John E. Woolston

Born: August 10, 1924GB
Died: October 24, 2017 | Coquitlam, CA

John Woolston attended King’s College London, where he studied nuclear physics and radio electronics in his physics curriculum. He spent three years in National Service and after studying in Paris for several months he returned to England to a job with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. He then moved to Washington, DC, to the British Science Mission, where he was responsible for evaluating designs of computers as a means of organizing information and technologies. Soon working for Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, as Technical Information Officer, Woolston collected, collated, and copied documents; and he became secretary of the library committee, responsible for editing AECL publications and eventually for document security classification, at that point as Head of Technical Information Branch. After three years at INIS, he accepted an offer of the directorship of the Information Sciences Division in the International Development Research. Woolston took early retirement and began work on Development Information Science System, an information system for social and economic development. He spent three years working for the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and then returned to DEVSIS.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0226
No. of pages: 101
Minutes: 453

Interview Sessions

W. Boyd Rayward
19 and 21 November 2001
CIMMYT, Texcoco de Mora, Mexico

Abstract of Interview

John Woolston grew up in a suburb of London, England. Though he originally intended to study humanities, he was assigned by his school to the science track. He entered King’s College London, where he studied nuclear physics and radio electronics in his physics curriculum. He spent three years in National Service, devising practical solutions for the military effort against the Third Reich. After studying in Paris, France, for several months he returned to England to a job with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). He and his new wife then moved to Washington, DC, to the British Science Mission, where he was responsible for evaluating designs of computers as a means of organizing information and technologies. Thus arose his interest in modern publication methods. From DC to England and back to Chalk River, Canada, now working for Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), where he was Technical Information Officer, Woolston collected, collated, and copied documents; and he became secretary of the library committee, responsible for editing AECL publications and eventually for document security classification, at that point as Head of Technical Information Branch. When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was established, Woolston began to attend annual meetings in Vienna, Austria, to discuss the work of the Scientific and Technical Information Division (STI), viz. running a library and documentation service for documents related to peaceful uses of atomic energy. Woolston became Director upon Bernard Gross’s retirement. With Lev Issaev and Raymond Wakerling, he established INIS to replace and expand Nuclear Science Abstracts. After three years at INIS, Woolston wanted to return to Canada. Committed to making sure scientific and technological information was managed effectively for the benefit of developing as well as developed nations, he accepted David Hopper’s offer of the directorship of the Information Sciences Division in the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) newly established in Ottawa, Canada. There Woolston found that setting up the International System for Agricultural Science and Technology (AGRIS) was more difficult than INIS, even with help of Raymond Aubrac and John Sherrod of Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). There were political implications and inter-agency debates, as well as intra-agency arguments over the philosophy of information collection, organization, and dissemination. Woolston’s beloved mission-orientation and contributor-participation gave way to top-down discipline-orientation. FAO set up World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT) to replace AGRIS, which is now in severe decline, while INIS continues to grow. His objections overruled, Woolston took early retirement and began work on Development Information Science System( DEVSIS), an information system for social and economic development. He spent three years working for the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and then returned to DEVSIS. The study committee decided to default to INIS’s format to perform functions for bibliographic information, abstracts, library information, acquisitions, and retrieval. Integrated Scientific Information System (ISIS), the cataloging system IDRC had used from the beginning, was in the public domain, but it was too costly for most developing nations, as it required a mainframe computer, so Arthur and Marian Vespry and Kate Wild computerized ISIS in the service bureau until Faye Daneliuk was able to develop a minicomputer version (MINISIS), and eventually Del Bigio produced a personal computer version called CDS/ISIS (Computerized Documentation Service/ISIS). Woolston describes many fascinating people, incidents, and occasions during his varied career. He explains his desire to involve participating nations in the contributions to the systems they use. He praises his many colleagues, often adding interesting anecdotes that elucidate their characters. He maintains an optimistic outlook himself, and of course he continues to work in his retirement.

Table of Contents

First Career
1

Growing up in suburbs of London, England, beginning years of World War II. Assigned to science by school administrator. Enters King’s College London. National Service at Scientific Research to work on practical projects for military. Culture course in Paris. Job with Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR); introduction to hardware of early computers. Married, had first child. British Science Mission in Washington, DC. Responsible for evaluating designs of computers; also learning ways to organize information and technologies. Donald Urquhart. John Bernal’s concept of separates. P.M.S. Blackett. Mary Alexander. At DSIR managing distribution of separates.

Atomic Energy
22

Back to England, then to Canada. Working for Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. Takes job of Technical Information Officer, W.B. Lewis his boss, within National Research Council (NRC). Seven hundred scientists involved in Canadian nuclear program; processing fuels after irradiation. Responsible for editing AECL publications, eventually document security classification, at that point as Head of Technical Information Branch. Atoms for Peace Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. Meeting Dag Hammarskjöld. Homi Bhabha; collaboration on Indian reactor. Declassification of documents, increase in publication. Edward Brunenkant, Director of Technical Information US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and his dream of international cooperation; International Nuclear Information System. Nuclear Science Abstracts. International Atomic Energy Agency. Lev Issaev and Raymond Wakerling; birth of INIS. Political impediments, Cold War atmosphere at IAEA. Main responsibilities. Giampaolo Del Bigio and Gipsy computer programs. Helga Schmid. Philosophy of information systems; managing input, political considerations. INIS international, cooperative, mission-oriented. “Fairness” of distribution of input versus output.

Back to Canada
62

After three years at INIS a few issues of Atomindex. International Development Research Centre (IDRC) established in Ottawa, Canada. IDRC set up to help developing nations’ research capacities. Determining purpose and policy for new organization more interesting than continuing old. John Sherrod and International System for Agricultural Science and Technology (AGRIS). Sir Thomas Scrivener and Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux (CAB). Advisory panel debating organization of information. Using IAEA’s computer facilities for AGRIS; training, getting developing nations involved. Regional centers. Troubleshooters. Donald Leatherdale. Multilingual AGROVOC:  cooperation between European Union and FAO. Links between FAO and INIS. National Agricultural Library (NAL). Disagreements over how to run AGRIS. Woolston’s objections to change ignored; World Agricultural Information Centre (WAICENT) set up as sub-subset of FAO. Woolston’s retirement from chair of Panel and Implementation Advisory Committee.

Working after Retirement
85

Devising Development Information Science System. Consists of planning institutions in developing nations and donor countries. Martha Stone successor to Woolston after his early retirement from IDRC. Woolston to International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) for three years; then back to DEVSIS. Paul Marc Henry president of steering committee; Woolston director of DEVSIS study team in Geneva. Scope to be similar to INIS’ scope; no funding from FAO. Defaulting to ISIS, set of software packages in International Labour Office (ILO); performs functions for bibliographic information, abstracts, library information, acquisitions, retrieval. ISIS in public domain. Arthur and Marian Vespry and Kate Wild computerized when ISIS needed mainframe, but smaller countries unable to afford mainframes. Faye Daneliuk developed minicomputer version (MINISIS); finally able to run ISIS in house and to offer to other countries. License for discount to public-sector organizations, free to developing nations.

Index
99

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.