1978 and the first search revolution

We are currently struggling to cope with the rapid deployment of new search technologies as though nothing like this has happened before. I get a sense of déjà vu because something quite similar started to take place in 1978 with the arrival of search software on mini-computers. To be sure it took some time for there to be significant adoption but it was a colossal shift in the opportunities that it created for software developers, IT managers and information scientists.

I’ve chosen 1978 as the starting point as this was the year that the Information Retrieval Specialist Group was established.

However it was the the Institute of Information Scientists that initially played a pre-eminent role an important role in supporting the exchange of good practice on search implementation. Last year I co-authored a History of the Institute and the text below is reproduced under a  a CC licence.

By the mid-1970s mini-computers were being adopted very widely in the USA and many organisations and companies saw this as an opportunity to develop text/document retrieval software products for these mini-computers. In the USA these included BASIS (Battelle Institute) and INQUIRE (Infodata). By 1977/78 the mini-computer market stimulated software development in the UK as well, including ASSASSIN (ICI), STATUS (Atomic Weapons Research Establishment), CAIRS (Leatherhead Food Research Association) and DECO (Unilever). This illustrates the range of organisations that were at the forefront of text retrieval. Many of the research associations in the UK published abstracts journals and recognised the value of offering search services based on these journals to the members of the associations. As a result these applications all evolved from specific organisational requirements which were then productised for use more widely. Initially these systems were accessed through dedicated terminals (the IBM PC was not launched until 1981 and the Ethernet local area network technology only became widely adopted from around 1986 onwards).

The STATUS User Group in particular was very active. Because none of the vendors were initially interested in the commercial success of their products, users of these products were very willing to share their experience.

With so many products coming onto the market, the issue of how to compare them emerged quite strongly.

The IIS organised a series of conferences on text retrieval software and its applications from 1984 to 1997. To appreciate the importance of the Text Retrieval conferences it is important to place them in the context of the period.

The first conference on this topic was organised by the IIS on 12-13 November 1979 at the Royal Society. The conference title was ‘Computer Packages for Information Storage and Retrieval’ and attracted an audience of around 200, a good indication of the level of interest in the subject. As an outcome of the conference the IIS Special Interest Group on Word Processors and Information Handling was set up in 1980. At that time the IIS was in a strong financial position as a result of the success of its 1979 Annual Conference and a decision was taken to inaugurate the first of what turned out to be a very successful series of ‘Text Retrieval – the State of the Art’ conferences. This was held at the London Zoological Society in 1984, and was organised by members of the Southern Branch.

The themes of subsequent conferences were:

1984    Text retrieval in context

1985    Text with non-text retrieval

1986    Information handling for the office

1988    The user experience

1989    Text management

1990    ID Information first

1992    Information now

1994    Document and text management  – management and technology

1995    Document and text management

1997    New research, new products

The 1999 and 2001 conferences were held jointly by the IIS and the British Computer Society. With the merger of the Library Association and the IIS in 2002 the baton passed to the IRSG, resulting in the development of the Search Solutions conferences.

Martin White

About Martin White
Martin White

Martin is an information scientist and the author of Making Search Work and Enterprise Search. He has been involved with optimising search applications since the mid-1970s and has worked on search projects in both Europe and North America. Since 2002 he has been a Visiting Professor at the Information School, University of Sheffield and is currently working on developing new approaches to search evaluation.

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