At the start of the 2010, we heard the sad news of the death of Brian Vickery in October last year. He was one of the leading lights of British information science over many years. This post is an expanded version of a short appreciation which I wrote as an editorial for Journal of Documentation.
Born in Australia in 1918, Brian Vickery – like so many information scientists of his generation and the one which followed – graduated in chemistry. Having worked for a period as a chemist in an explosives factory, perhaps more due to the necessities of wartime than by choice, he then made the move into librarianship, within a research institute in Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), then the UK world-leader in the chemical industry. He moved, through a series of posts in British national and academic libraries, to direct the research department at Aslib, then a major player in information research of the more applied kind. Finally he became head of the then School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London, from which post he retired in 1983.
His career path was similar to several information scientists – including myself – who first studied chemistry, and then worked in industry before entering academia or information research organisation. Perhaps the uniquely sophisticated ontologies, nomenclatures and structure representations of the subject led us to an interest in more general information issues. Certainly, I think that our experience as information practitioners helped us in the academic world. Fortunately for me, I was of a later generation than Vickery, and was spared war service; I doubt that my practical chemical skills would have been at all suitable for application in an explosives factory.
Although he was perhaps best known for his studies in information organisation and information retrieval – his seminal paper ‘Structure and function in retrieval languages’ (Vickery 1971) was selected as one the most influential Journal of Documentation articles from the journal’s first six decades – Brian Vickery’s interests spanned the whole of what he and his contemporaries regarded as “information science”. An issue of Journal of Documentation (1988, volume 44 issue 3) was devoted to a series of essays presented to him; including a list of his publications up to that date, this shows clearly the breadth of his contributions. This breath is also shown by his scientific autobiography “A long search for information” (Vickery 2004A), by his magisterial textbook which went into a third edition (Vickery 2004B), and by the fact that he was regarded as the natural choice to be editor of a monograph of reviews celebrating 50 years of Journal of Documentation (Vickery 1994), and guest editor of a similar monograph marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Institute of Information Scientists (Gilchrist 2009).
In this last guest editorial – his last professional article – Vickery noted that a number of contributors to the volume – including myself – seemed rather uneasy or uncertain about the future of information science. I am not sure that I was really uneasy: the passage which he quoted had me commenting that we had not fully worked out the theoretical insights of the founders of the discipline, let alone replaced them with new insights. I intended this as a call for further progress to be made, rather than an expression of unease. But perhaps Vickery was right, in implying that if more progress has not been made so far, then perhaps it is not likely to come in the future.
At all events, and to whatever extent we feel uneasy or uncertain about the future of the information science discipline, I think we should all be encouraged by Brian Vickery’s convictions, expressed consistently over many years, that ‘traditional’ information science insights are still very relevant, and not yet fully appreciated in a wider academic and professional world. Regardless of advances in technology, Vickery insists, there are some fundamentals of human information-related behaviour and of the organisation of information, which do not change. It is the business of the information scientist to investigate them, and to show their relevance in whatever information environment they may be instantiated. I think that is a message we would do well to hold on to.
Gilchrist, A. (ed.) (2009), information science in transition, London: Facet
Vickery, B.C. (1971), Structure and function in retrieval languages, Journal of Documentation, 27(2), 69-82
Vickery, B.C. (ed.) (1994), Fifty years of information progress: a Journal of Documentation review, London: Aslib
Vickery, B.C. (2004A), A long search for information, Occasional Paper 213. Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne
Vickery, B.C. and Vickery, A. (2004), Information Science in Theory and Practice (3rd edn.), Munich: K.G. Saur