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Portals - George Mason University

At George Mason University (VA), work began in late 2007 to address one of the recommendations from the GMU President’s Library Task Force: Libraries must do everything they can to assist both faculty and students to become more productive. “We took this as a ‘directive’ and challenged ourselves to develop discipline-based research portals for all academic graduate programs by the end of 2010,” says project lead Wally Grotophorst, associate university librarian, Digital Programs & Systems.

The first of the research portals was available by mid-2008. The project is ongoing, with seven portals operational now and many more planned. Current examples include portals for Bioinformatics (, Global Research and Education (, and Neuroscience (


To create each portal, developers combine two open source software products: WordPress and CWIS (Collection Workflow Integration System) from the University of Wisconsin’s Internet Scout Project. A subject librarian then serves as the curator of his or her portal, which includes a database of resources with subject-specific search widgets, blog postings, and other materials and references. The portal becomes the new primary point of contact for library users in that particular discipline.

The use of off-the-shelf open source software products was a particularly important choice for developers. Grotophorst says that the project is more a matter of systems integration than software development, pointing out that GMU only had to write snippets of code to improve the CWIS resource database, and build a few WordPress widgets to provide additional specialized services. GMU librarians and portal developers have been impressed by the versatility of WordPress: “Not only does it support the blogging function, but the widget architecture gives us the opportunity to add useful and complex services with very little code,” Grotophorst comments.

Benefits of the new portals abound: Faculty and upper-division researchers now receive a tightly focused set of services and resources from the library. Research faculty are more productive because the tools and services they need are brought together by the portal. Upper-level undergraduates also find the portals useful in their work. And librarians have a new way to interact with faculty and build skills for the future. What’s more, blog and commenting features help make the portal a useful, timely venue for communication between faculty and librarians.

Grotophorst stresses that the portals offer a way to foster community between the liaison librarians and researchers, a big improvement over static subject guides previously produced for various topical areas. “We’re reinventing the way librarians interact with faculty, meeting our audience where they are: on the web,” he boasts. The portals also have a user-friendly interface on the back end, so the librarians can do data entry and resource maintenance more easily.

The future at the GMU libraries holds not only more subject portals, but also new features and capabilities. GMU is now working with federated search specialist Deep Web Technologies to build tightly focused metasearch systems for each portal. Each librarian is working with his or her academic departments to identify five to 10 key resources that each department would like to combine into a single search box. For instance, a history search engine for the Early US History portal retrieves information from the American History & Life, Historical Abstracts, Arts and Humanities Search, American Memory Project, JSTOR, OAIster, and WorldCat databases. Grotophorst notes that GMU is a pioneering academic customer for Deep Web Technologies, a vendor previously used chiefly in the business and government sectors.

About the Authors

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

Matt Villano is senior contributing editor of this publication.

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