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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2004

URLs in this document have been updated. Links enclosed in {curly brackets} have been changed. If a replacement link was located, the new URL was added and the link is active; if a new site could not be identified, the broken link was removed.

[Board accepted]

Partnering to Provide Agricultural Biotechnology Information -- University of Maryland AgNIC Gateway

Beth Roberts
Agricultural Sciences Librarian
University of Maryland Libraries, College Park

Alesia McManus
University of Maryland Libraries, College Park

Stuart Gagnon
Water Quality Information Center
National Agricultural Library


This paper is an overview of the University of Maryland's AgNIC agricultural biotechnology gateway. The purpose of our gateway is to provide access to high-quality agricultural biotechnology information on the Internet. We organized our AgNIC site so that database content could be developed with other partners. Currently, the University of Maryland is working collaboratively on our site with the National Agricultural library. Partners can be institutions or individuals working with us to add information in their areas of subject expertise. In order to allow for partners in distributed locations, we decided to implement an AgNIC "centroid." We will describe how we set up the centroid and what technical and policy issues we have faced. We will also discuss the manual we are developing that would guide partners in adding content to our site.

Purpose and History of the Gateway

This paper discusses the purpose and development of the University of Maryland {AgNIC agricultural biotechnology gateway} (See Figure 1). The important point is that we have tried to design a system to enable participation by national and international partners. We will discuss the history of the gateway, its technical development, and our current efforts to expand participation. We will also describe the technical and policy issues we have faced as well as the manual we are developing to guide partners in adding content. We hope to encourage other libraries and organizations to join us in building a high-quality information resource for this increasingly important area of science.

AgNIC gateway
Figure 1: UM AgNIC Gateway

The {AgNIC} (Agriculture Information Network Center) is a "voluntary alliance of the National Agricultural Library, land-grant universities, and other agricultural organizations." Its purpose is to guide users to quality agricultural information on the Internet. Each partner has responsibility for one or more subject areas within AgNIC. These subject areas range from plant science, agricultural biotechnology and aquaculture to corn, tropical soils and the American cranberry. See the {list of partner sites.} Partners agree to provide 24-hour access to the content, to keep the site up-to-date, and to provide reference service.

The UM AgNIC Agricultural Biotechnology gateway includes biotechnology resources as they relate to domestic animals, plants, and food processing. Types of resources included are links to portals, indexes or gateways; organizations such as government agencies, international organizations and scientific societies and associations; mailing lists and discussion groups, databases, reports and publications. Commercial sites are included if they offer free Internet resources and services.

The gateway had its genesis in the Biotechnology Information Center (BIC) web site at the National Agricultural Library (NAL). In 1999, the University of Maryland Libraries were interested in joining the AgNIC Alliance and we needed to identify an appropriate subject area. NAL was looking for external support of BIC so a year later the two institutions entered into an understanding that led to a proposal to the AgNIC Executive Board for an agricultural biotechnology site. Some of the key issues we faced were the transition from the BIC site, a heavily used national resource, to the new gateway, and determining what technology to use to support a distributed system for adding content. Agricultural biotechnology encompasses many aspects of agriculture so we knew from the start that finding additional partners with the appropriate expertise would be important to the quality of the gateway.

We decided to implement an AgNIC "centroid" for several reasons. The term "centroid" comes from the terminology used to describe a "node" on distributed database system behind the AgNIC main gateway, which utilizes {ROADS open source software}. Creating our own "centroid" permitted us to have a searchable database of records, have the look and feel of the main AgNIC gateway, and gave us the potential to have partners submit records to the agricultural biotechnology database regardless of their location. This would also allow organizations that do not have the resources to maintain their own subject area to participate in AgNIC. Once we made the decision about which software would best support our goals, we had to make a smooth public transition from the BIC site to the new gateway. In collaboration with NAL, we migrated the BIC files to a server at UM Libraries. We then posted a notice on the BIC site that it would no longer be maintained and that a new gateway was under development for 2002. It is important to note that the {BIC site} is still available with many links to information prior to 2002.

Some Challenges and Opportunities

The BIC site is a static, hard-coded HTML information resource, which required a great deal of maintenance. Access to resources in the new UM AgNIC "centroid," or any ROADS-based database, depends upon the creation of metadata (in this case, linked bibliographic records) to represent and describe items located outside the AgNIC system. While a fledgling "centroid" does not automatically have large numbers of records, UM AgNIC's plan is to gradually produce an extensive value-added record set related to agricultural biotechnology. The creation of well-formed metadata is time-intensive.

Record creation began as three librarians fit this new work into our busy schedules. Still, we only very slowly built upon the meager set of records in the database. 'Extended retrieval' enhanced our search results sets by allowing for search- and browse-access to more than a mere handful of local records. The term, extended retrieval, means that "...multiple retrieval engines [can be] connected to each other and to multiple databases over networks." (Buckland and Plaunt 1994). The phrase may be unfamiliar, but the concept is commonplace.

ROADS provides for a searchable distributed metadata repository, with fields based upon the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative. The distributed nature of ROADS provides any "centroid" with the ability to access records from any other "centroid," including the main system gateway. In other words, ROADS was built for extended retrieval.

While extended retrieval allows for many databases (located any place on a network) to be searched by many search engines, setup requirements (standard metadata schemes, common database and search structures, access permissions, etc.) must be matched for all search engines and databases in the system. For this to work, standard protocols must be followed across all institutional IT departments.

Library IT and AgNIC IT staff members configured ROADS to provide search-ability to both the UM local and the main AgNIC nodes, simultaneously. The search engine was set to produce results sets which reflected hits on search terms found in both node databases. Following this configuration update, our results sets were much improved.

Work with library IT staff on the AgNIC gateway project provided an opportunity to collaborate between departments. Without UM Libraries Web Services, this project could not have happened, in the first place. In an email correspondence, Gary Phillips, UM Libraries Web Services Manager, wrote about why he became involved: "[AgNIC] was just a high value project, especially since it was cooperative in nature. Getting exposure to the ROADS software was a bonus..."

Valuable experiences can be gained as librarians work with information technology professionals to help develop solutions. The new AgNIC gateway presented itself as a way to prove the mettle of our organization's involvement in national projects and as a collaborative experience for library staff. Both are essential in today's libraries.

Librarians worked together on another enhancement: building a subject-related browse topics list (See Figure 2). A list of top-level thesaurus terms is provided to all AgNIC partner gateways as a list of linked, browsable topics. As top-level terms, they do not lend themselves to browsing more specific subject areas, such as agricultural biotechnology.

All searches through ROADS-AgNIC gateways produce a 'results URL' which can be copied as a link to be used in HTML pages. These URLs can be called 'generated URLs.'

Browse topics list
Figure 2: Browse Topics List

Available terms were drawn from the {NAL Agricultural Thesaurus} based upon concepts related to biotechnology. Our process included: 1.) Developing topics for the browse list; 2.) creating search strategies for each topic -- it helps to know what terms are common in the databases; 3.) testing the strategies against the search engine; and 4.) editing the generated URLs into our gateway home page. We added synonyms as the strategies were created.

The generated URLs search both databases (the UM "centroid" and the main AgNIC sets) live. This means that any newly added records will be included in results sets. The generated URL solution has enabled the system to produce more effective search results for our derived browse topics list and created a more effective resource tool for agricultural biotechnology.

Gateway Manual

As part of our commitment to working collaboratively with one another and with other institutions, we decided to create an electronic {AgNIC Gateway Manual}. This Manual serves as an information resource and as an online community for those of us currently adding records to our AgNIC site. We were inspired to create the manual after we had seen a document created by the University of Wisconsin, Madison that was entitled "AgNIC Dairy Cataloging Protocols." This is a paper document that outlines the procedures for adding records to their AgNIC site. It includes very specific instructions and guidance. It seemed to us that this was an excellent way of ensuring not only a level of consistency in the records but also a way of providing invaluable guidance to new people or partners just getting involved in AgNIC.

AgNIC Gateway Manual
Figure 3: UM AgNIC Gateway Manual

We decided to create a similar kind of document to Wisconsin's, yet we also wanted to put ours online. We decided to do this in order to enable those of us adding records to the site to have easy access to the instructions and information in the manual. In addition, we decided to put it online in order to facilitate collaboration with partners. We realized that when we began to partner with other institutions or individuals, it would be easier for them to work with us if we had the manual online. Having the manual online helps us maintain consistency in record entry since not all of us are in the same immediate location. Any changes to the manual can be immediately visible on the site and available to all instantly.

In addition to simply having procedures for adding and deleting records in the manual, we have expanded it to include all the information that a partner or other newcomer would need to know to have a sense of the broader picture of what AgNIC is all about. The manual is available from a link on the main University of Maryland AgNIC page. The manual itself begins with our scope statement. It explains what is included in the manual and what purpose the manual serves. Other sections included are background information and tools, links to critical web sites and resources as well as a link to a page that provides procedures for adding and deleting records to our site. We also have a section on metadata information and tools as well as a list of action items. The action items include a list of things we plan to accomplish as well as items we have already accomplished. There is also a separate page where we keep a running keywords list for use in the keyword field of AgNIC records. This is a list of words that do not appear in the NAL Thesaurus yet may be used as search terms. Having these words in an online list enables us to quickly and easily view what standard keywords we have been using and to easily add new ones.

Other important components of the manual include our selection criteria for records and the actual procedures for adding, editing or deleting records from the system. The site is freely accessible to anyone who has the URL.

We have also begun planning and development for a poultry site that we will build on the new {AgNIC portal}. The University of Delaware is collaborating with us in the development of the new site. So, we are continuing to purse our goal of developing high quality information resources in agriculture using a distributed system for building and maintaining content as well as for providing reference service.


AgNIC Alliance. 2002. AgNIC Participating Centers of Excellence. [Online]. Available: {} [August 29, 2003].

________. 2003. Agriculture Network Information Center (AgNIC). [Online]. Available: [August 29, 2003].

________. 2003. Agriculture Network Information Center (AgNIC) Portal. [Online]. Available: {} [August 29, 2003].

Buckland, M. K. & Plaunt, C. 1994. On the construction of selection systems. Library Hi Tech 12 (4): 15-28.

National Agricultural Library. 2001. Biotechnology An Information Resource. [Online]. Available: {} [August 27, 2003].

Joint Information Systems Committee. ROADS. [Online]. Available: {} [September 9, 2003].

University of Maryland Libraries. 2002a. AgNIC Gateway Manual. [Online]. Available: {} [August 29, 2003].

________. 2002b. AgNIC Information Page. [Online]. Available: {} [August 29, 2003].

University of Maryland Libraries. 2003. Agricultural Biotechnology. [Online]. Available: {} [August 27, 2003].

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