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In June 1986 the London Borough of Bexley installed at its Central
Reference Library a Private Videotex System (PVS) which was then launched
as a public service in August 1986. This superseded the Library's small
Prestel database, which had been in existence since 1979; but which is now
curtailed to a few pages retained for online user registration.
Background: Reference services at Bexley
The library collects information from published and unpublished sources and
makes it available to library users. Most published information is held in
the form in which it is purchased and is retrieved on demand. However, some
published information is required so frequently that it is best transferred
into a more accessible form, in this case into machine readable form for
use on the <BEXTEL> database. The unpublished information, much of it
local; arrives in a variety of ways and again needs to be stored in a form
in which it can be updated and retrieved easily.
Access to the bulk (80%) of the published information sources held by
Bexley and to all unpublished information is provided through the services
of the Library staff. Readers may call in person or telephone the Library
enquiry desk. Much of this information also needs to be made available to
branch libraries and to other local information and advice agencies. In
addition to being used to answer ad hoc enquiries; some frequently sought
unpublished information needs to be made available to the public in the
form of various pre-prepared lists or information sheets.
A system was required which both aided the library staff to manage and
manipulate the information and made the information widely accessible,
either online or through printed output.
The <BEXTEL> videotex computer system allows the library to:
- store unpublished and frequently sought published information in a form
in which it can easily be updated;
- access the information rapidly and conveniently from the enquiry desk in
response to the demands of readers;
- provide the machine-readable sources from which lists and information
sheets can be prepared;
- network information to other agencies in a form which preserves its
integrity and avoids re-keying;
- permit members of the public with home computers, office terminals or
similar equipment to access the information directly by telephone
without the intervention of library staff;
* Peter Marshall is Reference Librarian, Bexley London Borough

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- provide a 'through-the-screen' enquiry service, such that external users
who do not find the information they require can type their request at
their terminal and have the answer displayed later on the same screen;
- provide a messaging service such that users can contact other
information and advice agencies, which may be in the network.
Hardware and Configuration
The host computer is an HM Systems Minstrel 4, with 5 processors, providing
8 dial-up user ports, configured for V23 working. Five ports are connected
to the Public Switched Telephone Network Direct Exchange Line (PSTN DEL)
01-304 6516, the publicly advertised number for the service. The other
three ports are dedicated to various staff uses: User Port 6 is normally
connected to a confidential number which is reserved for remote sub-
editors, but may also be connected to the General Office terminal via the
Central Library PABX to allow in-house sub-editing; User Port 7 is
connected via a 3-wire null modem to the Help Desk terminal at the
Reference Library Enquiry Desk; normally used for retrieval; but optionally
available for sub-editing. User Port 8 is connected via back-to-back modems
to a terminal which may be used for sub-editing and a variety of other
tasks. The system console is used for editing, user registration and system
A contnunications port is connected to an adjacent PSTN DEL termination to
allow access from the console to remote videotex databases. A printer port
is available for connection to a serial printer.
The terminals are different models of BBC micro, variously configured with
different software and default ROMs and all normally carrying out a range
of functions, in addition to accessing the <BEXTEL> files. The Help Desk
Terminal, which is the most restricted functionally, is a BBC Model B,
equipped with a Commstar terminal ROM, the default ROM, and a Monitor.
(Commstar is the BBC terminal software for accessing videotex systems.) The
General Office Terminal is the BBC Model B with Torch upgrade, i.e. it has
a Z-80 second processor, 2 x 400K disk pack and a monitor and runs under
Torch CPN (the Torch version of CP/M) with additionally Commstar and BASIC
ROMs. A V21/23 modem and a printer are also provided. Under CPN this
terminal is used for major word processing applications using 'Perfect
Writer'. Text files may be transferred to and from BBC disk format using
Torch Acorn-Read and Acorn-Write utilities. Using Commstar; this terminal
is used to access external online videotex and teletype databases in
addition to the <BEXTEL> files. Results of searches may be spooled to disk
for further processing.
The sub-editing terminal is the BBC ModelrB+, with a high resolution
monitor, a 2 x 400K disk pack; a V21/23 modem, an additional auto-answer
modem and a printer. The default ROM is BASIC and Wordwise, Termi and
Printmaster may be called so standard word processing and terminal
emulation facilities are available. This micro also runs the CommunITel
software, a BBC-based videotex package; this allows offline preparation of
input to the <BEXTEL> PVS; also, if used with the appropriate modem, the
terminal may be configured as a single port host system and connected to a
suitable DEL. It can; therefore, be used as back up should the host system

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Link from Geac Library Systems
One port on the Library Service's Geac online catalogue and circulation
computer, a Geac 8000 installed at the Data Processing Centre, is
connected via a Zycor box to a PSTN DEL. The Zycor box is pre-programmed
to dial the <BEXTEL> host computer and transmit the necessary user ID and
password. This facility enables any one of about ninety Geac terminals
connected to the system to dial the <BEXTEL> computer on a first-come-
first-served basis; users simply select the appropriate option on the menu.
The display is in monochrome and access is somewhat cumbersome compared
with a conventional videotex terminal. Response frames and message
facilities cannot be used. The facility is, however, useful for library
locations at which no other form of terminal is available.
Remote Terminals
A variety of remote terminals are used to access the system:
- STC Novatel terminals have been supplied of free loan to local voluntary
sector advice aencies, who would otherwise be unable to afford access;
- IBM and IBM-compatible computers are used by a number of Council
departments and other agencies; and advice is given on selection of
modem and software. These are not funded by the Library Service;
- Home computers of various makes are used by many external users. Again,
advice is given on selection of modems and software for the BBC Micro,
and basic information is given for other makes;
- Dedicated videotex terminals of various makes are suitable. The
provision of such terminals at branch libraries is currently under
Software Overview
There are three main software components in the system as run by Bexley,
namely Metrotel, which supports the main videotex functions on the
Minstrel, the Minstrel's own operating software and CommunITel, the
videotex package on the BBC.
Those parts of the Metrotel software acquired by Bexley handle the
creation, retrieval and output of information, the messaging facilties, the
registration of users and allocation of Closed User Groups, and basic
system housekeeping. The specific programs are as follows:
- IPT (=Information Provider Terminal) which in turn comprises METRO-ED,
PVS, TALK, LIST and INSPECT & TEST. If accessed on processor 3, this
software is used for all information creation and editing functions; IPT
may also be accessed via either of the processors handling the dial-up
- MAILBOX, which provides facilities to REVIEW, DELETE & TIDY messages;

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- REGISTER, which provides facilities to INSERT new users, MODIFY or
DELETE existing user records and to assign CUG (=Closed User Group)
codes to individual users
- SETUP and RECOVER; which offer certain housekeeping facilities
Some software available from METROTEL has not yet been purchased, in
- MANAGER, which provides a more sophisticated handling of the database,
including route tracing and bulk printing;
- BULK, which provides facilities for bulk transfer of data to a remote
database (e.g. Prestel) from the local database.
Minstrel System Software
The Minstrel System Software is used for two purposes:
- to re-program the system CLOCK from which the Metrotel software derives
the information for the 'date or date-&-time' field (dl5 or d24) in
response and message frames;
- to make security back-up TAPE copies of the database to enable the files
to be re-loaded after some catastrophic event such as disk failure.
The CommunITel software runs on a BBC Micro and provides a range of local
viewdata facilities. Under the EDITOR program it allows the creation of
videotex pages offline for later transfer to the PVS, in Bexley's case the
Minstrel; alternatively; it allows pages to be edited online on the PVS
using the BBC as terminal rather than via the system console. Frames can be
downloaded from other systems and stored locally for further processing or
printing. The PRINT facilities permit screen-image printing from print
queues: up to 20 videotex frames can be stored in a single print queue as a
pseudo-frame; and multiple queues can be created for printing out in 20-
frame batches. In addition; the UTILITIES programs allow for the creation
of text files from the videotex frames; these can then be run through more
sophisticated formatting and printing routines. Conversely; text or word-
processed files can be read into videotex frames. And; as mentioned above,
CommunITel also permits dial up access from a single port; via its HOST
The main menu headings (see Fig 1.) give a basic guide to the data
Information Desk
This is a master index to the contents of the database. Simple 'telephone
directory'-type entries are provided for some facilities which have either
not yet beem more fully described within the database or which are
considered to be beyond the system's scope. (see Fig 2)

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Community Videotex
Information Desk
Community <BEXTEL>
Bexley Council & its services
London Comparison
BexNext (News & Views)
Micro-IT for the Micro-ist
<BEXTEL> Mailbox
*01 for
Bextra 888 CUG
*02 for
System Information
Back to an index from any page
Fig. 1
Information Desk
A. . .
0 Index
1 Next letter
3 Next page
* Last letter
* Last page
Fig. 2

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Community <BEXTEL>
Databases are provided for each of the voluntary service umbrella groups
funded by the Council. Additionally,' information is in progress of being
collected by the library from non-federated organisations and various local
lists are incorporated in this section.
Bexley Council and its services
The is a directory of council departments and members. Ward and Committee
indexes enable the user to identify the most appropriate councillor to
contact for a particular purpose.
London Comparison
Basic statistical tables Which enable London Boroughs to be compared
quickly in respect of area, population, birth and death rate, age
distribution, crime rate, local government rates etc.
Bexnext, as might be deduced, contains news and notes about new pages on
the system.
Micro-IT for the Micro-ist
Micro-IT was launched some two years ago on a CommunITel host system and
transferred to the new <BEXTEL> in late 1986. It provides information for
the home micro-ist on learning opportunities, books, magazines, TV
programmes, locally available in the field of IT.
<BEXTEL> Mailbox
Full user-to-user mailbox is supported. Each registered user is provided
with a mailbox page and an on-screen directory of users gives the name,
postcode and mailbox page number of each. 100 external users had registered
in the first three months.
Bextra 888 CUG
The Bextra Closed User Group is provided for local schools to enable them
to incorporate Videotex in their IT teaching. Schools using the CommunITel
software with a BBC Micro can edit <BEXTEL> pages within their node either
online or offline and can upload and download pages in a close emulation of
the way a professional IP or sub-IP would work on Prestel. This facility is
currently used principally by the Bexley TVEI unit.
System Information
A thorough online user's guide is presented to enable the system to be
self-teaching. Additionally an online editor's guide is provided for the
benefit of Bextra users and other sub-IPs.
Data Collection
Almost all data is currently collected by traditional library means of hard

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copy or ward of mouth and is input from the console. This is quite simply
because the organisations which are best suited to act as IPs are
insufficiently funded to cope with the task. It is likely, however, that
in the fullness of time some local organisations will take on the task of
handling simple updates and amendments to their own databases, whilst still
depending on the library to handle wholesale revisions.
Bexley has abandoned entirely the system adopted by many Prestel IPs of
collecting information from Sub-IPs on screen-format data sheets. All
editing is carried out by librarians from raw data on a 'think-as-you-type'
basis. No screen templates or predetermined database structures are used
and the editors exercise complete freedom in constructing and indexing the
As explained above, data can be accepted in machine-readable form, whether
in videotex format or not, but for similar reasons all the word-processing
files used so far have originated from the library.
Data can, subject to copyright restrictions, be taken directly from other
online sources and trial lists of local restaurants and hotels have already
been successfully transferred from Electronic Yellow Pages with only
minimal re-keying. Discussions are currently in hand with BT over
Printed Output
Printed output from the system is kept to an absolute minimum, the view
being that it rests with the end user to determine the kind of terminal
facilities used and hence whether to print. Lists are extracted from the
system by the library where there is seen to be a net time saving resulting
from having a pre-prepared list to give to the reader. Examples are Halls
for Hire; Tutors; Hotels & Guesthouses; Places to visit.
Staff Involved
The purpose of the system is to apply the 'electronic office' concept to
the working of the library's enquiry service and the database is designed
to replace rather than augment existing records. Procedures have been
incorporated into the normal working of the library and there are no staff
members who are exclusively concerned with the system.
The Reference Librarian and Deputy Reference Librarian attend between them
to the inputting of information and the design of the system. The
Assistant Reference Librarian, who is primarily responsible for the public
enquiry service, provides feedback on the use of the system from the public
enquiry desk. Clerical staff collect and process the incoming information
as before.
For further information contact Peter Marshall, Reference Librarian or John
Williamson, Deputy Reference Librarian. Tel: 01-301 5151