The Lipid Library
The First Ten Years (1999-2009)
An Autobiographical Note
When I was nearing the age for compulsory retirement from our Scientific Civil Service, I was concerned that I had a great deal of invaluable data, especially relating to the mass spectrometry of fatty acids, that might be lost. At that time, the web was still something of a novelty. There were some journals on-line, though often with only a few back years available, and elsewhere some elementary lecture notes on lipids, but very little else other than the excellent French Cyberlipid site. It seemed to me that the web had the potential to preserve my data, and I began to prepare a series of articles in Word on mass spectrometry that I hoped would be the foundation for conversion eventually to web pages.
When retirement came in 1999, I was re-hired immediately by the commercial arm of the Scottish Crop Research Institute (now the James Hutton Institute) (MRS Lipid Analysis - www.lipid.co.uk) as a part-time consultant, and one of their assistants helped me to set up the beginnings of the Lipid Library, in part to promote the commercial activities of the unit. After a few months, the assistant left and I realized that I needed to know more about the workings of the web. I bought a book on html, though unfortunately it was the first edition of a book that was already into its fifth edition. Nonetheless, it got me started and I quickly came to the conclusion that I needed to restructure the site to allow for potential expansion, and with my book beside me I was able to accomplish this unaided.
All of this was of course, a spare-time activity. At the same time, I was rewriting my book ‘Lipid Analysis’, which was proving to be a rather boring chore. Writing the shorter articles for the web proved to be a pleasant change from grinding out the text of the book. Having completed the first phase of the mass spectrometry section, I began an article to explain “What is a lipid?”, which is still probably the most widely read page on the site. Simultaneously, I was continuing to collect references for the revision of my book. As these were all collected in a computerized database, it proved relatively easy to use them in a literature and current awareness service. I was also able to persuade my colleague and mentor Frank Gunstone to contribute a series of articles on 13C NMR spectroscopy of lipids.
It was only with the completion of ‘Lipid Analysis - 3rd Edition’, that I began to plan the site systematically. I bought another more up-to-date book on html, and began an extensive revision of the site. It had now reached a size that dwarfed the commercial aspects, and a divorce became necessary with The Lipid Library as a separate website. (Incidentally, Craig Byrdwell kindly bought and donated the .com and .org names to me). I began a series of articles dealing with individual lipid classes (or groups of classes) that now totals more than sixty. Peter Barnes of the Oily Press permitted me to re-publish some of the older or out-of-print articles that I had written either for his journal ‘Lipid Technology’ or for the ‘Advances in Lipid Methodology’ series for a section of the site – “Selected Topics in the Analysis of Lipids”. In 2006, we collaborated in putting my book “Gas Chromatography and Lipids” – now out of print - on the site. Gerhard Knothe offered to expand the articles on NMR with a series on 1H NMR of lipids, which added greatly to the value of this part of the site. A section on silver ion chromatography has been started with a long-standing collaborator, Boryana Nikolova-Damyanova. In 2008, three former collaborators M. Carmen Dobarganes, Gloria Márquez-Ruiz and Jean Louis Sébédio helped to set up a new section of the site on frying oils.
It soon became evident to me that many technical aspects of the site needed improvement – cue to the purchase of yet another book on xhtml – and I undertook a major technical revision and redesign of the site. Unfortunately, I used a design template in the internationally agreed standard, but one that was not supported by Microsoft and Internet Explorer 6. I spent a week trying to fix the ‘fault’ before I discovered that the problem lay with Microsoft not with me. This is no longer a problem with any of the newer browsers. However, I became aware that I needed to do more technically to fully support style sheets (yet another book purchase), and another full revision was necessary and eventually completed.
I find writing for the web much more satisfying than writing books. With the latter, you spend months or years of spare time on the task, before handing it over to a publisher. Many months later, you see the finished product – always a very satisfying feeling – but then that is it. If you have second thoughts or important new papers that change your conclusions are published, there is nothing you can do about it until the next edition many years later. In contrast, writing for the web is an iterative process that is never complete. If new material becomes available or a correspondent offers suggestions for improvements, changes can be made instantly. When I go back to a webpage that was written months ago, I usually find a sentence I could have written better or wonder whether I should expand on some aspect. Such changes are easy to make. Occasionally, I decide on a complete re-write. For example, I had been aware that the document on cholesterol and sterols was especially popular, although many aspects were not dealt with adequately. Now one document has become three, and I suspect that a fourth will eventually be necessary. I find it easiest to produce Word documents first, and then convert these to html, and for many to pdf format for those that still like paper copies.
A further advantage of the web is that there is no limit to the number of illustrations that can be used (more than 500 in the mass spectrometry section of the site alone), and these can be in colour. As web articles tend to be more informal than printed papers, it is even possible to add cartoons or other decorations (such as the Scottish thistle) to enliven pages.
Looking back, when I was an active research scientist, I now realize that I was rather blinkered in my reading in that I concentrated too much on what was immediately relevant to my work. Now I have the time to read more widely and have a much broader and deeper understanding of the biological functions of lipids, which I trust is reflected in the Lipid Library. With the growth of the web in general and the greater availability of back issues of journals on-line, it is so much easier to work from home.
Another satisfying aspect is the feedback that I get from users, a high proportion of whom appear to be students, although I also get messages of appreciation from industrial scientists and others. The number of users is increasing steadily and is highest during term time – normally up to 2000 visitors per day with 10,000 page hits. The record is a freak 4800 visitors in a day most of whom went to the pages on prostaglandins – I suspect a university professor somewhere had asked his class for an essay on the topic.
My ambition has long been to see the Lipid Library developed as a major international resource on lipids with an appropriate editorial board. One concern was that I had reached an age when my health could no longer be guaranteed (though I come form a long-lived family). If anything were to happen to me, the website and all the valuable data might be lost, including ten years of my spare time activities and that of many other authors who have made appreciable contributions. After exploring European and other options, I decided to donate this website to the American Oil Chemists' Society. My main concern was that it would remain open to all in perpetuity, and this has been agreed. Indeed, AOCS were proactive and enthusiastic about the proposed transfer.
After 1999: AOCS now own and manage the site, and I continued to work on it as Editor-in-Chief for the start-up period. However, I was happy to hand over these duties to John L. Harwood and Randall J. Weselake in 2012, though I remain as Technical Editor. A number of associate editors were appointed to the editorial team and this will continue. In addition to ensuring the continuity of the site, we are now able to cover many more aspects of lipid science, including nutrition, lipidomics, history, industrial aspects, physical chemistry and advanced biochemistry. The Lipid Library can only get bigger and better!
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to MRS Lipid Analysis and the James Hutton Institute, who allow me to use their library and computing facilities.