All these contributions about ECIR 2020 have taken me back to what I am reasonably sure was the first UK conference on text retrieval. It was entitled Computer Packages for Information Storage and Retrieval and took place at the Royal Society in Carlton House Terrace on 12-13 November 1979. It was organised by the Institute of Information Scientists. The Institute was amazed at the level of interest in the conference from both attendees and from prospective presenters and was quickly expanded from one day to two. It attracted over 200 delegates and was the stimulus for the establishment in 1980 of the IIS Special Interest Group on Word Processors and Information Handling.
In the early 1980s the availability of text retrieval software running on mini-computers in the early 1980s grew substantially. The market driver was the opportunity to provide in-house document retrieval applications for large organisations, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. The ICI application was called ASSASSIN (Automated System for Storage and Subsequent Collection of Information) the result of some reverse acronym engineering by Robin Clough, who had a very dry sense of humour. Robin was the manager of the development team and one of the leading advocates for computer-based retrieval in the UK in the 1980s. In addition, many of the industrial research associations in the UK (notably the Leatherhead Food Research Association with CAIRS) published abstracts journals and recognised the value of offering search services based on these journals to the members of the associations. With so many products coming onto the market the issues of how to compare these products emerged quite strongly. A paper by Peter Hoey is a good illustration of the challenges.
The Institute capitalised on this situation by launching the first of a series of State-of-the-Art Conferences on text retrieval in 1984. These continued until 2001, though the 1999 and 2001 events were held jointly with the British Computer Society. When the IIS was merged with the Library Association in 2002 the archives of the Institute were ‘lost’, including the proceedings of the conferences. Fortunately there are archive copies in the British Library!
I should add that there was a SIGIR conference on information retrieval in 1971 but the 1st Annual International SIGIR Conference on Information Storage and Retrieval took place in 1978. I’m intrigued by the “1st”. Did the organisers forget about the 1971 event?