Professor Tom Wilson - A (Mainly) Professional Biography


The pictures tell something about me already: I like cats, I travel, and I enjoy photography (and birdwatching) - although I don't get enough time to pursue these hobbies as much as I would like. More can be discovered from my curriculum vitae

However, to the facts: I was born in 1935 at a little railway station, Shincliffe Station, about three miles south of the city of Durham, in County Durham in the North-east of England. I wasn't born in the Waiting Room as some have suggested, but in the railway 'cottage' occupied by my mother and father. My father, at the time, was a platelayer, that is, one of a group of men who worked a length of line to maintain it in proper order. The disappearance of such men from the railway system in the UK is one of the main reasons for the increase in railway accidents in recent years. My father became a 'track-walker' - another, more solitary, maintenance job involving walking about twelve miles of track every day - up one day, down the next. He was killed at work in 1953.

I went to school in the neighbouring mining village of Bowburn (the mine closed long ago, and the miners' houses are now occupied by commuters working in Durham City and by students studying there) and subsequently to the Johnston Grammar School in Durham. My school career was hardly a resounding success and I left after 'O' levels at 16 to work as a library assistant in Durham County Library.

My professional career was interrupted (as was the case for pretty well everyone else at the time) by two years of national, military service. I was able to choose the Royal Air Force, instead of being drafted into the Army, like most, because I had been in the Air Training Corps at school - learning to identify Heinkels, Messerschmidts, Spitfires and Hurricanes, and also learning to fly gliders. I pursued that latter occupation for some time later until the lack of money to buy a share in a sailplane drove me out!

After National Service, I returned to Durham County Library and, after a year, went off to what was called, at the time, 'library school', to prepare for the professional examinations of the Library Association. I had already passed one part of this examination while in the RAF, and by Christmas had passed another part, which left me with about six months in which to study for the other two parts. After library school, I went back to the County Library but moved on quickly to take charge of a college library. I say 'take charge' but, in fact, I was the solitary Librarian, with three service points in two towns to operate - the big advantage of this arrangement is that no one knew where I was, most of the time, as I whizzed from one to another on my Lambretta scooter.

From Stockton/Billingham Technical College, I moved on the the Nuclear Research Centre of C.A. Parsons and Company in Newcastle upon Tyne (now Siemens Power Generation, Newcastle). C.A. Parsons was a famous name on Tyneside. Sir Charles Algernon Parsons was the inventor of the steam turbine and in the 1950s and 1960s the company employed about 12,000 men and women at the company works, building turbines for electricity generating stations all over the world. Parsons were partners in The Nuclear Power Group, which built the first nuclear power generating station in the UK, Calder Hall, which closed down completely in early 2003.

At the Nuclear Research Centre of C.A. Parsons I worked as Librarian and Information Officer, responsible to the Managing Director, Dr. 'Monty' Finniston (later, Sir Monty, head of British Steel). Here, I did the usual 'special librarian' things, and spent a lot of time out and about in the laboratories - Dr. Finniston, when he arrived, told me to spend 30% of my time talking to people - so I took him at his word. I also developed one of the early 'optical coincidence' indexing systems - early, that is, in their resurrection, since they had been used in the 1930s in Germany and then, I think, forgotten.

Before adopting optical coincidence cards (I had to design them and have them specially printed, since those available at the time were priced out of sight!) I went along to the computer department, running some early machine or other (it may have been a Ferranti Pegasus) in an air-controlled room and with less memory than my mobile phone, to ask if anything could be done 'on the computer'. The Head of Computing came down to the library, took a look at the idea of cards - I had a small demo running - shook his head and said, 'No, we couldn't do anything better than that for you.'

While at C.A. Parsons, I completed my examinations for Fellowship of the Library Association and, in 1961, moved on to teach at the School of Librarianship, College of Commerce, Newcastle upon Tyne. The transition was abrupt: I had to give only one week notice at C.A. Parsons (their employment policies at the time were not particularly enlightened and, of course, they could have given me only one week's notice!) and so I finished work there on a Friday, and started a full teaching week the following Monday. The full teaching week meant twenty-three hours of class contact, teaching, if I remember rightly, theoretical cataloguing, theoretical classification, practical cataloguing and classification, and most of what was called the First Professional Examination, including historical bibliography, the history of the book, the history of printing, and modern book production. I subsequently added special librarianship to the list. I had only recently been married and to say that my wife saw little of me would be an understatement - after dinner I was in the spare bedroom, which was turned into a study, preparing my lectures for the next day, working to midnight or beyond.

I think it may have been at Newcastle that I acquired my liking for change - although I suspect that it is something genetic. Whatever the explanation, library education was going through a period of significant change from 1960 onwards and being part of that change, including the creation of new syllabuses to replace those of the Library Association, and then an undergraduate programme when the College of Commerce became part of the new Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic. The undergraduate programme was a Bachelor's degree in Information Science and had the distinction of being the first degree in the field to be approved by the Council for National Academic Awards. Sadly, the take-up for the programme was low and this led, after about three intakes, to the withdrawal of support from the Department of Education. As these developments took place, I progressed from the lowest of the low, Assistant Lecturer, Grade B, to Principal Lecturer.

I worked at Newcastle Library School until January 1972, when I moved to Sheffield to take up a two-year position as Principal Investigator on a research project. However, I had spent the academic year 1970/1971, plus the summer of 1971, as Visiting Lecturer at the University of Maryland at the invitation of Professor Paul Wasserman, the founding Dean of the library school. Paul had the notion that classification was understood better and taught better in the UK than in the USA and every year he imported a British teacher. My predecessors had been Jack Mills, Derek Langridge (both members of the Classification Research Group), David Batty, Tony Foskett, and Chris Needham - but not necessarily in that order.

The University of Maryland was in turmoil at the time, there had been race riots in Washington, DC, just down the road in the summer of 1970, and the National Guard had been turned out to put down a student riot on the College Park campus. They were turned out again in the summer of 1971 - wisely, I stayed at home on that day, since, otherwise, I would have been tear-gassed. My time there was something of an education in academic politics - which I shan't elaborate upon; but the fact that, towards the end of my stay, I was Chair of the Curriculum Committee because the Faculty factions couldn't agree about virtually anything, probably says enough. I also found myself working with Dagobert Soergel to re-design the Proseminar course - Dagobert was another Visiting Lecturer, along with Hans Wellisch, and both of them stayed on at Maryland when I went back home.

I had only been back in Newcastle for about three weeks when Professor Wilf Saunders, Head of the Postgraduate School of Librarianship and Information Science, at the University of Sheffield called me and asked if I would like to work on a research project for a couple of years. He had already spoken to my Head of Department, Bill Caldwell, and, to make a rather short story even shorter, by January 1972 I was established in Sheffield as 'Principal Investigator' for the Local library cooperation project, supported by the Government's Department of Education and Science (DES). The (not so) 'hidden agenda' of the project was that the DES hoped to find evidence that money could be saved on the total budget for libraries in the UK if groups of libraries cooperated effectively. Sadly for the DES, the project produced no evidence for this proposition: the overlap of existing stocks and of current acquisitions was not sufficient to produce significant savings.

However, the project did result in the Sheffield Libraries Coordinating Committee, which turned into SINTO 2000 when it amalgamated with the existing Sheffield Interchange Organization, established in 1932. The SLCC also served as something of a model for the later Library and Information Plans (LIP) initiative - alas, governments never learn and, in this case, what they failed to understand from the earlier work is that effective collaboration can only flourish when there are spare resources to enable it. When times are hard, as they have been for libraries in the UK since 1979, virtually without respite, there are no spare resources and individual library systems fall back to doing the best they can for their immediate constituencies with the reduced resources they retain.

Towards the end of the Local Library Cooperation project, I was appointed to a full-time position on the academic staff of the School, at some cost, since from Principal Lecturer in the Polytechnic I became Lecturer in the University. Once in that position I applied myself to completing the PhD. I had begun while managing the project and then became involved in the proposal to establish a Centre for Research in User Studies (CRUS) at Sheffield. This Centre was the brainchild of Professor Saunders of the School and Dr. Peter Mann of the Department of Sociological Studies. CRUS was an extremely successful Centre, gaining many projects and remained in existence until 1989, when the British Library Research and Development Department ended its core funding (of necessity, as it was not receiving sufficient funds from the British Library to enable it to continue the funding).

From 1974 onwards I obtained a succession of research grants, mainly from the BLRDD, but also from the Department of Health and Social Security, and the Economic and Social Research Council. The major project at this time was Project INISS - Information Needs in Local Authority Social Services Departments. This was a ground-breaking project in a number of ways, not least in its use of 'structured observation' as one of the main research methods. The research team of four and myself carried out a total of twenty-two person-weeks of observation before surveying a further 150 persons in an interview survey.

I also became more involved in international activities. The School ran courses for the British Council and these were sometimes followed by requests to travel to advise on various aspects of professional education. I had trips to Turkey, Poland, Tunisia, and Morocco and the beginning of a long association with Portugal. My first visit there was with a group of colleagues who were undertaking a survey of public libraries in Portugal. At that time the public library service was very under-developed and in some places the only collection of books was in the local fire-station. Our recommendations led to no immediate government action, but some years later a development programme was started and Portugal now has many more public libraries, often associated with cultural centres.

However, my longest association in Portugal was with what is now the Instituto Nacional de Engenharia, Tecnologia e Inovação. Again, that connection began with a consultancy and carried on into the preparation of courses for 'information intermediaries' to work in the Portuguese equivalents of Chambers of Commerce and from that into offering our MSc in Information Management on a part-time basis at the Institute's campus in Lisbon. That programme was run for two intakes, each of eighteen months' duration and a significant proportion of the graduates have gone on to important positions in Portugal. One graduate, Ana Azevedo, went on to persuade the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Oporto to develop its own MSc in Information Management and I continue to teach in that programme, until 2012.

Another connection, arising out of interest in the INISS Project was with the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden and Finland. David Streatfield (the Principal Investigator on Project INISS) and I made a number of visits over several years to various parts of Sweden - Luleå, Umeå, Linköping, Gothenburg, Borås - everywhere, it seemed, but Stockholm! We individually made visits to Finland also, mainly to the Universities of Tampere and Åbo Akademi. These connections continue to the present day.

In 1982 I took over from Wilf Saunders as Head of what was now the Department of Information Studies, the name having been changed in 1981. I took on the position on a temporary basis, fully anticipating that the University would appoint a successor to Wilf and a fifteen-year career as Head could not have been further from my mind. The position is equivalent to that of Dean in the USA and anyone who has held that position for any length of time will understand!

However, after advertising the position, no suitable candidate was found and I was asked to serve for another year. At the end of that year, the University, under financial pressure (as well as pressure from the local branch of the Association of University Teachers for a more 'democratic' process of appointment), changed the rules of the game and introduced a new system for the appointment of Heads: in future, a Head of Department would be elected from among the senior staff of a Department, the election being subject to the approval of the Vice-Chancellor. My colleagues asked me to stand for election and, since no one else was nominated, I was elected and the election was approved by the Vice-Chancellor.

By the time the next election arrived, I had been doing the job for five years and, given the pressures the Department was under, it seemed sensible to me to acceed to my colleagues' request that I should continue to do the job. And so, I ended up doing the job until 1997.

Over these fifteen years, the Department changed enormously. We started the academic year 1982-83 with, I believe, an establishment of 8.5 full-time academic staff with a freeze on new appointments or even replacement of people who had retired or moved. These years of the Thatcher regime were years of extraordinary difficulty for universities and Sheffield was no exception. We managed to resist pressure to merge with other departments and, at 8.5 people, were deemed not to be a 'small' department ripe for closure - other departments were succumbing to these strategies. Somehow, we survived and even prospered in these hard times and when I retired in 1997, the establishment was 15 academic staff, with three positions open for appointment when the new Head of Department took up the position and decided how they were to be used. Along with this increase in staff came a major increase in student numbers and changes in the teaching programmes. The present status of the Department (now the Information School) was established in these hard times.

My research career suffered to some extent over the period, although I continued to gain research grants, and, as some kind of compensation, other professional activities developed. I was instrumental, in 1992, in converting the Association of British Library and Information Science Schools (ABLISS), which was simply a committee of the Heads of Departments, into BAILER (British Association for Information and Library Education and Research), which was an Association open to all teaching staff in the UK departments (plus the Republic of Ireland) and was the first Chair of its Heads of Department Committee.

I was also instrumental in the establishment of EUCLID, which is not really an acronym since it identifies the European Association for Library and Information Education and Research. The idea for this organization was put to me by Brian Perry who was, at the time, Director of the British Library R & D Department. At a conference somewhere in Scandinavia, I discussed the concept with Ole Harbo (Rector of the Copenhagen School) and Tor Henriksen (Head of the Oslo School) and we set up an inaugural meeting which got the organization under way. I also served on a number of Committees of the Economic and Social Research Council and on various other bodies at various times.

Overseas connections continued to develop, partly as a result of the Study Leave to which academic staff were entitled. I had spells of teaching at McGill University in Montreal, Curtin University in Western Australia, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Towards the end of my time as Head of Department, my association with Poland was renewed through becoming involved in the development of the International Centre for Information Management, Systems and Services, originally at the Nicholas Copernicus University, Torun, but now an independent organization.

Since retiring my workload appears to have declined hardly at all, although the most onerous load, that of being responsible for others, has gone. I no longer have to negotiate for more staff, or defend staff against the depredations of the University, or ensure that they 'perform' as the University wishes. So the sleepless nights are fewer. However, I have two appointments that keep me busy: I am Visiting Professor at Leeds University Business School, jointly directing the AIMTech Research Group with Dr. David Allen. We are working, currently, in the area of mobile information systems, particularly in the emergency services, i.e., police forces, ambulance services and fire brigades. Our work largely involves the evaluation of pilot projects and surveys of the extent and nature of mobile technology implementations. A short article on our work appeared in Update in November, 2005. I have also jointly supervised a number of Ph.D. students with Dr. Allen.

My other appointment is as Senior Professor at the Swedish School of Librarianship and Information Science of Göteborg University and the Högskolan i Borås. Here, I have spent some time working with Ph.D. students, giving occasional lectures on the information management courses, and helping to develop research proposals. I also spent a couple of years working as an advisor to the Rector, on issues relating to topics such as 'Professional PhDs', the Bologna Accord, and strategic planning. I jointly supervise Ph.D. students and work research projects. The latter have included a European-funded project, EURIDICE and others mentioned below.

I was very much surprised, in October 2005, to learn that I was to be awarded an honorary doctorate by Gothenburg University for my work in Sweden over the past 25 years and especially for my work at the Swedish School. [The picture shows what might be called, 'the crowning moment' of my career smiley ]

To this point, I have said nothing about my career as an editor and publisher, which began quite early on with an appointment as Deputy Editor for The Assistant Librarian, the small magazine published by the Association of Assistant Librarians (since 1997 the Career Development Group of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, formerly the rather more succinctly named Library Association - looks as though the management consultancies have taken over, doesn't it?). However, back to the story: as Deputy Editor (or it may have been Assistant Editor), I was mainly responsible for managing the book reviews, although I also did a regular piece reviewing the literature of 'special librarianship', and a couple of items on two of the Powys brothers, Theodore Francis and Llewellyn, which failed to set the world of literary criticism alight! I can't remember when I gave up that position: it probably had something to do with my move into teaching, and it was some years before I ventured again, this time in collaboration with my colleague at Sheffield, Norman Roberts. We approached what was then Butterworths with the suggestion that the social sciences were beginning to attract information-related research and they bought the idea of a journal to be called, Social Science Information Studies, which saw its first issue in October 1980.

Our first Editorial in Social Science Information Studies began:

Social Science Information Studies has been established in the belief that exciting possibilities will accrue from the joint exploration of common interests by social scientists and information scientists. For much of its short life information science has been associated with, indeed characterized by, its concern with information problems in science and technology. These problems have been serious enough, and attractive enough, to engage the attention of many scientists, particularly (because of the tradition of organization of the literature of the field) chemists. In pursuing such interests, however, scientists have frequently had recourse to the methods of the social sciences rather than those of their own disciplines.

and for five years the journal pursued that agenda. By 1985, however, it had become evident that the surge in social science related research had not only peaked, but had declined. In both the USA and the UK conservative governments had come to power and the social sciences were not exactly their favoured areas of scholarship: in the UK Margaret Thatcher had famously said that she believed that there was no such thing as community and her Minister of Education, Sir Keith Joseph had pursued a campaign to force the Social Sciences Research Council to drop 'science' from its title on the grounds of his belief that there was no such thing as 'social science'. To its abiding shame, the SSRC caved in and became the Social and Economic Research Council.

These political influences clearly had their effect and information-related research in the social sciences declined, so Norman Roberts and I decided that a change of name and a change of target was necessary: following negotiations with publisher the International Journal of Information Management came into being, and continues to this day, as one of the leading journals in its field.

Pressure of work as Head of Department forced me to give up the Editorship of IJIM after a couple of years, although I have remained on the Editorial Board, and I imagined that my days of editing journals would be over. However, the advent of the World Wide Web presented new opportunities.

For some years, the Department of Information Studies had published a quarterly newsletter, CRUS News, which reported developments in 'user studies' research and the work of the Centre for Research in User Studies. When funding for CRUS ran out we decided to continue CRUS News as Information Research News and use it as a vehicle for reporting research carried out in the Department as a whole. The Department took early advantage of the World Wide Web, having created courses in html and Web design in 1994/5 and it was a logical step to convert Information Research News to a free electronic publication (particularly as managing the small subscription list was actually costing more than the newsletter earned!), at which point its name was changed to Information Research.

I mentioned earlier that my workload seems not to have significantly diminished following my 'retirement'. One of the reasons for this is my continued work at the University of Borås, where I have been involved in a number of research projects, either funded by the University, the EU, the Swedish Library Association (Svesks Biblioteksförening) or, in the most recent instance, the Swedish Research Council (Veteskapsrådet). The University-supported projects were quite small, but rather interesting: one was to investigate how scholars relocating to Sweden maintained or developed their research networks; the other was to provide policy guidance on the development of the University's repository by conducting an investigation into the publishing habits of researchers in the University and of their knowledge of opoen access, the role of the repository and related matters. The EU funded projects were large, multinational affairs in which, together with other members of staff in Borås, I was involved mainly in evaluation and training phases. One of these was SHAMAN: Sustaining Heritage Access through Multivalent Archiving, which provided considerable insight into the problems and prospects for digital preservation. The other, ongoing, is PERICLES, an equally contrived acronym for 'Promoting and Enhancing Reuse of Information throughout the Content Lifecycle taking account of Evolving Semantics'. This is, in effect, a follow-up to the SHAMAN project and is once again concerned with the preservation of digital data. The case studies, however, differ widely: one is based in the Tate Gallery in London and relates to the preservation of digital video art, the other in Space Applications Services NV in Belgium, where the data relates to solar observations.

The Svenskbiblioteksförening has funded two projects, one on the research needs of libraries in Sweden, in which we used the Delphi method; the other to prepare a large project proposal on the e-book phenomenon in Sweden. As part of this we undertook a census of all public libraries in Sweden and delivered this along with the research proposal to the Association.

In 2010 in the midst of all the research and publishing activity I received notification from the University of Murcia in Spain that I was to be awarded an honorary doctorate of the University. This came as a complete surprise to me, since, although I had visited the University a number of times and had discussions on curriculum development and research, and had asked Professor José Vicente Rodriquez-Munoz to serve as one of the Associate Editors of Information Research, I did not imagine that the degree of contact I had warranted an award for services to the University. Indeed, this was not the basis for the award, it was rather, recognition of my lifetime research. The ceremony was held during the 2010 ISIC Conference in Murcia and was very different from the event in Gotheburg: to begin with, I was the only person receiving a degree at the ceremony, at which I was presented with a number of symbolic objects - the gown, cape, hat, ring, gloves, book - almost an embarrassment of riches! Quite what my conference colleagues thought of the event, I do not know, but I felt greatly honoured. Also, unlike Gothenburg, I was required to give an address as part of the ceremony—my ISIC colleague who were present asked me to publish the address and it appears in Information Research. The picture shows me appropriately dressed, after the ceremony, with the University Rector.

At the beginning of 2013 I discontinued my connection to the University of Oporto - I had been Professor Catedratico Convidado (Visiting Professor) for more than ten years and had helped to develop, as well as teach on, the MSc in Information Management and, with changes to the programme, as well as the involvement of the Faculty of Humanities in new Bachelors' and Masters' programmes, I felt it was time to stop. My colleague Professor. David Allen, from Leeds University Business School, is continuing the connection and, as an active teacher and researcher, is much better placed to contribute than I am.

However, 2013 turned out to be the year in which a new line of research developed: the Swedish Research Council (Venteskapsrådet) had a call to which colleagues in Boras and the University of Gothenburg felt we could respond. We put in two proposals in the area of e-books, a low-cost proposal, which we hoped to get as a preliminary to further work, and a 'big' project for almost 12 million kroner (approximately £:1.2 million or $1.8 million) , which we felt we had no expectation of success. In the end, we were wrong: the small project was rejected and we got the big one, which is going to keep me busy until 2016, so I don't think I'll be making more bids in the near future! The project is to examine the impact of the e-book phenomenon in a 'small language' culture (where the economics of everything to do with book publishing are radically different from the English language book market) and to explore the impact from authorship, through publishing, bookselling, and libraries, to the ultimate reader. So far we have carried out a survey of all public libraries in Sweden, and a pilot study of publishers. We also have questions in the annual SOM and Nordicom surveys: SOM surveys adults in Sweden and Nordicome covers the age group 9 to 24 and these will run over the period of the project, providing us with longitudinal data on e-book use. We have also forged connections with other 'small language' countries and hope to be able to develop comparative studies. We were unexpectedly involved in an entertaining event in May 2013 when invited to participate in the 'Science Roulette' as part of Gothenburg's International Science Festival: this involved occupying a cabin on the Ferris wheel in Liseberg entertainment park and talking to members of the public about the project who boarded and travelled round with us a couple of cycles. We found most of them very well informed about e-books, even if they weren't using them. In December, 2013 three members of the team presented papers at a conference in Pula, Croatia, and we hope to have further collaboration with colleagues there. be continued

Page designed and maintained by Professor Tom Wilson. Last update 11 December, 2013

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