Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: The History and Heritage of Scientific and Technological Information Systems

Charles Oppenheim takes a look at this series of personal and researched historical analyses of the history of computerised information retrieval systems, and finds it makes fascinating reading if you are interested in such things.

This 420-page paperback includes the papers of a 2002 conference on the history of information retrieval systems. It comprises 33 contributed papers (with remarkably little overlap), together with details about the contributors and an excellent index. The papers are organised in five broad sections - interdisciplinary perspectives, organising and managing information, chemical informatics, national developments and developments in international systems (such as INIS and AGRIS). Some of the contributors are old-timers recalling how things were from their own perspectives, but most papers were accounts based on researching and interpreting the (often obscure) old literature. The vast majority of the articles are written in a readable, accessible style - two notable exceptions are Andrew Pickering's dense account of Stafford Beer's Cybernetic Informatics and Jacques Dubois on the history of the Description, Acquisition, Retrieval, and Correlation (DARC) chemical retrieval system, which was also written in an unappealing style. The only factual mistake I found was the claim by Eunice Roe that there has been little or no research on how information services get brand names. There has been such research, as a title search for the word 'brand' on (say) Library and Information Science Abstracts would have revealed. This somewhat weakened the impact of this paper, because the results of her interesting research into brand names were not compared to those of other research.

Just one article did not really fit into the general themes - that by Shankar on remembering and forgetting. It was an interesting piece, but was not relevant to the history of information retrieval systems.

Among the most interesting articles were those by Peggy Kidwell on the use of models and computers by scientists and patent offices over the centuries; Jana Varlejs on the role of the technical report before World War 2; Simon Baatz on the visible human project; Bella Weinberg on predecessors in scientific indexing systems, an article which explored the rich history of indexing systems; Chuck Davis on indexing using the Chemical Abstracts Registry System; Michael Grayson on the early days of computer-supported mass spectrometry, which brought back thoughts of my own work using such techniques in the late 1960s; Richard Swanson on informatics in combinatorial chemistry; William Mitchell on the genesis of the NASA RECON online service; Dave Muddiman on J D Bernal's contribution to information retrieval; Rodney Brunt on the indexes used at Bletchley Park; Thomas Hapke's article about the international influence of Erich Pietsch; Helen Schofield's article on the patents coverage of Chemical Abstracts and Beilstein (though it was spoiled by graphs whose various lines were difficult to distinguish); and John Woolston's personal memoir on the development of AGRIS.

There were a few omissions; the most important was the lack of an ISBN on the actual book - very odd. I was surprised that Mike Lynch's fascinating ramblings into the history of chemical indexing systems failed to mention Derwent's fragmentation coding system; there was relatively little on World War II systems and the early days of computers - possibly this is too well trodden ground? There was nothing on the early days of the Internet either. Finally, the paper on German libraries did not sufficiently cover developments in the former East Germany.

Many of the papers are complemented by fascinating old photos, some of which showed ancient computers and their operators. There were a few typos, mainly when dealing with foreign scripts, such as umlauts on German names.

Overall, then, a fascinating trawl through how we got to where we are today, offering considerable insights into the key role a few individuals had in the development of modern professional information retrieval systems. This sort of work will probably appeal most to academics and students, but will also attract those who are interested in how we got to where we are now; it also puts into context the problems we have with systems today in comparison with the massive problems of the past.

Author Details

Charles Oppenheim
Professor of Information Science
Loughborough University
Leics LE11 3TU

Email: c.oppenheim@lboro.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/dis/people/coppenheim.html

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