At the National Library of Australia, the trend over the past five years has been to make increasing amounts of information available online, particularly serial publications and also digitised books. The ANAO points out that in trying to get access to the information that their patrons require, libraries must operate in an increasingly complex environment.
They must weigh the merits of print versus electronic versions of publications, take into account the implications of moving from owning print publications to leasing access to electronic information, and negotiate the minefield of licence agreements. Needless to say, the costs continue to rise faster than budget allocations.
There are, though, some significant advantages for libraries in this new information environment and naturally they want to maximise them. While costs are often higher, the value of what can be obtained is sometimes much greater, and access arrangements can be more flexible than has been the case with print. Since its launch in September last year, the PictureAustralia site -the first service of its kind in the world -has achieved one million hits each month. A Web service based on a metadata index held at the NLA, it links to pictorial images held on the Web sites of participating cultural agencies around Australia. Altogether that means featuring more than 500,000 images of some of Australia's most significant people, places and events from the late eighteenth century to the present day. The service employs a "hybrid" architecture -both simple and scalable -with a centralised search index and distributed images.
NLA says architecture adds value to the pictorial collections of cultural agencies already accessible on the Internet through their amalgamation within the PictureAustralia service. The technical investment needed to join the PictureAustralia service is low especially if image collections are already Web-enabled.
Danielle Freeman, NLA PictureAustralia service manager, says the preliminary evaluation showed users didn't really want to stop and read a lot of text. "PictureAustralia is a very visual service, and there was a feeling on the part of the users that they wanted to be able to come into the site and get a result without having to do a lot of reading about what they needed to do to get there," she says. "It had to be very intuitive, and it really had to flow from the home page to the end result without people having to go back to find something to get there."
NLA had already put plenty of work into providing helpful text and explanations but found it had to make them even shorter, simpler and clearer as well as stripped of all jargon.
"We needed to strip it back further really and make sure the user had a lot of cues, preferably visual it seemed, to get from A to B," Freeman says.
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