November 1998: America Online announces that it will acquire Netscape Communications. The Sega Dreamcast gaming platform premieres in Japan. Astronaut John Glenn once again circles Earth, this time aboard the space shuttle Discovery. And IEEE makes a leap into online publishing with the IEEE/IET Electronic Library (IEL).
Ten years later, the IEEE Xplore digital library, the interface that powers IEL, holds nearly 2 million documents and serves more than 3.5 million visitors every month. Customers for IEEE online information include 97 percent of the world’s top engineering schools and all 10 of the world’s most innovative technology companies, including Amazon, General Electric, and Google. IEL also offers such services as multimedia content, downloadable citations, and the ability to search other publishers’ digital libraries for related publications.
But how did IEEE get online?
A LOGICAL BEGINNING IEEE started digital publishing in February 1996 with a CD-ROM version of IEL, according to Barbara Lange, director of IEEE Product Management and Business Development, in Piscataway, N.J., the department that now oversees the IEEE Xplore digital library. The searchable disks contained PDFs of all articles from IEEE and IEE (now called IET) journals and conferences, as well as IEEE standards.
But publishing IEL on CD-ROM presented logistical challenges. While easier to search than the print publications that were then standard, the digital versions of the articles were accessible to users only through their libraries, which had physical possession of the CDs. Then there was the difficulty of keeping the electronic versions up to date: “We were updating the CDs monthly with newly published articles and sending out piles and piles of disks every month,” Lange says. “We knew that moving the library online would be a golden opportunity for us to better serve the users.”
When the online version of IEL went live in late 1998, it offered all the articles and standards from the CD-ROM version—marking the first time that multiple users at subscribing institutions could access IEEE publications simultaneously.
That was only the beginning. Only large institutions could afford IEL subscriptions, so IEEE continued to look for other ways to make its publications available to a wider range of users. That led to two years of developing a system that became the IEEE Xplore digital library, the content engine that now delivers access to all IEEE online publications.
IEEE Xplore launched in May 2000, and with it came the ability to offer electronic access to IEEE publications, not just to IEL subscribers but also to a wider variety of companies, as well as to IEEE members. IEEE Xplore also made it possible to offer a variety of packages that provided online access to smaller selections of publications from the entire IEEE collection. That led to the IEEE All-Society Periodicals Package and the IEEE Conference Proceedings Order Plans.
Those packages paved the way for other products and services. Today single articles may be purchased, or users can subscribe to topical libraries such as the IEEE Power & Energy Library, IEEE Computing Library, and IEEE Standards Online. And there’s the IEEE Member Digital Library, which lets members download 25 full-text articles each month. In addition, IEEE Xplore added IEEE Expert Now tutorials, archival issues of publications, industry application notes, and Wiley-IEEE Press books.
Demand for the digital library continued to grow, and with it came the need for IEEE to build its own data center to house all the servers it took to support IEEE Xplore. The center went into operation in December 2003 in Piscataway.
“Since then, we’ve been growing by leaps and bounds,” Lange says. “The most significant accomplishment is that people around the world are using IEEE Xplore 24/7,” she adds, noting that IEEE now reaches far more people online than it ever did with its print publishing program.
She says the IEEE conference proceedings in particular now receive greater exposure because the material is online and linked with related content. Close to 800 conference proceedings have been uploaded this year to IEEE Xplore.
GROWING With so many people using the digital library, IEEE has to make sure it remains stable, with little to no downtime. “It’s now a pretty sophisticated system, with the processes and infrastructure constantly being evaluated to ensure it is operating under industry best practices,” Lange says.
Hosting its own data required IEEE to think like a software developer to manage the software updates and system upgrades that keep the library operating so reliably.
One way the library has grown is through its links to outside resources. “It’s important to us to get users to content no matter where it’s located,” Lange says. She points to the CrossRef partnership in which participating publishers work together to link their content to each other. “If someone using IEEE Xplore finds a reference to a non-IEEE article, we make it easy for them to get to it,” she says.
Keeping up with other, large online publishers is a challenge, but it is one that IEEE has met. “If you look at the other big technical publishers, we’re on equal footing in terms of services and reliability,” Lange says.
But it’s the quality of IEEE publications that keeps people coming back, she notes. On average, 6 million to 7 million PDF documents are downloaded from IEEE Xplore every month.