the Temasek Polytechnic Library decided to recreate its online
presence as a state-of-the-art digital library, I had not yet
been hired.I was still in South Africa, having just moved from
working for an academic library into training librarians for
a local library systems vendor. As a result, I missed out on
all the meetings, reports, and proposals that marked the beginnings
of this mammoth project in early 1998. Of course, reading about
how much effort went into these early stages, I cannot honestly
say I am sorry to have missed it all. It seems to me that when
I arrived at Temasek to start work as a reference librarian
in May 2000, it was just in time for the fun parts.
And yes, I do mean "fun
parts," although the entire project has not been without the
usual trials and tribulations. Try to imagine a group of librarians
working with a group of computer services people to satisfy
the online needs of about 13,000 young secondary- or high-school
students. Add to that mix the needs of about 1,300 staff members,
and you should have an inkling of what we were up against. We
reasoned, however, that other librarians before us had done
it, and had done it well, using the same basic ingredients,
so there was no reason to believe we would not serve up an equally
Our library is part of
Temasek Polytechnic, an institution for tertiary education located
in Singapore (a small island state in Southeast Asia).Of all
the libraries in Singapore, the Temasek Polytechnic Library
is unique in that it is the tallest, standing at 48.2 meters
(158 feet) high. Interestingly, it is also shaped like an enormous
plus signjust like in the game tic-tac-toe.
Ever since the commencement
of the library's automation program in 1990, the Temasek Polytechnic
Library was always eager to work with new technology. In fact,
it was the first polytechnic department to appear on the campus
Web pages. (For those of you who would like to see our current
site, the URL is http://www.tp.edu.sg/library.) Taking our history
into account, it stands to reason that we would be eager to
enter the digital library world.
Deciding How to Serve
Our Users Most Effectively
When the digital library
(DL) project was in the planning stages, numerous major systems
were identified for inclusion. These included a digital media
repository, a one-stop search system, a library system, a reference
management system, and the portal. The aim was to provide a
one-stop, single-search facility that would allow our users
to simultaneously search multiple resource databases, our digital
media repository (DMR), and our library catalog. The portal
was to present these services to the user, and we envisioned
being able to provide this borderless library by the end of
By October 2001, the
DL project teams had been grouped under five different areas:
the DMR, the hardware, the library system, metadata and indexing,
and the portal. Under the portal section we were further divided
into three separate teams that dealt with the functional aspects,
the technical and development aspects, and the presentation
and graphics. I was fortunate enough to be placed in the presentation
and graphics team, whose focus was the design of the DL portal.
It was also during the
planning stages that certain objectives were identified for
the DL portal. We wanted a user-friendly platform that would
allow our users access to information resources and services
through a one-stop gateway. We wanted this access to be available
from anywhere at any time, and we wanted the services to be
new and innovative. In other words, we wanted to enhance the
productivity of our library and of ourselves through the consolidation
and automation of our library systems, functions, and information
The Portal's Importance
We realized that the
portal would be the first point of contact for the users of
the DL and, as a result, probably the most important part of
the DL. First impressions do count. It is also important because
it is here that the content is brought together and categorized.
The average user does not want to spend a lot of time searching
for a service or for information. Unfortunately, the portal
can also be the cause of the greatest confusion, and this confusion
arose when I tried to come up with a definition for it.
When we began this project
we all had a very good notion of what was wrong with the Web
pages that we had at the time. (See Figure 1.) As the portal
was to replace these pages, we on the presentation and graphics
team started with the shortcomings previously identified by
the library's Web team. Working from there, we were very proud
of our resulting first design and continued along those lines
for several weeks. (See Figure 2.) However, it took a few simple
comments from the project manager to make us realize our error.
The project manager pointed
out that we had designed a Web page that did not show him what
he expected to be shown by a portal. That is, "everything at
a glance." His comments sparked off some heated discussions
as we soon realized that we could not agree on what a portal
was. Some said we should aim for something like Yahoo!, as it
was a good example of a portal, while others felt this would
be too cluttered and messy.
We did experiment with
a Yahoo!-type design, but it struck most of us, including other
library staff to whom we spoke, as being unsuitable for our
users. (See Figure 3.) Bearing in mind that some of our students
are as young as 16, we could not envision them being attracted
by this design's rigid corporate look. This made me realize
that things were not as simple as they had originally seemed.
Starting Over from
So that's when the research
began in earnest. A bit late, one might say, but I for one had
just assumed I knew what a portal was. After all, I had been
a librarian and a Web information gatherer for years! It was
at this stage that I discovered, to my relief, that there are
a lot of people out there who also have problems with defining
a portal. I was not alone in my confusion.
I found that some believe
a portal to be merely another Web site, albeit with quality-enhancing
services such as searching and links to related Web sites. Various
other definitions referred to a portal as a subject gateway,
a place to start surfing the Web, a single access point on a
Web browser, or even a one-stop Web site.
Other authors described
portals as a way for large companies with pots of money to provide
access to the Internet. If this were true, however, your average
library would never be able to afford a portal. Consider all
our sadly shrinking budgets! There was also a lot of information
out there about portal software and portal building tools, but
none of these were included in our budget, so I did not spend
too much time researching them.
Renewed discussions with
the portal team members resurfaced definitions like "everything
at a glance" and "one-stop service." I have problems with the
phrase "everything at a glance" because I believe we have too
much information to expect the user to see it all at once. Everything
at a glance implies, to me, one screen full of information with
no scrolling down required. The result, in my opinion, would
be too cluttered.
I found that there are
also horizontal portals, vertical portals, and even mega portals.
I was starting to feel that my quest for a definition was getting
me nowhere when I found a definition that made the most sense
to me as a librarian. On its Web site, Portal King
refers to a portal as a "system of integrated programs designed
to make it easier for a user to find information."This made
perfect sense to me, as it focused on the real issuemaking
it easier for the user to find information.
My research did, however,
uncover some common themes among the different definitions.
The general consensus seems to be that portals are browser-based
and used by millions in the form of Yahoo!. Portals are also
usually considered to provide a single access point to various
services and resources, and to help organize the massive volumes
of information available today. It was the "single access point"
that proved to be our sticking point.
The Missing Ingredients
What we had been doing
was concentrating on only one of our identified objectives,
allowing access to information resources and services through
a one-stop gateway. We thought we had designed a single-access-point
portal, but we had merely ended up with another Web page. This
is because our initial links took the user through a second
and sometimes even third level before arriving at the desired
information or service.
that the portal would be the first point of contact for the
users of the DL and, as a result, probably the most important
part of the DL. First impressions do count."
Unlike most Web pages,
what a portal does is provide access to information and services
with one click. Portals provide a single access point that takes
the users directly to where they want to go, and not through
a series of Web page layers. In other words, a portal gives
the users what they wantfast and hopefully reliable access
to information and services. In light of this, we had to decide
how we were going to design a true portal for our own users.
I should note here that
the library had earlier made the decision to switch to the ALEPH
500 library system by Ex Libris. We had also purchased MetaLib
and SFX from the same vendor. MetaLib, very simply, is a user
interface and portal that allows searching of a library's catalog
and its online databases at the same time. SFX is one of the
tools that powers MetaLib. Having MetaLib, however, placed certain
restrictions on our design. Although it is advertised as being
a portal in its own right, we found that we could not use it
as the basis for our portal. It was not as flexible as we needed
it to be with regard to layout and graphics. So we aimed for
our own design, something that would be simple and neat, and
yet still appeal to our users.
We began by looking carefully
at what we already had on our Internet and intranet pages. We
discarded some of what we considered superfluous and compiled
a list. After running this list by our colleagues in the functionality
team, we started looking at our proposed new services. With
hindsight, this was perhaps the wrong order of approach. We
might have been able to come up with a true portal design sooner
if we had concentrated on the new services we wanted to offer,
and not on our current Web pages.
Now We're Really Cookin'
Using our list, we then
placed everything into categories. Some of these categories
included quite a number of items, so we made extensive use of
drop-down menus. We found this type of menu to be an easy-yet-effective
way to take up less space and to hide a list until a user requires
it. We also found that we had to keep moving the items around
from category to category until we found a place that made the
most sense to the most people.
Along with these categories,
we wanted lots of graphics and plenty of white space to make
the text easier to read. We spent a long time in a debate over
which colors to use as the predominant ones, as many of the
team members wanted pale blue. The rest of us preferred to go
for a color that was a little less common. We eventually settled
for bright orange with dark blue accents. We chose orange because
it is supposed to be a color associated with creativity and
ideas, warmth, and cheerfulness. The dark blue seemed the best
choice for a complimentary color.
Once the colors had been
selected, we had a member of the polytechnic's Design School
create a special logo in collaboration with the digital library
naming team. I am sure this must have been a daunting task,
as the designer was given certain parameters within which to
work. The logo had to fit in with the portal design, it had
to portray the concept of a digital library, and it had to be
liked by nearly all of the librarians.
Other constraints that
we had to take into account in the portal's design included
the Temasek Polytechnic's Web publishing guidelines. We had
to include the polytechnic banner on the top of all our pages,
for example, and we were advised to stick to white for each
page background. Since a quick Web search for "cool Web pages"
turned up dark backgrounds as being favored, we had to make
sure our white ones would not be considered boring in comparison.
Our Recipe Is Approved
Once we had decided what
we wanted and where we wanted it, we needed to get it all approved
by our library director. Our designer and the members of the
technical and development team put our ideas together and created
the first draft of the portal. In April 2002, using a test Web
site, we made a formal presentation to our director and the
rest of the professional library staff. To our delight, 7 months
after we had started on the project, our design was approved
and we got the go-ahead.
From here onward the
work on the portal was done by outside contractors. We felt
that we did not have the necessary expertise, especially with
regard to the scripting for the drop-down menus. We told the
contractors what we wanted, and their job was to translate it
all into a fully functional Web portal in time for the November
2002 testing phase. The leader of the graphics and presentation
team (also our designer), together with the overall leader of
the three portal teams, liaised with the contractors.
After we had received
the contractors' first draft, however, our discussions with
them were brought to a halt by the release of the new and frameless
MetaLib version. We had designed our portal to highlight the
MetaLib, so any changes to it would necessarily have to be reflected
in the portal design. As it turned out, we only had a few minor
changes to make, such as adding some new buttons.
we sometimes tend to forget that the users have not been through
the same training, and that what may be obvious to us is probably
completely obscure to them."
We had also designed
the portal to showcase our e-Bulletin, an electronic bulletin
board that provides information on current library news, new
arrivals, and much more. For the other information to do with
our services, Web pages had to be created. This task fell to
the library Web team, of which I am a member. We came up with
a design for these pages that fit in with the design of the
portal and would, we felt, appeal to our users. As none of us
can be considered graphic artists, we decided to use digital
images of our students instead of the more conventional graphics.
The result was a simple page that, according to one of our team
members, was "clean, casual, communicative, and easy on the
eye." Exactly what we had been aiming for!
Lessons We Learned
in Our Own 'Test Kitchen'
Although our portal will
only be in its beta testing phase at the end of 2002, and we
are expecting to make changes based on the resulting feedback
from the library staff who will be doing the testing, we have
already learned some very interesting lessons. The one that
strikes me most is that when it comes to Web pages and portals,
what we say we want may change when we see what it looks like
in a browser. With the Web and all its graphical capabilities,
what the page looks like is almost as important as what is on
the page. Of course, this does mean that the poor designer had
to keep reworking the design until we were satisfied!
I also found that having
"non-librarians" on the team made it easier to see things from
a user perspective. As librarians, we sometimes tend to forget
that the users have not been through the same training, and
that what may be obvious to us is probably completely obscure
to them. Having genuine users on our team gave us a unique insight
on this perspective.
I learned a whole lot
about portals, of course, but for me the best part of this project
was watching our ideas rise and take shape as our very own digital
library portal. We may not have had as much money as we would
have liked, or even as much time as we wanted, but using the
ingredients at hand we cooked up a portal to be proud of, and
we had fun doing it. If the question is whether or not we can
design a polytechnic portal from scratch, the answer is "Of
course!" Or, as we would say in Singapore, "Can lah!"