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Oral history interview with John E. Woolston

  • 2001-Nov-19 – 2001-Nov-21

Oral history interview with John E. Woolston

  • 2001-Nov-19 – 2001-Nov-21

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.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 101 pages
  • 07:33:00
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewer

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.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0226

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • August 10, 1924
  • United Kingdom
  • October 24, 2017
  • Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada

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PDF — 1.2 MB

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

10 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads