Virtual Library Crystallography World Wide

World Wide Web Virtual Library: Crystallography

A Status Report by H.D. Flack on 31st March 1995


During 1992 a server for distributing crystallographic information and news was set up using the COSINE/RARE/EU system CONCISE based on a centralised UNIX server in the UK. Initially this system allowed only interrogation of the stored information by means of e-mail but later the possibility of interactive telnet sessions and gopher access was added. At the last minute the name of the server was changed from CONCISE to DISCUS.

The CONCISE system either by e-mail or telnet was always relatively heavy to use and attracted little attention by the scientific community in general. The availability of pc- and mac-based browsers for the World Wide Web in late 1993 sounded the death knoll for a project which never really fulfilled its aims. It should be pointed out however that it enabled the present author to gain some experience in providing, and the crystallographic community in using, electronically-based information systems. The part of the user community which seemed to most appreciate this system was drawn from East Europe. The crystallographic section of CONCISE was maintained until about April-May 1994 and then in September 1994 all information was removed.

The cost of the CONCISE/DISCUS hardware, software, system maintenance and support services was entirely borne by funding from the European Union through RARE. The collecting, editing and mark up of the crystallographic information was carried out by H.D. Flack of the University of Geneva during and out of working time. As at this time most information circulated in the form of ink or carbon on paper the only way to obtain electronic versions was by retyping. M. Teeter of Boston College was kind enough to provide her list of crystallographic announcements and employment openings for inclusion on CONCISE. As described below the editorial office in Chester provided Tables of Contents of Acta Crystallographica and the Journal of Applied Crystallography.

Crystallography in Europe

The availability in late 1993 of mac- and pc-based browsers (particularly MOSAIC) for the hypertext-multimedia World Wide Web system based on the Internet opened the way for further development in the distribution of crystallographic news and information. In late 1993-early 1994 all valid crystallographic information (apart from the Tables of Contents of the IUCr Journals) on CONCISE was marked up in HTML and moved to a WWW server belonging to the central computing service (SEINF) of the University of Geneva. The name 'Crystallography in Europe' was chosen.

The mark-up language HTML for WWW is very easy to learn and all of the markup was done in the ordinary text editor of a Sun workstation. There is however a nack to using hypertext to good effect and a certain style to develop. The notes written by Tim Berners-Lee are very instructive.

User reaction to the server was very positive (See the article hello, world printed in the SGK Newsletter, July 1994, 35 pp 12-13 or in shortened form in IUCr Newsletter 2 No. 3, p 27.). The majority of complaints received at this time concerned the difficulty or impossibility of installing a graphical browser on pc/Windows systems.

Aperiodic '94

Due to a fortuitous set of circumstances, it was possible to use the WWW server for the pre-conference display of the 197 abstracts (with hypertext subject, author and timetable indexes) and other (2nd circular) information for the Aperiodic '94 conference. The programme committee and participants found the distributed availability of the abstracts most useful.

The application of WWW to Aperiodic '94 was not planned in advance. It was really only feasible because e-mail had been chosen as the 'normal' mode of submission of abstracts. The hypertext arrangement of the indexes and other information evolved through a series of trial and error. This was inevitable since both the conference/programme organiser and the webmaster lacked any experience in this domain. Further there was no known conference using WWW in this way to be taken as a model. The printed abstract book of Aperiodic '94 was produced by offset from masters printed directly from Mosaic with the 'Print Postscript' option. After a little experimentation a suitable choice of fonts and page size could be found. For conference abstracts it was judged that this method was adequate. It certainly avoided the time and effort that would have been necessary to reformat the abstracts with a word processor.

There is no doubt that the major success of the Aperiodic '94 adventure as concerns WWW was to have convinced the organisers of ACA '95, Montréal of the feasibility and the desirability of applying WWW in the running of their conference. Further, this larger application could be planned in advance using the style (but not the techniques) of Aperiodic '94 as a model, and always with the even larger application to IUCr XVII, Seattle, in mind.

Tables of Contents of IUCr Publications

B. McMahon, in conjunction with the IUCr editorial office in Chester, set up, starting early in 1993, a system to directly provide CONCISE with suitably marked-up files containing the Tables of Contents of all volumes of Acta Crystallographica and the Journal of Applied Crystallography starting early in 1993. In the event, the flow of these Tables of Contents to CONCISE was somewhat erratic, not due to technical reasons, but rather due to the very stressing circumstances surrounding the death of Jim King in 1993. When the flow of the Table of Contents restarted spontaneously in early 1994, B. McMahon and H.D. Flack decided to stop their display, as by this time it was clear that CONCISE was a cul-de-sac technology and all other information was in the throes of being transferred from CONCISE to the Geneva World Wide Web server. The Table of Contents for 1993 plus one or two issues of 1994 remained on CONCISE until September 1994 when they were marked up in HTML by H.D. Flack and moved to the same World Wide Web server in Geneva. At the end of March 1995 these files were copied by B. McMahon to the IUCr WWW server in Chester and augmented with the more recent indexes to form the Table of Contents of the IUCr journals. At the same the copies of the indexes on the Geneva server were replaced by links to the Chester server.

The experience of the use of WWW for ACA '95 (a medium to large crystallographic conference) further confirms that with careful forethought, a decent spreadsheet and a reasonble text editor, it is clearly possible for the IUCr Technical Editor's office to deliver Tables of Contents and Abstracts for IUCr Journals to a WWW server with very little recurring overhead. The system needs however to be organised and set up. A system can readily be designed to generate the Table of Contents for issues and cumulative indexes both for the printed and hypertext versions. The market attractiveness of the IUCr journals would be considerably increased by the availability of hypertext indexes, be they on a net-based or CD-ROM system. The treatment of abstracts and indexes for journals has much in common with that of abstracts for conference contributions. The latter is a recurring activity that each conference programme organiser has to learn and deal with locally. It might be feasible to cover the financial investment of gaining expertise in this area for the Chester office by selling abstract-and-index services to organizers of (crystallographic) conferences.

World Wide Web Virtual Library: Crystallography

Virtual Library Crystallography

In September 1994 another reorganisation of the servers was undertaken. All information on crystallography was removed from CONCISE/DISCUS apart from a short message pointing to the Geneva WWW server. The latter was restructured in the style of the World Wide Web Virtual Library and registered as the Crystallography entry with the WWW team at CERN.

The WWW Virtual Library arose from an idea of Tim Berners-Lee to create a global, distributed and authorative resource structuring the information available over the WWW. The WWW VL provides links to pages arranged by subject and geographical location. These individual pages are prepared in a prescribed (but nevertheless unconstraining) style by specialists in the chosen field (or regional editors in the case of the geographical index). Some subject editors of the W3VL produce little more than lists of links to known WWW servers, whilst others try provide a sort of encylopedia style introduction to the subject. The general editor of the W3VL at the W3O in MIT which replaced the CERN WWW team maintains a mailing list for W3VL editors. This list is used to inform editors of general changes, additions and deletions in the W3VL and also provides a discussion table for subjects touching the W3VL as a whole. In recent weeks, the principal topics have been the generation of usage statistics of W3VL pages necessary for testing market impact and justifying resources, and lately the whole problem of providing resources and finance to the W3VL.

Several sources of information for the W3VL Crystallography are used. Postings to the usenet newsgroups sci.techniques.xtallography and bionet.xtallography are very helpful. Direct e-mail communication to the W3VL Crystallography editor is a major source. Searching or crawling around the web localises other WWW servers. M. Teeter kindly continues to send her list. The technical editor of Zeitschrift für Kristallographie provides diskettes of ASCII files containing titles with authors and page numbers of each issue and yearly running accumulated subject and author indexes. There are also one or two mailing lists providing articles. Information presented as ink or carbon on paper is refused. Articles are hardly ever presented marked up in HTML, the native 'language' of the WWW. This might at first sight seem discouraging but on reflection it is not surprising. Those people having experience with HTML are those running a WWW server and they will most often store their article on their own server and consequently only need to distribute its URL.

The W3VL Crystallography editor has attempted not only to gather and structure information of crystallographic interest available in computer-readable form but also to stimulate awareness and use of the WWW and to experiment its novel possibilities. The current content of the server makes it very much a crystallographic server for crystallographers. Nothing is at present on line by way of popularisation, explanation or historical introduction to crystallography and no steps have been taken in this direction. For sure some of the articles in the IUCr Newsletter would provide a suitable starting point for such a general section. In the education section a suitably indexed list of books and texts for crystallography needs to be provided. Currently the 'computer programme' section is in need of being completely restructured with multiple indexes and the server needs the installation of some more general search software in the CGI level. A recent initative in the mode of submission of information attempts to draw together the sci.techniques.xtallography and bionet.xtallography newsgroups with the W3VL-Crystallography to exploit their respective advantages. Two crystallographic associations (ACA and BCA) have set up their own WWW servers and one IUCr Commission is known to be in the throes of so doing.

As set up in Geneva, the documents for the WWW are prepared using a standard text editor on a Unix workstation NOT running a hpttd (WWW) server. The files are viewed and corrected using a browser working in local mode and then transferred by ftp to the server machine when a satisfactory result has been obtained. This ensures a strict minimum of interruption of service to users whilst modifications to the content of the server are being made. By separating certain sections of the server into different subdirectories, it would also be possible to allow outside users to maintain their own section of the server were this requested.

Some statistics of usage of W3VL:Crystallography are available on a monthly basis from the server itself.

The cost of the 'Crystallography in Europe/W3VL Crystallography' hardware, software, system maintenance and support services and further the collecting, editing and mark up of the crystallographic information by H.D. Flack is entirely borne by the University of Geneva.

Statistical Descriptors


The two reports commissioned by the IUCr Commission on Nomenclature and published in Acta Crystallographica in 1989 and 1995 have been combined into a hypertext document marked in HTML and made available over the web. These documents were particularly suitable for this treatment as the contents include a glossary of statistical terms for crystallography which is referenced at many points in the text. The production of this combined report is more an exercise to show the advantages of hypertext over print than an example of the advantages of net-based disemination of information. It would look equally as impressive and be just as useful on CD-ROM or floppy disks.

Concluding Remarks

For the W3VL Crystallography to continue to develop, more resources need to be able available. Further it would be prudent to spread the load over more than one institution and one person. Internet based activities allow this to be achieved technically with little trouble. No difficulties are foreseen at the moment with server hardware-software and ancillary equipment in Geneva. The University is already upgrading part of its network to FDDI technology and another project is experimenting with ATM. However a potential bottleneck for which no solution has been found is in the 'technical editor' work of keeping the server up to date e.g. receiving new postings by e-mail or from the newsgroups, correcting mistakes, chasing after dangling links, etc. These routine tasks (~1.25 hr per working day) are impeding the development of the server.

 H. D. Flack
 Laboratoire de Cristallographie, University of Geneva, Switzerland

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