The Finnish Virtual Library project "Virtuaalikirjastoprojekti" was initiated in May 1996 as a joint undertaking of five university libraries. The libraries involved are Jyväskylä University Library (project management), Kuopio University Library, Oulu University Library, the University of Art and Design Library, and Helsinki University of Technology Library. The project received funding through the Ministry of Education's programme "Developing a Finnish information society".
The aim of the Finnish Virtual Library project is to improve and increase the use of net data especially in higher education in Finland, to carry out an inventory of data available on the net and to develop user-friendly, subject-specific virtual libraries. The Virtual Library project focuses on the information supply of networks in higher education and research environment in Finland.
Each library had its special task area in the development of virtual libraries. These included, for example, compilation of material selection criteria, evaluation and development of structural models of virtual libraries, inventory of search robots, development of net data indexing, improvement of the user-friendliness and communicativeness of interfaces from a visual point of view, and carrying out of a user survey.
During autumn 1996 the project produced 13 subject-specific virtual libraries in the following fields: Arts and crafts, art education and visual communication, Care science and health care, Ecology, Education, Environmental health, Environmetal protection technology, Geography, Geology, History of ideas, Molecular medicine and gene therapy, Psychology, Sami language and culture, Sport science.
The main target group of the virtual libraries are students, teachers, and researchers in the field of science in question, but possibly also other information users in these fields.
All virtual libraries were constructed according to a structural model agreed on jointly. Subject-specific data found on the Internet were also selected according to shared selection criteria.
In the construction of virtual libraries, the expertise of information service personnel in the university libraries has been utilized, but the role of users has also been very important. The needs and opinions of users have been taken into consideration in every stage.
The virtual libraries are easy to find. They are located on the Internet servers of the libraries constructing them. The home page of the project, with access to all the virtual libaries produced in the project can be found on the Internet server of Jyväskylä University at http://www.jyu.fi/library/virtuaalikirjasto/
The aim is that these different virtual library pages together form one comprehensive, multidisciplinary virtual library. Certain similarity is sought in both their structure and visual appearance. These factors should facilitate their use.
The virtual libraries developed in the project are much more than just mere lists of links. The material included is evaluated according to previously determined criteria. The documents selected must meet certain content and quality criteria, but attention is also paid to the form of the document, and the interface as well as the technical functioning of the links. Only material of a sufficiently high standard is included. Each link is accompanied by a short assessment of its contents. In addition, some of the virtual libraries have links to the local, physical collections of the libraries (online databases, catalogues of journals, theses etc.). The virtual library pages contain a lot of guidance also in the use of net services at a more general level corresponding to traditional information and reference services in libraries. Virtual libraries also include word search.
The user survey: Most of these virtual libraries were opened for users on 1st September 1996 and the libraries have attracted considerable attention. By the end of 1996, the virtual libraries had been accessed c. 6,500 times via the projectís home page.
Most of the feedback received by the virtual libraries has been positive. This is revealed by the results of the user survey. The questionnaire, which was available on the web-page, was returned by 218 users during 1.9.-18.11.1996. A majority of the respondents were from within the science community and they were evenly distributed among all fields of science. Thus the respondents were highly representative of the main target group for whom the virtual libraries were contsructed.
On the whole, the visually modest and structurally simple virtual libraries were found to be user-friendly. Many users appreciated the fact that the links included in the virtual libraries were evaluated and updated by information specialists. The virtual libraries made it easier to find useful data on the Internet.
There was also some negative feedback. For example, the virtual libraries were criticized for presenting the information in the form of lists. The present selection of scientific fields was also considered too limited.
The virtual libraries constructed in the project are suitable for many purposes. They are used in real information searches, but they are also very useful as self-study materials. They are a guided way to learn the networks and may also encourage independent information searching. Since many people use virtual libraries in real information search situations, the guided and easy-to-use virtual libraries are an efficient way to learn to use networks and electronic materials. Learning by doing is more efficient than lectures and demonstrations. User participation in the construction and evaluation of virtual libraries is also an efficient form of network studies. Virtual libraries are also used as teaching material, but they do not compensate for the teaching of groups.
On the whole, the virtual libraries have responded succesfully to usersí data search needs. 91.7 per cent of the respondents who had evaluated a virtual library close to their own field of science intended to use the library again.
The future: The results of the user survey and the experiences gained from the project encourage the participants to continue the project. The project has plans e.g. to develop the essence of virtual libraries and the information services offered by them, to test various database solutions and to construct virtual libraries in new fields. The future role of libraries will include continuous evaluation of information resources on the net. A central task area is also to guide people in the use of networks and to make the use of networks as easy as possible. Virtual libraries are one way the libraries can answer future challenges.
(see also http://www.jyu.fi/library/virtuaalikirjasto/)