Portrait of the Author as a Young Information Scientist

I try not to talk too much about myself in this blog, but make an exception here. This post gives a brief account of how I came into the library/information professions, as a contribution to the excellent Library Routes project.

Portrait of the author....
When I was young, I was fascinated by science, and science fiction, and imagined I would grow up to be a scientist. Sadly, secondary school convinced me that I neither liked laboratory work, nor had any particularly mathematical ability. Nonetheless, I decided to take science subjects in my later school years, to the irritation of my teachers, who pointed out – correctly – that I was much better at arts subjects. Browsing in the school library, I discovered that there was a profession of “information science”, which sounded ideal for me, involving, as it seemed, dealing with the concepts and ideas of science, without the tedious practical and calculation aspects. I tried to find out more, and received a pleasant letter from the Institute of Information Scientists, advising me, as initial steps, to get a science degree and learn at least two foreign languages.

Liverpool University
I studied organic chemistry at Liverpool University. I was really more interested in physics and astronomy, but realised that I was unlikely to do well enough in maths to make a real success of either. Unknowingly, I was entering the path of ‘chemist to information scientist’, which was remarkably common among those of my generation, and the previous one. I certainly found the logical structure of chemistry, and the range of classifications and representation for structures, reactions, and concepts in general, to be the most interesting aspect.

Getting to the end of my studies, I returned to the idea of information science, and was also inspired by the possibility of a career in academic libraries; I was assured that this was the ideal job for someone keen on science but not its practical side, as university librarians spent all day reading academic journals. Fortunately, I found out otherwise in sufficient time to avoid an unfortunate career choice.

I was able, without too much trouble , to get a place on a Masters course, complete with a grant, and an offer of pre-course experience; things were easier in those days.

My trainee period was as an information assistant in a pharmaceutical company, Smith Kline and French, long since swallowed up, by a series of mergers, into GlaxoSmithKline. I experienced a variety of tasks, at a time just before information services of that kind went over to digital services. Doing a comprehensive search back through the company’s research files involved a trawl through the industrial archaeology of information retrieval. The oldest material was still in paper card-files; coming up-to-date meant using, in turn, edge-notched cards, optical coincidence (‘peek-a-boo’) cards, punched cards, and finally computer files. Literature searching was still largely reliant on paper indexes; online searching was just beginning to be important. This short trainee period confirmed my enthusiasm for scientific information work, although I was already more interested in the idea of developing new systems rather than in service provision per se.

I did a Masters in Information Studies at Sheffield University, in what was then the Postgraduate School of Librarianship and Information Science, now the Department of Information Studies. Although the course was restricted to students with first degrees in scientific subjects, it had a very broad syllabus, from the basics of cataloguing, classification and reference work, to the latest research into information retrieval and scientific documentation. In retrospect, I don’t feel I got as much out of the course as I might; I was too focused on my interests in scientific information, and chemical information in particular.

Although I looked looked at job opportunities at the end of the course, it seemed fairly natural for me to stay on at Sheffield to do a PhD; funding for doctoral research was much more easily gained then than it is now. Sheffield, as now, was one of the world centres for research and development in systems for handling chemical structure information, and my PhD study was in one of the main lines of that work; the use of information systems to study relations between the structure and the properties of chemical substances. This is now a very well-established topic, of both scientific and commercial importance; I like to think that my studies put a few bricks in its foundations, though their methods, analysing structures coded intellectually in line notations by programs written in FORTAN and COBOL, and now of strictly historic interest.

Pfizer at Sandwich
After finishing my PhD, I wanted a change from the academic world, and went to work in the research information services of the Pfizer pharmaceutical company. My interviewer was interested to know if I considered myself an ‘information scientist’ or a ‘scientific informationist’. At the time, I don’t think I understood fully what he meant. With hindsight, I can see that at that time I was the latter; I considered myself to be a chemical scientist who happened to work with information systems, rather than in the laboratory. It was only later that I began to think of myself rather as someone socialising in information per se, and with library/information services.

Part of my work at Pfizer involved the sort of chemical structure developments that I had worked on at Sheffield. We produced searching systems for chemical substances, reactions, and 3-dimensional structures, and also pioneered searching by similarity, for browsing, and by dissimilarity, for creating files of ‘interestingly different’ molecules to test, as well as systems for structure-property correlation. Much of this work was done in conjunction with academic collaborators, particularly at Sheffield, and reinforced by view of the value of academic input to practice. We also collaborated with colleagues in other companies, and in some respects were practicing the idea of open source software before the term became popular. I also found myself getting involved in more conventional ‘library/information’ activities; literature searching, revising the (home made) library classification scheme, thesaurus construction, and creating library system interfaces, as well as trying out new types of hardware and software.

When I decided it was time to move on, going back to the academic world was a natural move (I had flirted with the idea of management consultancy, but fortunately the recruiters to whom I talked were more realistic about my capabilities there). I had already been involved in a lot of ‘external’ activities while at Pfizer (sometimes, if truth be told, not entirely to the pleasure of my managers), including writing articles and books, editing periodicals, getting involved with professional bodies, and conducting professional development training courses. I certainly feel that my time as a practitioner has made me a more effective academic, in what is substantially a vocational subject.

City University LondonI was fortunate enough to find a position in the Department of Information Science at City University London, and have, as yet, seen no reason to want to leave. My subject interests have broadened a lot, though I still retain an interest in my original field of scientific information. I have also had the chance – through working with the library/information programmes of George Soros’s Open Society Initiative, teaching on summer schools for librarians at the Central European University in Budapest, and participating in Socrates/Erasmus exchanges – to develop a continuing involvement with colleagues in other countries, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.

During my time at City, we have moved from being a department focused solely on the teaching of Information Science courses, to one in which courses in Library Science now give us our largest student group. I occasionally feel it ironic that, while my work in the ‘real world’ was never in a institution named a ‘library’, the largest group of my students have librarianship as their main interest, and do not, I hope find me too much of an irrelevance. I think this shows the inter-connectedness of the library/information world. Crossing the boundaries of the sectors, and working outside comfort zones, are vital for stimulating new ideas and developing the profession, and ourselves.

1 thought on “Portrait of the Author as a Young Information Scientist”

  1. This is brilliant – I’m very glad you made an exception to the ‘talking about yourself rule’… Cheers for contributing to the project!

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