Published in: The New Review of
Information Networking,, Taylor Graham
Publishing, London, UK. 1996. pp. 207-218.
This document was placed online in Sep 1997 and offers updated URLs to resources mentioned in the original (paper) version of the paper
T. Matthew Ciolek
Social Sciences Information Systems Administrator
Coombs Computing Unit
RSSS & RSPAS, ANU
Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia
The Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library (http://coombs.anu.edu.au/WWWVL-AsianStudies.html) is a large scale online information system built around the World Wide Web (WWW) technology. It acts as an authoritative, continuously updated hypertext guide and a seamless access tool to the networked scholarly information resources dealing with the Asian continent as a whole as well as with its individual regions and countries.
This information system was established in March 1994 at the Coombs Computing Unit [Note 1]. It was conceived, implemented and edited by this author. The Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library (WWW VL) is one of the many Coombs Computing Unit's networked information facilities which utilise ftp, wais, gopher, e-mail and, www servers and which have been constructed during the last five years (Ciolek 1996a). These extensive information systems are available online via the Coombsweb - ANU Social Sciences WWW Server (http://coombs.anu.edu.au/), and, together with online resources developed by the ANU Library, provide essential research infrastructure for scholars at the ANU and, via the Internet, at other institutions and sites in Australia and overseas.
2. World Wide Web Virtual Library (WWW VL) Project
The Asian Studies WWW VL belongs to a series comprising scores of Internet resource guides developed under the auspices of the World Wide Web Virtual Library Project. The WWW VL project was initiated in 1991 at CERN, Geneva, by a team of World Wide Web inventors led by T. Berners-Lee and R. Cailliau. Its objectives were to establish and maintain a comprehensive, up-to-date, high-quality, free public access catalogue of networked information facilities for each major area of scholarly and/or factual knowledge. From the 1993 onwards the WWW VL project has been coordinated by A. Secret, first within the framework of CERN's WWW operations, and later, upon the official separation of WWW development work from the core of CERN's research projects, as a part of the activities sponsored by the newly formed W3 Consortium based at the MIT, Boston.
During the first two years of their existence the WWW Virtual Libraries were centrally managed from the CERN's web site (Secret 1996a). At that time they comprised an archipelago of hypertext pages developed and maintained as a single site. The virtual libraries formed an hierarchical tree of subject areas, each providing an ever lengthening register of hypertext links to newly developed resources world-wide. However, the sudden and massive growth of the Web set-off in September 1993 by the introduction of an immensely popular NCSA Mosaic graphical web browser (Netree.com 1996) has brought about a dramatic change to the basic philosophy of the WWW VL project. While in 1991-1992 it was perfectly possible for one or two people working at a single site to keep a systematic track of the online materials appearing on a couple of hundred WWW servers all over the globe, such a task was going to be an impossibility for a cyberspace populated by tens and hundreds of thousands information servers.
In 1993, therefore, the WWW VL project became transformed into a distributed system run by volunteers from a plethora of self-governing sites. The role of the central VL site has changed as well. It has become, rather than the sole cataloguer of WWW information resources, a focal point, a veritable 'home-page' for the large-scale constellation of the many tens of Virtual Libraries sites. The central VL site, therefore, concentrated on three goals:
(1) management of a central register all the Virtual Libraries, arranged in alphabetical, subject-matter and Library of Congress formats
(2) construction and dissemination dedicated housekeeping and reporting software tools for the use by the individual VL sites
(3) provision of an email-based communication channel (a listproc mailing list firstname.lastname@example.org) taking care of efficient exchange of information between the 'virtual librarians'
The vigorous growth of the WWW VL community -- both in terms of the numbers of sites joining the project and the overall quality of the catalogued data - soon demonstrated that this strategy was a felicitous one. By July 1996 the WWW VL Project (http:// www.w3.org/hypertext/DataSources/ bySubject/Overview.html) provided an umbrella for activities of over 145 specialist Web sites. These covered a whole gamut of topics ranging from ABORIGINAL STUDIES, AERONAUTICS & AERONAUTICAL ENGINEERING, AERONOMY, SOLAR-TERRESTRIAL PHYSICS & CHEMISTRY to US GOVERNMENT INFORMATION SOURCES, VISION SCIENCE, WHALE WATCHING, WINE GROWING & WINE MAKING, WORLD-WIDE WEB DEVELOPMENT, WRITERS' RESOURCES ON THE WEB, YEASTS, and finally, ZOOS. While each of these information systems is managed by a different person and deals with quite dissimilar areas of expertise, they all tend to share a certain number of common work practices and adhere to a common set of philosophies.
3. The operations and policies of Asian Studies WWW VL
The operation of all WWW VLs tends to be governed by a number of overt rules (Secret: 1996b). The explicit rules are few, commonsense and simple:
(1) all documents are to be clearly identified (by means of a standard, explicit statement, and a standard logo/icon) as the sections and subsections of the WWW VL Project;
(2) all documents are to have a return hypertext link to the WWW VL home page
(3) no advertisements are to be carried by the VL pages
(4) no statements favouring any particular brand of a WWW browser are to be expressed by the VL pages
(5) each of the WWW VL document is to be clearly signed, so that people wishing to add documentation can easily mail the relevant maintainer
(6) specialist virtual libraries are to keep track of links to all relevant resources accessible through WWW browsers and are to be fair in their coverage (i.e. no online feuds and no online vanity publishing of one's own resources).
A closer look at the ways the Asian Studies WWW VL has been managed and developed since its inception 28 months ago suggests also the existence of several tacit rules, philosophies and work practices. First of all there is a firm commitment to provision of free, public access information. Secondly, there is an ongoing commitment to the distributed systems philosophy in which the Asian Studies VL becomes, with the passage of time, a vast, non-redundant constellation of interlinked specialist sites which agree to cooperate on coverage of all facets of given field of knowledge. Thirdly, there is a clear commitment to granting full independence and editorial freedom to the maintainers of sections and sub-sections of the Asian Studies VL.
Next comes a series of decisions, such as: commitment to the standard, non-proprietary versions of the HTML; preference for simple, proven, inexpensive technology and the avoidance of gimmicks and gadgetry; continuing adherence to highest professional editorial and publishing standards; provision of regular, frequent updates and improvements to all VL pages; determined avoidance of duplication of cataloguing work already done somewhere else on the WWW; thoughtful screening, selection and verification of all the links listed within a given section of the VL (Ciolek 1996b); provision of succinct yet comprehensive annotations describing contents of any site referred to by a link listed within the given VL, and finally, encouragement of feedback and other communications from the readers coupled with the prompt acknowledgment of most if not all of reader's messages.
In other words, the overall aim of the Asian Studies VL is to provide an online reader with an annotated catalogue of essential network materials covering given area of expertise. These materials are expected to be trustworthy, factual, up-to-date and reliably accessible online from a whole range places in the world -- both technologically advanced and backward ones. Naturally, this aim as well as these tacit rules and housekeeping policies clearly reflect the general ethos and 'culture' of the WWW VL project as a whole.
4. The Asian Studies WWW VL compared with other online Asian resources guides
As already mentioned, the Asian Studies VL is a subject guide to Internet resources. Its objectives, therefore, are similar to those of several other Web indices and catalogues of Asian-focus materials published on the Net, such as:
* YAHOO (http://www.yahoo.com/Regional/Regions/Asia/)
* CITY.NET or (http://city.net/regions/asia/)
* H-NET - Asia-Pacific Network (http://h-net.msu.edu/~asia/)
* THE IIAS INTERNET GUIDE TO ASIAN STUDIES (http://iias.leidenuniv.nl/asia/start.html).
* ASNIC- Asian Studies Network Information Center (http://asnic.utexas.edu/asnic.html)
However, a closer look at these systems also reveals a number of significant structural and organisational differences :
Table 1: Asian Studies VL and selected other online Asian-focus info. systems - a comparison
Criterion/Info. System VL YAHOO CITY.NET H-NET IIAS ASNIC Asian focus site yes no no yes yes yes catalogues over 500 yes no no no no? no links all Asian countries yes no yes no yes no covered scholarly/research site yes no no yes yes yes? pages frequently updated yes no yes? no no no systematic collection yes no yes no yes? no policy new links evaluated yes no yes? yes? yes no dead links removed yes no no? yes yes no? links fully annotated yes no no no yes no distributed/collaborative yes no no no no no system materials added manually yes no yes yes yes yes readers input encouraged yes yes yes no yes yes own search engine present no yes yes yes no yes hierarchical structure yes no yes yes yes yes links from other sites * 158 33 2 18 12 15 Total of 'yes' answers 13 2 6+2? 6+1? 9+1? 5+1?
* Number of hypertext links established all over the world to the top-level page of each of the information systems as recorded by the Altavista database
The above comparison seems to suggest a certain, although not very pronounced, similarity between the VL and IIAS guides. It also reveals the distributed nature of the online resources tracking and cataloguing tasks as the most unique feature of the Asian Studies VL system. Indeed, this is so: in July 1996 Asian Studies cataloguing activities were carried out by 18 editors (7 in USA, 6 in Australia, 1 each in Macau, Malaysia, Portugal, Taiwan and Thailand)
5. Transformations in the Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library
Asian Studies Virtual Library is not a static system as it undergoes constant change and evolution. Three trends can be discerned for the pages comprising the Asian Studies VL project.
Firstly, the Asian Studies VL pages (unlike pages of the YAHOO or CITY.NET indexing projects, which forever grow) tend to vary in their overall size. They grow together with the corresponding growth in the volume of the relevant online resources. However, they also occasionally shrink as a result of the elimination of links to lesser quality materials.
Secondly, the Asian Studies VL tends to become more and more selective in its coverage. With the passage of time and the associated growth in the volume and scope of online facilities the VL increasingly often concentrates on tracking online information systems, or topical collections of resources and much less on tracking individual documents or facilities. In practice, this means a slowly evolving but fundamental division of on-line labour: while various online facilities, such as archives of documents and databases are in the business of provision of scholarly or factual data; the 'raison d'etre' of a system designated as a Asian Studies Virtual Library is to track, filter, collate, update and disseminate the specialist meta-data, that is information about the worthwhile online sources of worthwhile information.
Thirdly, the Asian Studies VL tends to annotate its links in the increasingly detailed and professional way. Each link is expected to provide comprehensive information about the resource it refers/leads to: the resource's type and name, details of its geographical location, and those of the online publisher as well as the basic information on the resource's content. In this manner the Virtual Library gradually transforms itself from an initial simple bibliography/ catalogue/ listing of hypertext links into an intricate and comprehensive encyclopaedic study guide.
6. The structure of Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library
As noted above, the Asian Studies WWW VL is a distributed information system. First of all, there are a number of 'central' resources (eg. bibliographies, registers of e-journals, register of mailing lists etc) as well as 26 region- and country-specific resource guides situated at the coombs.anu.edu.au address. Next, these central materials are linked to the 17 specialist country-specific Virtual Libraries (AUSTRALIA, EAST TIMOR, INDIA, INDONESIA, JAPAN, LAOS, MACAU, MALAYSIA, MONGOLIA, NEPAL, NEW ZEALAND, PAPUA NEW GUINEA, SAUDI ARABIA, TAIWAN, THAILAND, TIBET, VIETNAM), each managed by volunteers at its own site. Thirdly, the VL collaborates on the cataloguing tasks with two other Virtual Libraries, namely
* the MIDDLE EAST STUDIES WWW VL (http://menic.utexas. edu/mes.html), maintained at the University of Texas at Austin, USA and
* the PACIFIC STUDIES WWW VL (http://sunsite.anu.edu.au/ spin/wwwvl-pacific/index.html), maintained by the National Center for development Studies, ANU, Australia.
Finally, Asian Studies WWW VL makes a frequent use of resources collated by the Buddhist Studies WWW Virtual Library (http://www.ciolek.com/WWWVL-Buddhism.html) and the Demography & Population Studies WWW Virtual Library (http://coombs.anu.edu.au/ResFacilities/DemographyPage.html).
As far as the 'central' resources are concerned they consist of 60 hierarchically nested WWW documents. These documents are catalogued within the Asian Studies VL top level page (http://coombs.anu.edu.au/WWWVL-AsianStudies. html). Each of the lower-level hypertext documents is 'module' covering a specialised geographical or subject area.
Part 1 - pages pertaining to the entire Asian continent:
* Asian Studies - Meta-Resources Register (an annotated catalogue of 28 information facilities)
* Asian Studies - E-Lists Register (David Bedell's 1995 annotated register of email-based resources dealing with Northeast Asia, China (incl. HK, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Religious lists)
* Asian Studies - E-Journals Register (an annotated catalogue of 98 Asian studies online e-journals and newsletters)
* Asian Studies - Asian Continent Infoservers Register (providing access to 42 online information facilities)
* Asian Studies - WAIS Databases Register (providing access to 42 online data bases)
* Asian Studies - Catalogue of Other Useful Servers (providing access to 58 networked resources)
* Clearinghouse for Social Sciences Subject-Oriented Bibliographies (a catalogue of 151 online public access bibliographies)
* What's New in WWW Asian Studies online newsletter (http://coombs.anu. edu.au/asia-www-news.html). The Newsletter offers a dependable, timely, and high-grade current-awareness service by reporting URLs and brief summaries for new or recently upgraded WWW, Gopher and FTP sites dealing with Asia and Asian studies. The newsletter has been published since April 1994, with monthly issues being stored at the Archives of What's New - Asian Studies and individual items of information being accessible via the ANU-Asia-WWW-Gopher-News-L database. It is, so far, the world's only electronic current awareness service specialising in Asian studies online materials. In addition to the web pages and wais database the newsletter is also available in the form of e-mail postings distributed, nearly every day, to some 270 subscribers. During the 27 months period since the inception of the newsletter till early July 1996 the newsletter published over 700 news-items with details of the new online resources of importance to the Asian Studies. Further information on the operations of the newsletter is available from Ciolek (1995)
Part 2 -pages dealing with specific regions and countries of the Asian continent:
* CAUCASUS section with links to the following country-specific pages: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Georgia
* CENTRAL ASIA section with links to the following country-specific pages: Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, as well as a link to independently managed Virtual Library for Mongolia.
* SOUTH ASIA section with links to the following country-specific pages: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, as well as a link to independently managed Virtual Libraries for India , and Nepal
* SOUTH EAST ASIA section with links to the following country-specific pages: Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Philippines, Singapore, as well as links to independently managed Virtual Libraries for East Timor, Indonesia , Laos , Malaysia , Thailand, and Vietnam.
* EAST ASIA section with links to the following country-specific pages: China, Hong Kong, Korea (Nth), Korea (Sth), Russian Far East & Siberia, as well as links to independently managed Virtual Libraries for Japan , Macau , Taiwan, and Tibet.
* direct link to the MIDDLE EAST WWW VL providing the following country-specific pages: Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, as well as a link to independently managed Virtual Library for Saudi Arabia,
* direct link to the PACIFIC OCEAN WWW VL with further links to materials on all Pacific countries, including links to independently managed Virtual Libraries for Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
In sum, the "coombs.anu.edu.au" or core section of the Asian Studies VL provides 60 hypertext pages with information on 26 countries/ territories. These materials are connected to 90 further pages residing at other Internet addresses in Australia, Asia, Europe and North America, and which cover additional 17 countries/ territories. Finally links are established to the Middle East VL which offers 38 pages with materials on 14 Middle East and 7 North African countries, and with the Pacific Studies VL which offers a single page with materials on 27 countries/territories from the Pacific Basin region.
7. Usage of the Asian Studies WWW Virtual Library
An analysis of the Web traffic to the coombs.anu.edu.au system during a period of 112 hrs (00:00 hrs Sun 30 June - 16:00 hrs Thu 04 July 1996) shows that during that period the Coombsweb WWW server was accessed, on average, 5559 times/day. Of that traffic 49.3 % of the connections to the Coombsweb server originated in North America (i.e. USA and Canada), 20.1% in Australia, 12.2% in Europe, 11.0% came from sites spanned by international and military networks, 6.0% came from Asia, while the reminder of the traffic originated in Pacific, South America and Africa (0.6%, 0.6% and 0.2% respectively)
Of those 5559 daily connections to the Coombsweb site, 19.6% of the accesses (1090 hits/day) were addressed to the pages comprising the Asian Studies WWW VL project. At the same time, an interrogation of the Altavista database (1996) carried out on 5 July 96 shows that on that day there were over 20,000 hypertext links aimed at the Coombsweb site. Out of these links there were 1144 links (5.7% of all linkages to the Coombsweb site) established explicitly to the pages of the Asian Studies WWW VL. The 10 most frequently accessed and 10 most frequently cited Asian Studies pages are as follows:
Table 2: Most frequently accessed and most frequently linked pages of the Asian Studies VL
Asian Studies VL page accesses/day links from other sites* Asian Studies WWWVL top page 407 158 'What's New ' Newsletter [current 122 103 issue] China page 81 87 'What's New ' Newsletter [past issues] 42 31 E-Lists Register 41 70 Bibliographies Clearinghouse 37 105 South East Asia section of the VL 26 24 South Korea page 26 30 East Asia section of the VL 21 13 E-Journals Register 19 55 Asian Continent Infoservers Register 19 65 Meta-Resources Register 11 55 WAIS Databases Register 12 43 Catalogue of Other Useful Servers 10 43
* Number of hypertext links established all over the world as recorded by the Altavista database (http://altavista.digital.com) on 5 July 1996.
These fourteen pages, comprising ten highest scoring pages in each of the two categories, are together responsible for attracting a total of 848 connections/day (77.8 % of all Asian Studies WWW VL accesses) and attracting 882 linkages (77.1% of all hypertext links citing Asian Studies WWW VL)
In sum, in early July 1996, the Coombsweb part of the Asian Studies WWW VL comprised 60 closely interlinked Web pages with annotated links to specialist WWW documents, FTP archives, electronic mailing lists, online databases, electronic journals as well as registers of telnet connections to Asian libraries and catalogues. These documents offered a cumulative total of over 540 links to networked resources all over the world and were accessed a total of 1090 times/day (i.e., around 388,000 a year). A quarter of those pages attracted approximately three quarters of traffic to the Asian Studies VL information system and a similar proportion of the hypertext links from sites all over the world.
8. A concluding note
The Coombsweb part of the Asian Studies WWW VL constitutes a small portion of a larger, global information system. In its effort to provide a high quality scholarly Internet guide to Asia, this system involves close cooperation between 17 other country-specific VL sites world-wide. It also enjoys good rapport and information-sharing with maintainers of the other related virtual libraries, especially those for Middle East and Pacific Studies. The distributed, collaborative nature of the project enables maintainers of each of the sections of the Virtual Library to focus on his/her area of specialisation, to build on each other's expertise, to depend on the jointly shared information facilities and to avoid wasting time and effort on replication of each other's web-monitoring and web cataloguing work.
While the general Asian Studies pages of systems such as YAHOO or CITY.NET may indeed be regularly attracting large - indeed very large - volumes of casual readers, there is no doubt that, ultimately, it is the expert Virtual Library resources which are going to be used for the real work of locating and retrieval of the necessary online data, and which (as the last row of the Table 1 above suggests) are perceived by sites all over the world as dependable and worthwhile online places for conducting serious and worthwhile online inquiries.
I am indebted to Dr David Kelly for his critical comments on the first
draft of this paper.
 The Unit is a seven person team responsible for the provision of computing and information services to over 800 researchers and staff of the Research Schools of Social Sciences & Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra.
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