Computers in Libraries
Vol. 22, No. 10 Noc/Dec 2002

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Can We Cook Up a Polytechnic Portal from Scratch? Can Lah!
by Debby R. Wegener

When 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 successful portal.

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 sign—just 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 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 2002.

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 sources.

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 Scratch

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 issue—making 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.

"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."

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 want—fast 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.

"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."

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!"


Further Reading

Lakos, Amos and Chris Gray. "Personalized Library Portals as an Organizational Culture Change Agent." Information Technology and Libraries. 19.4 (Dec. 2000). 25 Feb. 2002.

Lim, Edward. "Using portal technologies to develop the common user interface (CUI)." Malaysian Journal of Library and Information Science. 5.1 (Jul. 2000): 1­18.

Pickering, Chris. "A Look Through the Portal." Software Magazine. Feb./Mar. 2001.

Rowley, Jennifer. "Portal Power." Managing Information. 7.1 (Jan./Feb. 2000): 63­64.

"What is a Portal?" Portal King. 20 Feb. 2002.

"What is a Portal, Anyway?" Corporation for Research & Educational Networking (CREN). 20 Feb. 2002.

Debby R. Wegener is the design reference librarian at the Temasek Polytechnic Library in Singapore. She holds a master of applied science (information studies) from Charles Sturt University in Australia. Her e-mail address is
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