Technology Trends: Unravelling the web

9 October 2003

Review by Benjamin Wheal

Reviewer’s note:
It was with some trepidation that I agreed to take notes on a seminar about XML, RSS and CMS. Years at uni taught me that my preferred learning method of sitting in the front row and nodding gravely does not guarantee any understanding of what anyone actually says. Recent attendance at another XML seminar confirmed this. On the bright side, hopefully I have made several technical errors in the following synopsis which will stimulate lively and entertaining debate.

It was refreshing to listen to speakers who complimented their impressive knowledge by enthusing about their topics too.

Content Management Systems

Sean Abel gave a brief introduction to Content Management Systems, speaking from his experiences at the State Library of South Australia.

Content management refers to software developed for the maintenance of internet and intranet sites.

The central concept of content management systems is that they separate the control of content from the control of presentation. Examination of a line of html code illustrates the difference between content and presentation:

<i>the quick brown fox jumped over a lazy dog<⁄i>

where the <i> tags control the presentation of the content that sits between them (the text) to produce a result that looks like:

the quick brown fox jumped over a lazy dog

Traditionally, web pages are static, and managed through editors such as frontpage or dreamweaver. However, maintenance of a large website can be difficult with these editors. Updates, such as style changes, that apply to every page may need to be applied individually to every page (which can become a tedious exercise).

CMS’s overcome this problem by using a single presentation template for an entire website. CMS’s let individual editors provide the text (or content) which is then uploaded to the template so that the presentation, look and feel of the website is kept consistent. (CMS may even let editors add menus, links and buttons that match the template).

And so, if an organisation undergoes a change of image (e.g. wants every page to become yellow) all the webmaster has to do is change the template once and all pages will change. Or, if the address of a page on a website changes, then the CMS can assure that all internal hyperlinks to that page may also change.

Obviously this frees up the webmaster’s time for more important tasks (which apparently involve risotto).

CMS’s also allow for workflow to be regulated. Restrictions may be placed so that people can only change pages from their own area, and mechanisms may be introduced so that pages must be reviewed by the webmaster or approved by management before they are uploaded.

A CMS may even allow a site to be “rolled back” to a historical record of the site which is kept on file (and generated from previous templates). This is a handy preservation tool where the prior content of websites has legal implications (e.g. for government websites that produce and make public legislature or determinations).

The tendering and planning process for a CMS for a large organisation is a long and complex process (it took 2 years for the State Library of South Australia). Sean emphasised that it was important to engage with a CMS software provider who was easy to work with and willing to work through problems (and it was fortunate that the successful tender applicant was local).

The SLSA choice for an XML based system turned out to be the right choice – XML has taken off in a big way. But Sean modestly said that is important to know when you are lucky and when you are clever.

XML

Arne van Zilj spoke with fervour about some topics relating to XML.

Arne observed that librarians and information techologists are two sides of the same coin – the former disseminate, locate and preserve information, the latter process and provide the machinery for doing so.

XML is an initialism for Extensible Markup Language (yes, it should be EML but that’s not as cool sounding is it?). XML is a language for writing language.

As library and information workers what we need to understand is that it XML bridges the gap between different file formats, making possible the translation of data between systems. An example of this is an online catalogue which is a browser friendly representation of the information contained in a library’s database of MARC records. Potentially, using XML software, a searcher for information can access a number of different databases, library catalogues and content from a single portal.

RSS (Rich Site Summary) is an example of an XML language for capturing metadata. RSS: Rich Site Summary is an XML-based language which can be used by developers to describe their sites and to make their content available to others (for example, for syndication; that is, for dispersing information to a wide variety of consumers in different formats).

However, for RSS to be effective for all users the developers of the language need to settle upon some kind of standard.

However, the progression of new IT developments (and IT standards) can be hampered by the corporate imperative of the organisations which develop the technology – a competitive mentality often discourages cooperation (rather than fosters it) , which runs against the grain of efforts to make cross-format data sharing easier.

There are currently 2 or 3 different parties laying claim to the “standard” for RSS, manifest in “the Blog Wars”. (Blogs (or Web-logs) are sites that allow users to submit simple text files, which then turn the submitted text into a formatted page. This uses RSS.) The main Blog competitors (Userland, Moveable Type and Blogger) are developing their own RSS standards. This may hamper the development and universality of the standards.

It is contentious to determine who should lay claim to ownership of a “standard”. Ultimately a standard must be simple to use, have some traction and momentum (i.e. become popular) and usually needs to have the backing and interest of large IT companies.

Portals

Helen Walkden spoke about portals, giving a front-end view of what the back-end technical stuff actually means for many of us.

She introduced the SA Public Library Network’s online portal.

Its features include a “24 hour library” of web resources organised in a subject tree (the Computing: Dictionaries and Glossaries branch proved very helpful when working out what my own seminar notes actually meant). There is also a “Locate a Library” page which lets you locate the nearest public library by entering a post code, street name, locality etc. A groovy map pops up showing the locations and listing the street addresses.

Portals may allow simultaneous searching across many resources (I assume using some of that XML magic). For example, the National Library of Australia’s Public Library Portal is a website that will provide access to diverse information services (e.g. National Bibliographic Database, Picture Australia, Australia Public Affairs Fulltext) from a single entry point. Searches across all of these resources may be simultaneously carried out through a single search query which retrieves, bib records, photos and more.

Speaker biographies

Sean Abel (State Library, South Australia)

Sean Abel is an information and communication technology (ICT) project officer at the State Library. Sean has taken a rather non-standard pathway towards the role of a computer systems worker, through studying zoology at Adelaide university and completing graduate studies in environmental management at the Mawson Graduate Centre for Environmental Studies. He is not a librarian by training.

Arne van Zilj (UniSA)

Currently – web coordinator UniSA Library. Previously worked in the development of the connectsa SA government web portal project. Also, previously e-learning resources and web developer with Flinders University.

Helen Walkden (PLAIN)

I have been employed by PLAIN for the past 7 years, starting as a cataloguer and moving to the P2 development project. I am currently Manager Technical Services and have been in the position for almost 3 years.

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