Thomas M. Aitchison

Born: July 31, 1923 | Glasgow, GB

Thomas M. Aitchison began his career in information science at Courtaulds. After completing a Library Association correspondence course, he worked as a divisional librarian and information officer with the British Aircraft Corporation, and then as a member of the Aslib aircraft information group. He also developed a journal for the National Electronics Research Council. Later, he worked to mechanize Science Abstracts and organize the Direct Evaluation of Indexing Languages [DEVIL] project.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 200
No. of pages: 35
Minutes: 91

Interview Sessions

W. Boyd Rayward
4 July 2000
Letchworth Garden City, Hertsfordshire, United Kingdom

Abstract of Interview

Thomas M. Aitchison begins his interview by detailing his educational background and then continues by discussing how he first became interested in the field of information science. With the start of his career at Courtaulds, Aitchison got his first taste of working in a library. However, it was with the completion of the Library Association correspondence course that Aitchison gained the confidence and knowledge necessary to become a successful librarian. After applying for and being hired as divisional librarian and information officer with the British Aircraft Corporation, Aitchison became a member of the Aslib aircraft information group. He also joined the National Electronics Research Council and helped the Council develop a journal and numerous other projects. In January 1967, Aitchison helped form the Information Service in Physics, Electrotechnology, and Control (INSPEC) and became the information research manager. He also worked to mechanize Science Abstracts and organize the Direct Evaluation of Indexing Languages (DEVIL) project. He concludes his interview by sharing recollections of those who had the most influence on his career. Joint interview with Jean Aitchison.

Jean Aitchison begins her interview by discussing how she first became involved in thesaurus development. She continues by sharing her first meeting with Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan and her initial impressions of him. Aitchison worked to complete three editions of English Electric Faceted Subject Classification for Engineering, between 1958 and 1961. With the help of others, she developed and reclassified many projects. She worked with Cyril Cleverdon on several publications and in March 1967 she began work on Thesaurofacet. She also worked to develop and improve the Bliss Association Classification system. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1944 University of St. Andrews BSc Mathematics and Physics
1955 Library Association, United Kingdom Associate

Professional Experience

Courtaulds, Ltd.

1948 to 1955

British Aircraft Corporation

1955 to 1964
Divisional Librarian and Information Officer

National Electronics Research Council

1964 to 1966
Technical Officer and Director, SDI Project

Institution of Electrical Engineers, INSPEC

1967 to 1988
Deputy Director, then Director

Peter Petergrinus, Ltd.

1980 to 1988

J & TM Aitchison

1988 to 1990


Year(s) Award

Order of the British Empire


Hon. Fellow, Institute of Information Scientists


Hon. Fellow, National Federation of Abstracting and Indexing Services

Table of Contents

Thomas M. Aitchison Interview

Attended the University of St. Andrews, interested in math and physics. Joined the army but was discharged to work at the Admiralty Signal and Radar Establishment in Haslemere, England. Lost interest in a career as a physicist. Became librarian for Courtaulds Limited.

Organization Affiliations and New Projects

Became a member of Aslib. Set-up manual SDI (Selective Dissemination of Information) system which was greeted with enthusiasm. Joined National Electronics Research Council. Transferred to the IEE (Institute of Electrical Engineers).


January 1967, INSPEC (Information Service in Physics, Electrotechnology and Control), a mechanized version of Science Abstracts, formed. The DEVIL (Direct Evaluation of Indexing Languages) project started. Thesaurus developed.

Director at INSPEC

Tensions with AIP (American Institute of Physics) rose. Became an agent for IEE primary publications. Competition and collaboration with different information committees. INSPEC grew.

Jean Aitchison Interview

Originally ran large library in the English Electric Company. Hoped to create classification system. Developed the English Electric Faceted Subject Classification for Engineering between 1958 and 1961.


Started work on Thesaurofacet in March 1967. General Electric Company took over the English Electric Company and closed down most of the libraries. Thesaurofacet died.

Work at UNESCO

Helped develop UNESCO thesaurus. Made system for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, in London, published in 1991. Retired from the field.


About the Interviewer

W. Boyd Rayward

W. Boyd Rayward is a research professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Chamapaign. He turned to librarianship after graduating in English literature from the University of Sydney. He received his PhD from the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago in 1973. He has held positions in the University of Chicago (where he became Dean of the Graduate Library School). He served as professor and head of the School of Information Library and Archive Studies and Dean of the University's Faculty of Professional Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney where he is now professor emeritus. He has published two books related to Paul Otlet, Belgian documentalist and internationalist, and a great many articles on history of national and international schemes for the organization and dissemination of information.