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"Virtual Dirt" Team Creates a Virtual Gem of a Science and Technology Desktop Library at Department of Energy

A Case Study by Valerie Allen

October 2, 1998 - The United States Department of Energy's Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI), located at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has a 50-year tradition of serving customers with scientific and technical information, using technology, information science and subject experts to provide information in new and innovative ways. OSTI employees take a great deal of pride in the mission and legacy of the organization and in developing new ways to meet customer needs. As a result, grassroots efforts that result in new products and services are not unusual at OSTI. Their experience building a virtual library for Energy employees and customers provides an interesting case study.

OSTI has stewardship of DOE-sponsored energy-related scientific and technical information and is leading the effort to collect, add value to and make the information accessible. As technology has advanced, the means to achieve this mission have changed significantly, with options accelerating in recent years. In November 1996 OSTI Manager Chuck Morgan challenged a cross-organizational OSTI team to explore building a virtual library on the World Wide Web for energy-related scientific and technical information. OSTI management put together a team to address this potential new means of information delivery, the Virtual Library Design Requirements Team (VLDRT, fondly referred to as Virtual Dirt) to conceptualize, design and implement a Virtual Library at the grassroots level.

"Virtual Dirt"Team Members

Karen Spence, Assistant Manager for Program Direction and Information Access, champion for the overall effort, named Thurman Whitson of her office as the Project Leader. Karen also tapped employees sharing an interest in virtual libraries, bringing together varied skills and perspectives. Four information scientists, Valerie Allen, Mary Du Rea, Lorrie Johnson and Mary Ellen Haddox formed one-half of the team. Lorrie Johnson, also holding degrees in biochemistry and zoology, and Kelly Dunlap, an environmental scientist brought a scientific perspective to the table, while computer scientists Rita Hohenbrink and Charlene Luther provided expertise critical to project development.

The Project

The team conceptualized, designed and implemented this grassroots project, known as the EnergyFiles Virtual Library project. OSTI Senior Management supported and guided the project at key points. Since the concept of a virtual library itself is so new, the team spent initial meetings debating specifically what it was we were talking about building. The team conducted interviews with both technical and non-technical users of scientific and technical information, which were of value. The team focused on questions as "What do you use your (traditional) library for?" and "How could the Internet potentially make your daily work more efficient?" The team asked librarians, "In the face of budget cuts, what types of information resources are losing their availability?" We found that the answers to these and other questions, as well as the daily incoming queries and comments to the webmasters of established OSTI websites provided valuable insight into the form and structure of a useful virtual library. Our lengthy debates on concept proved extremely valuable as well, providing a strong, consistent focus on a now well-defined vision that has essentially remained intact throughout the project.

The Prototype

The goal of the EnergyFiles Virtual Library is to provide seamless electronic access to the vast energy-related scientific and technical information created through energy research conducted throughout the Department of Energy complex. At the same time, we wanted to integrate important related research results and enabling information and tools from other venues. In essence, the driving vision is to bring scientific and technical information to the desktop in an intuitive way. Here's what we did. Team members:

  • Wrote concept papers identifying the seven key elements of the virtual library: users, contributors, content and subject scope, technology, access and use, programmatic mission support and administration.
  • Moved on to creating specific development plans around these elements and ultimately to building a prototype.
  • Refined the prototype through input and endorsement from both within the Department of Energy-wide scientific and technical information community in Washington D.C. and at the National Laboratories and field offices throughout the country.
  • Finally decided it was ready for prime time.

OSTI unveiled EnergyFiles at OSTI's annual information management and technology conference, InForum in Oak Ridge, on May 1, 1997 less than 6 months after Senior Management issued the original challenge to the VLDRT team. With links to over 100 information collections and tools, the EnergyFiles prototype was successful in making previously dispersed information, often made obscure through decreasing budgets, web navigational inefficiencies, and general information overload, available through one location. Over the next month both the Chattanooga and the Knoxville (Tennessee) Technology Corridor Summits spotlighted the EnergyFiles Virtual Library.

EnergyFiles Today

After we evaluated user feedback and analyzed what worked and what didn't, we put a major revision in place approximately one year after the initial prototype. EnergyFiles today is a vast information resource of over 400 collections which information scientists and subject specialists organized into logical energy-related subject pathways that make using the website easy. While supporting Department of Energy programmatic missions and interests, EnergyFiles is also open to industry, academia and the general public, enabling taxpayers to gain increased access to information generated by their tax dollars. Here are some of the major site features:

  • Several other OSTI projects reside within the EnergyFiles domain, specifically the DoE Information Bridge which offers free fulltext of scientific and technical information reports online.
  • Another important feature of this site is the virtual workspace element. Ever-developing workspace tools offer users the capability of having information customized to meet their specific needs.
  • In one application, developed by National Air Intelligence Center, user-inserted text or entire websites may be translated from English into 10 foreign languages, or from one of two foreign languages into English.
  • A push technology application will allow users to be notified if subject content of interest has been added.

These workspace tools, which make use of developing technologies, give people who may not otherwise be able to locate or read information the ability to do so. In addition they support our ongoing efforts to interactively link library with laboratory in a virtual environment. Plans for further enhancements within the next fiscal year include the incorporation of distributed search capabilities to integrate information located at remote sites.

Fan Mail: EnergyFiles Is Great!

Our site has received positive comments. An unidentified user sent this comment about EnergyFiles, "Terrific! We put you in Favorites." From a records manager, "EnergyFiles is great!!! It's like one stop shopping for information." And from a naval technical information specialist, "What a nice collection of links!" The well-known Internet Scout Report newsletter which "highlights useful Internet sites for discerning Internauts...based on depth of content, author, information maintenance, and presentation" included EnergyFiles in its March 20, 1998 edition.

"Virtual Dirt" Team Work Continues

Perhaps as a tribute to the commitment of the VLDRT team, we remain essentially intact almost 2 years later calling on technical experts, David Bellis, Jannean Elliott, Tammy Spencer and David Amburn, to provide additional input and support. The team is still analyzing user feedback, evaluating the system and planning for new technologies that will further enhance functionality and usefulness. As a measure of its success, EnergyFiles will exceed 230,000 accesses this year at the current rate of usage. EnergyFiles is a publicly available website, found at

For More Information

For further information, contact Valerie Allen, Product Manager, Office of Scientific and Technical Information, U.S. Department of Energy at (423) 576-3469 or

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