Newsline from EDINA
July 2005: Volume 10, Issue 2

EDINA > News > Newsline > Newsline 10.2 > Twenty years in the Data Library world


Twenty years in the Data Library world

As we approach EDINA's 10th birthday, having recently celebrated Edinburgh University Data Library's 20th, it is timely to review progress in our area of expertise. Edinburgh University Data Library, EUDL, was set up in 1983 as a joint initiative of the University's Computing Services and Edinburgh University Library. In the computing world of the time mainframes ruled; IBM had just launched their PC desk top machine in Europe; MS-DOS was on version 2.0 (promoted as "also supporting hard disks and subdirectories"); Microsoft had not taken over the earth; TCP/IP was the protocol suite for accessing the emerging Internet; email was becoming routine to the initiated; Domain Name Server (DNS) was introduced and JANET was established in the UK.

In Edinburgh the Program Library Unit section of CAST (Centre Application Software Technology, later absorbed into Edinburgh University Computing Services) converted IBM mainframe software to run on ICL hardware. PLU wrote SASPAC census extraction software - several versions later, SASPAC is still widely used. Disk storage was an expensive, remote commodity. Researchers wanted, nay craved, access to census statistics, government surveys, etc. and petitioned the University of Edinburgh for university wide provision of access to large data sets - hence the birth of EUDL.

Peter Burnhill was appointed Manager in 1984 and Alison Bayley joined in 1985 as a programmer. The total staff then rose mightily to 4 FTE's, including a cartographer expert in GIMMS, the mapping package created by the late Tom Waugh and forerunner of yet to be invented GIS. Census data and boundary files were linked through the in-house software UMapIt. Our interest in spatial data has always been strong and our cartographer mounted the sample digital Ordnance Survey data. Today Digimap rules, along with UKBORDERS.

From very early days, the Data Library offered users information on services, facilities, access restrictions, etc. through 'datalib', a mainframe based online information service navigated through hyperlinks.

In 1986 BBC launched a project to produce Domesday for modern times. The system relied on a BBC micro, plus Phillips interactive video player and 12" optical disks. Massive quantities of map-able and other data, local community information collected by schools and enthusiasts, news items by video clip, image galleries, etc. featured. The interface was through a zoomable map, hyperlinks, bookmarks, galleries and navigational aids (familiar language today?). EUDL was contracted to provide the agricultural grid square data for Scotland and still owns one of the very few remaining systems. Unfortunately the unique formats used and dedicated software proved a major challenge to unlocking the resource from the hardware - digital curation was not high in the list of priorities. DCC, the Digital Curation Centre, was not yet on the horizon.

Geographic information, including spatially referenced data, has been a focus from the beginning. In the 70s the late Jack Hotson and Professor Terry Coppock worked on algorithms to convert parish based agricultural census data to grid square estimates, with the aim of making the data more representative of agricultural distribution and more easily related to other data sets held at different geographies. Mapping software CAMAP, later reborn as GRIDMAP, gave users the ability to map distributions on line printers, then laser printers. EDINA recently launched the agcensus service nationally, with data from 1969 into the 21st century.

And so the Data Library flourished, engaging in various programmes and initiatives. Jointly with the Geography Department we gained recognition as the ESRC Regional Research Laboratory for Scotland, focusing on quantitative techniques in the Social Science. RAPID: Research Activity and Publications Information Database, was established in 1990 as the first on-line system in the UK linking descriptions of research activity with outputs, from ESRC-funded projects. In 1997 it was succeeded by the REGARD service run by the ILRT at the University of Bristol. We ran the British Survey of Fertiliser Practice for 6 years.

SALSER, a web-based 'virtual' catalogue of serials in Scottish university, national & civic libraries, still an EDINA service, was introduced in the early 90s. Now the SUNCAT Project is developing a Serials UNion CATalogue for the UK. SUNCAT will be both the key tool for locating serials held in UK libraries and a central source of high-quality records that can be used by university and college libraries to upgrade their local catalogues. The pilot service containing records from 22 leading research libraries was launched on 10 January 2005.

EUDL staff have been active members of IASSIST since the early 80s. IASSIST, the International Association of Social Science Information Service & Technology, is the international organisation for professionals working with information technology and data services to support research and teaching, in particular in the social sciences. A particular focus from early days has been the provision and identification of metadata in relation to machine readable data files.

IASSIST conferences have brought together data professionals, data producers and data analysts from around the world for over thirty years. Every four years the conference meets in Europe where it is jointly run by IASSIST and IFDO, the International Federation of Data Archives (formerly Organisations). The last time it met in the UK was in 1993 when we hosted the Conference in Edinburgh. It was gratifying that Edinburgh was chosen again for IASSIST/IFDO 2005 - this time hosted by Edinburgh University Data Library with assistance from EDINA.

In 1995 we achieved JISC designation as national Data Centre and EDINA, Edinburgh Data & Information Access, launched on 25 January 1996. And, as they say, the rest in history - or is it? Initially on offer were bibliographic services, but the remit has expanded in major steps to encompass geographic and spatially referenced data, images and moving pictures. Project work accounts for about half of our activity. A critical mass of expertise is in place. The Data Library still offers direct service to University of Edinburgh staff and students, as team within the whole operation. EDINA services build and benefit from the past. How should we prepare for the next twenty years? Our approach was and is to take the long view. The trick is in choosing what to do next.