I started fondly reminiscing (as one does) as I listened to Martin White and Sandra Ward last week at this year’s UKeiG’s annual conference, talking about their collaboration on a history of the Institution for Information Science (IIS), until I thought: what happened to all those information scientists? Where are they now? Come to think of it, what happened to the Online Information Show at Olympia in London each year? Both of them seem to have disappeared without trace, apart from a few remaining corporate information professionals, and the Cochrane team.

Conflict of Interest alert: I was a Member of the small and select Institute of Information Scientists, before becoming a Chartered Member of CILIP. So I have (had) some interest in these matters.

First, back to the talk. The full-sized book history of the IIS is freely available at http://iishistory.org/. The book is crammed with detail, so much so that I suspect for someone not acquainted with the story might get lost in the minutiae. For example, there is a chronology, but it is 15 pages long, with such entries as (for 1980) “No award made in the IIS Essay competition (insufficient standard of entries)”. I thought that one aspect of being an information professional was to sort out the wood from the trees, as it were, but perhaps that’s a different kind of information skill.

 So in this post I will try to sift out some main points, but equally, to try to understand its decline. The IIS was formed in 1958, and existed until 2002: a 44-year history. Not mentioned in the IIS History are the key dates for the Online Information Conference: 1977 to 2013, and for much of the time, the event and the association were in close symbiosis. It must be rare for a discipline to have its own professional association and major conference, only for both of them to disappear.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the history of the IIS does not offer many explanations why the IIS died (it was merged with the Library Association to form CILIP, but it seemed clear at the time that this was not a marriage of equals). All White and Ward offer is a wonderful graph of rising membership, with no dates, but certainly not including the decline:

Growth of membership of the IIS, from White and Ward (2021)

Why did the IIS disappear? Surely there is more interest in information today than ever before?

Key dates were:

1958 IIS formed

1964 First IIS Conference

1965 first full-text online database

1977 The first International Online Information Conference (IOLIM) at London Olympia

1978 UKOLUG launched, to provide training courses and how-to guides for online users

1984 IIS held first text retrieval conference

1992 Members now declining

2002 IIS merges with the Library Association to form CILIP

2013 The last Online Information conference

Hazel Hall commented (as did several others) when the closure of Online Information was announced in 2014. Her suggested reason for the closure was “the ubiquity of online in general that has lessened the obvious need for large conferences and exhibitions such as Online”. The paradox is that if we are all now searchers, do we know more about what how we search? Information Studies and Information Retrieval are now well-established academic disciplines, and there remain a small number of information professionals whose job it is to carry out searches that can be replicated, almost all using Boolean, the same tool that was used in the 1960s. It seems that nothing much has changed in that area. Most of us just rely on Google and don’t enquire further. Academics have any number of personal searching techniques that may or may not be effective, but they don’t spend hours at conferences discussing their search strategies.

Perhaps some other answers might be:

  • Search and discovery are today vast industries, employing thousands of people, but there appears to be a gulf between the search software and its deployment for commercial purposes and the disinterested professional information searcher. Commercial use of search is all about how to put into the search results the kind of things you would like the user to find, for example, products on special offer. Information Scientists would of course scoff at such an idea.
  • Information Retrieval remains largely untouched by the introduction of AI tools. The IIS, of course, disappeared long before the present generation of corpus-based machine learning systems, but you get the feeling that such an innovation might not have been welcomed. Perhaps the golden age of information science and information retrieval, up to the early years of the 21st century, were based around people believing they could add value to a process, discovering content in a digital repository, and for better or worse, their skills have been ignored. I always remember Karen Blakeman presenting tips and insights on how to use Google Search, always a sell-out event at Online Information Conferences. How does the world survive without such knowledge? Without too much difficulty, it appears.