its key objectives, in the following way:

Slide 1

And so I ask again: What is the DNER? Well here's one answer:

Slide 2

Now you won't find this definition in the Oxford English Dictionary (not yet anyway - that will come in the next edition!); but here at least is a valiant effort to explain the DNER to the as yet uninitiated. And it's been put together by many hands (and by slightly fewer brains). This is, in fact, our current working definition of a term which started out a year or so ago as a conceptual umbrella for everything that the JISC's Committee for Electronic Information (the JCEI) (and indeed the JISC itself) is doing to make electronic content available to the HE community. The definition has got a lot sharper since the acronym was first launched. The vision's certainly got a lot clearer these last few months, and if you look carefully at the plethora of buzzwords here, you'll see that, in spite of any appearances to the contrary, the definition hasn't just been thrown together by a random word search.

For example:

  • the DNER is "distributed" (it's "all over the place" in the best sense, because that's what the technology enables us to achieve);
  • it's "national" (in the old undeconstructed sense - to which I as an Englishman of Welsh, Scottish and Irish ancestry still subscribe!);
  • it's "electronic" (which is why JISC is promoting it);
  • it's a "resource" (which my dictionary defines as "a stock or supply of materials or assets") - and "a stock of assets" is quite a helpful concept, I think: an asset is useful, it has value, and it's owned (it's ours); and like its French origin in the word "assez", an asset is enough, it's able to meet our needs (and that's part of the DNER vision);
  • it's "managed": it hasn't just happened on its own. As the title of this talk suggests, it's being "created"; although, actually, what's going on feels more like "managed evolution" to me - but you get the point, I think: the DNER is supervised, and planned, and maintained;
  • and most important of all, I think, the DNER is a managed environment: it's both a literal and a virtual space within which certain desirable things can, and will, happen, thanks to the controlled conditions within which it works. It's a whole set of structures which operate within the networks to enable learning, teaching and research to benefit from the integrated provision of information of every relevant kind. It's an environment which is managed in such a way as to be conducive to the activities of those who do their work within it;
  • and it's about "access" - and you can't have a more universally hallowed buzzword than that, can you?
  • it's also about "quality assured information resources". And, given the mess out on the Internet, educational institutions just have to find a way of routinely offering a better and less time-consuming way to support high-quality learning and research than by passively encouraging the mindless serendipity of the Web;
  • and all this stuff is "available from many sources" - and those sources are growing, diversifying, and becoming ever more interesting and useful. And it's the aim of the DNER to help, in whatever ways it can, to make coherent sense of it all...

So having ploughed through the definition with you, usefully I hope, here are the headings under which I want to present the DNER to you this morning:

Slide 3

So where has the DNER come from?

Slide 4

Well to give credit where it's due, the DNER has been coming for quite a while; and those of you who are long enough in the tooth to remember such things, the old Computer Board and its successor the ISC (the Information Systems Committee) were responsible in the late 80s, and especially the early 90s, for promoting what was then spoken of as "the development of the Digital Library". And it was people like Derek Law and then Lynne Brindley who were influential in developing this concept, in the context of the ISC's Information Systems Sub-Committee. (The ISSC, of course, was the direct predecessor of what became the CEI). And the notion of the Digital Library itself - or at least the potential of it - was well enough developed by 1992 that when the Follett Review of University Libraries came along as almost the first act of the newly-devolved Funding Councils, it was no surprise to many of us that the most active and influential of Follett's Sub-groups should be the IT Sub-group, under the chairmanship of Lynne Brindley. Follett's remit, of course, had the use of technology right at its core, and the IT Sub-group commissioned and published a coherent array of studies which were adopted almost wholesale by Follett as a programme of work which was built into the report's recommendations in December 1993. And so FIGIT (The Follett Implementation Group for IT) was born, and with it the Electronic Libraries Programme, eLib. And so the concept of a national digital library for UK HE began to take on a much more concrete shape.

And the rest, as they say, is history; and the process of managed evolution, with eLib as the brand name, was well underway. Chris Rusbridge was appointed, and £15m was invested in a 3-year programme of carefully structured projects, designed to address particular pieces of the jigsaw, to put some flesh on the bones of a developing framework, and to move the HE community towards a range of service-oriented solutions in the development of the digital library vision. CHEST's remit was broadened to encompass negotiations for national datasets, the Data Centre policy was sharpened, UKOLN was expanded, and the eLib programme began to roll out into new services, like the AHDS, the subject gateways, HEDS, HERON, and so on... And so, as eLib went through its various phases and the CEI's responsibilities (and budget) grew, the acronyms multiplied!

In the meantime, too, and in parallel with all this, there were complementary and convergent developments going on, both within and outside the HE IT sector - things which made it timely, as the 20th century drew to a close, to give all these elements of the JISC's digital library investment initiatives a greater sense of coherence, by means of a recognisable brand name - something that would encapsulate both the reality and the vision. And that's where the DNER came in. UKOLN's influential series of MODELS workshops provided much of the theoretical stimulus for the new terminology. But by the late 90s, network technology had become so pervasive, and interoperability so much more reliable, that information access could be described as 'truly global'; digital resources were being created in an explosive fashion; complementary networks and digital initiatives were being developed and launched; and the political environment in the UK was placing new emphasis on lifelong learning, on social inclusion and, above all perhaps, on access. And all of these developments made it even more desirable to ensure that JISC's investments should be made not only in a coherent and co-ordinated way, which added value to the information resources available to the HE community, but also in a way that was sensitive to the other relevant and emerging agendas. The DNER concept, and the services which make it real, is therefore a very timely way of badging, not just to our own communities, but also to the wider world of education and culture, the whole environment which JISC exists to create and maintain, through investment, through research and development and, increasingly, through partnership.

And all this can be summarised in this overview of the aims and objectives of the DNER:

Slide 5

The DNER's very raison d'être, I suppose you could say, is to support learning, teaching and research. To a very large extent, of course, JISC's investment in the communications environment has hitherto mostly been targeted to support research; and there are very good reasons why that should have been so. More recently, though, new money from the last Comprehensive Spending Review has given JISC the opportunity also to develop the DNER more systematically for the support of learning and teaching. And, in case it had escaped you, JISC has recently had its formal remit broadened to include provision for FE; and in that context, the DNER will now give much more deliberate attention to the information needs of learners and teachers. And since that was a big piece of Follett's remit, this is a very welcome development for those of us who wear other hats back home as institutional information providers to very large numbers of undergraduate students!

And the DNER, naturally, aims to exploit the networks. And not just to exploit them as they exist now, but to push their development as well. JANET itself, of course, aims to be at or near the leading edge of technology. But parts of the DNER, like the CEI's new initiative for moving images, have implications for network performance, and we're determined to make digital video streaming across the network an everyday reality as soon as we can. (And that's only one area where the DNER will help to push things along).

And the word here is networks (in the plural). And that's deliberate, because JANET isn't by any means the only player - it's only one of many, and the DNER intends to exploit as many of the other networks as it can, for the community's benefit. So whether it's by links to the emerging NHSnet, or the National Grid for Learning, or to any other public or private network that proves appropriate and feasible, the DNER will seek to provide an environment that supports such interworking.

And it will do this in ways which assure the 'q' word (quality), because that's what our communities need. There's enough junk out there to take more than several lifetimes to read, and so the DNER is looking to do the filtering, to impose some kind of selectivity on all the 'stuff' that's out there, in order to ensure that our institutional users can go to the DNER for kite-marked resources, knowing that they won't have their time unduly wasted.

And by bringing all this quality-assured material together in the DNER environment, we aim to add value to it all by virtue of aggregating it into a single national system with a 'one-stop shop' approach - we want the DNER to be a kind of national information hypermarket.

And in doing this, we aim to assist institutions to manage the huge diversity of information resources, by including information in every conceivable format: scholarly journals, monographs, textbooks, abstracts, manuscripts, maps, music scores, still images, geospatial, vector and numeric data, as well as moving picture and sound materials.

And, finally, the DNER will be seeking complementarity with other information systems, national and international, since we know full well that, even with all these ambitious objectives, the DNER cannot hope to be comprehensive or self-sufficient. (And that's one of the reasons why the JISC has funded a range of collaborative projects with the National Science Foundation in the US, and why the JCEI is entering into formal alliances with organisations like JSTOR and RLG.)

aaaAnd the word here is networks (in the plural). And that's deliberate, because JANET isn't by any means the only player - it's only one of many, and the DNER intends to exploit as many of the other networks as it can, for the community's benefit. So whether it's by links to the emerging NHSnet, or the National Grid for Learning, or to any other public or private network that proves appropriate and feasible, the DNER will seek to provide an environment that supports such interworking.

And in building all of this, the DNER will depend crucially on a range of key components or elements:

Slide 6

The DNER will rely, as I've said, on the networks, which it will seek to exploit and expand. And principally, of course, it will depend on JANET and its ongoing development. And this is why we recognise the need, in JCEI, to liaise closely with the JISC Committee on Networking, the JCN, without whose work none of this would be possible. We simply have to have joined-up thinking with this key part of JISC's activity, in order to keep the developments moving forward together.

And the DNER relies very heavily, too, on the JISC's growing range of infrastructure services, to manage and provide so much of the information. (And I'll have more to say about all this on the next slide.)

And populating all this infrastructure is the electronic content which is being aggregated within the DNER environment - about which more later.

And the DNER needs to enable the discovery and delivery of all this 'stuff'. And so a key component of the DNER is helping users to find what they want within the DNER environment. Because if the DNER is to deliver the goods in the way envisaged, it will have to do so in a carefully integrated, flexible and seamless way.

And supporting the ongoing development of all this activity in the DNER is the whole array of JISC-funded development projects: the tail-end, so to speak, of the eLib Programme; the recently-launched call for proposals to enhance the DNER in JISC Circular 5/99; and the ongoing projects funded by JISC's other sub-committees: the Committee for Awareness, Liaison and Training, the Committee for Authentication and Security, and the Committee for Integrated Environments for Learners. All of this, which is essentially learning by doing, will contribute to a greater or lesser degree as a component of the DNER environment. That way, too, the development of the DNER will be shared with the wider JISC community. And that's an important point to stress: the DNER is not just the business of the JCEI on its own…

This next slide simply fleshes out the line on the previous slide about the infrastructure services on which the delivery of the DNER depends.

Slide 7

The JCEI itself funds and oversees the three national data centres (at Bath, Manchester and Edinburgh).It's directly responsible for a complex array of other service providers, like the Data Archive at Essex (which is jointly funded with the ESRC), the AHDS (which is itself a distributed system, delivered from 5 separate HE institutions), HEDS (which is based at Hertfordshire), TASI (which is based at Bristol and which will be developing a virtual image delivery service), the National Mirror Service (based at Kent and Lancaster), NISS, and a whole raft of jointly-funded agencies, like UKOLN and the BUFVC. All these are part of the DNER environment, and each will be doing its bit in providing structured access to information resources in a distributed way for the FE and HE communities.

The Resource Discovery Network, based at King's London, is already beginning to build on the work of some of the eLib subject gateways, and it aims ultimately to cover the whole of the HE and FE subject base with an inter-related network of disciplinary 'hubs', designed to provide flexible and seamless access to high quality Internet resources. (The RDN is jointly-funded with the Arts and Humanities Research Board and the ESRC, and many of the hubs are being developed in partnership with learned societies and related professional and cultural institutions.)

And last, but by no means least, the 'glue' in all this infrastructure activity will be the new DNER Co-ordination Team which, if the last few years are anything to go by, will have its work cut out to oversee the effective roll-out of all these developments. Lots of challenges still to meet for them: visual images, digital archiving, and large scale project management with a vengeance!

Then of course, there's that all-important commodity: the content. "Content is King", we're constantly being told (and mostly by those who don't have much!)

Slide 8

But the DNER already has lots of it; and it's the role of the JCEI's Content Working Group (chaired by Mary Auckland) to select most of it - identifying needs, filling gaps, and building critical mass. Mary Auckland herself is on record as describing this task as trying to make "a landscaped garden from an untamed jungle"; but it's all made a lot easier by virtue of the successful effort which was made by the CWG a couple of years ago to produce a formal written Collections Policy; and that policy is currently being reviewed in the light of the incorporation of FE into the JISC remit, as well as the need to develop a long-term digital preservation strategy for materials of ongoing value to the scholarly community. And both these important dimensions still need to be firmly embedded in the DNER agenda…

A major part of the role of the JISC Collections Manager consists of direct involvement in negotiating the acquisition of new materials (and of course, in renegotiating time-bound deals when they come up for renewal). And the community is very fortunate indeed to have the indefatigable Alicia Wise in that key role.

Relatively small amounts of JISC funding have been put directly into digitisation projects; but where it has been done, on a highly selective basis, as in the JIDI projects, it has proved quite successful, and has produced some valuable content which is now freely available to the community. But, of course, as those of us who've dipped our toes into this particular water know full well, this is a big black hole from a funding point of view.

And the content all needs describing in consistent, persistent and universally-acceptable ways. And JCEI sets a very high store on the work that is being done to achieve standardisation wherever possible in the all-important area of metadata. The machine-readable catalogue record is a breeze of course: it's a done deal (well, more or less, give or take a few international differences of opinion!). But what about manuscript descriptions? What about archive records? What about metadata for electronic resources? There are standards, would-be standards, and emerging standards all over the place, of course; but the debates are still going on in certain parts of our community, whereas the DNER needs closure as soon as it can reasonably get it. So there's lots of activity and investigation going on behind the scenes. Just ask Michael Day at UKOLN!

And preservation? Well, yes: JISC needs to build a lot more on the good work done by the Digital Archiving Working Group and the AHDS, and on the outcomes of the CEDARS project. And that's why it's recently put a big stake in the ground with JCEI's funding of a new post for Digital Preservation as an integral part of the DNER Team. And, on the back of that, we're planning to establish a UK Digital Preservation Coalition, which will also link into international efforts in this important area and feed back into the JISC agenda and the DNER…

So what's it all about? What's the rationale for this thing called the DNER? What are the philosophical and practical principles which underpin its coherence as a large-scale and long-term initiative which is so key to virtually everything that the JISC stands for?

Well, no acronyms here: though there are certainly plenty of buzzwords! But at least they're buzzwords with substance and a whole heap of real relevance and validity.

Slide 9

The DNER is based on the principle of empowerment. It's about enabling individuals, and groups, and institutions, to do things they couldn't otherwise easily do. It aims to give the information user a greater degree of control and a wider range of choices. And even if you don't like the word itself, you can't deny that empowerment is "a good thing".

Equity of provision is an underlying principle, too: all types of users must be catered for, all disciplines covered, and minority interests not neglected. And that must include those with disabilities. So equity won't come cheap....

Integration is the key, and I'll only say that it's essential if the DNER is going to deliver truly seamless access, with cross-domain, and cross-discipline searching.

Economy and Efficiency go hand in hand, almost without saying. Economies of scale are absolutely essential - and they must be demonstrable - if the JISC is to fulfil its remit of giving value for money to its communities for the top-sliced funds which support all that it does.

And collaboration is more than just a principle for the DNER: it's more like a dogma. And just as we all know, in our heart of hearts, that no institution, however big and however smart, is ""an island, entire of itself", so we know from experience, in the eLib programme and in other JISC-funded initiatives, that we can achieve so much more together than we ever could on our own.

And the DNER is based on the principle of distribution: it shares the workload, it increases the number of stakeholders by bringing many parts of the community into the action, it takes advantage of, and it harnesses, the rich diversity of our collective expertise. In this sense, you could say that "JISC is us". It's us, or it's nothing, because it depends crucially on our involvement in its work, and on our continuing support…

And, of course, the DNER is based on standards (or it will be, as long as I have breath in my body!)

So here's our vision, here's what we want for the DNER, for you, as consumers, and for ourselves, wearing our own institutional hats:

We see the DNER getting us, as early as we can, to that great digital library in the sky which Derek Law and his ISC and ISSC colleagues saw around a decade ago.

Slide 10

We are ambitious for it to achieve critical mass, to such an extent that it becomes the first port of call for all our staff and students - the electronic resource of choice, an integral part of the daily working life of learners, teachers and researchers throughout the FE and HE communities and even, who knows(?) beyond...

And we have a desire to see its coherence bring order out of chaos, to create that landscaped garden out of the electronic jungle.

We believe in it as a major enabler of access.

And whatever we think about Blairite rhetoric (and who doesn't?), we see it as a distinctive, powerful, and meaningful contribution to the Learning Society, to the knowledge-based culture which we are all so privileged to live and work in.

As recently as 1997, Lynne Brindley captured much of this vision in this important statement (though it's interesting to note how things have moved on from this, even in the two intervening years, with the explicit addition of Further Education, and the new funding for the learning and teaching dimensions of the DNER).

It's really worth considering carefully what Lynne said with her usual dependable insight. She was right to foresee where we have got to now. As she says, we are well poised to ensure all this; and with your help, with the collaboration of our communities, and their continuing support (your support), we believe that the DNER will be the means of delivering it.

Slide 11

Reg Carr
20 January 2000