Tuesday, August 02, 2005

25 Years Online in the Netherlands: A Compact History in 25 Instalments

Instalment 2: Librarians going online

Online in Europe can be dated back to 1977. It was in that year that the UK company Learned Information, now a VNU company, started its publications on Online and its annual Online Conference in London. Especially the Online Conference was a recognition for all online users in Europe. These online user were in many cases documentalists or academic librarians. And in order to achieve another status these online users were often called intermediaries or information specialists.

In 1977 a group of Dutch information specialists set up an association of online users entitled named Vereniging van Online Gebruikers in Nederland, VOGIN (Association of Online Users in the Netherlands; these days they still use the same abbreviation VOGIN, but carry another name: Association of Users of Interactive Information systems). The association registered the organisation at the Chambers of Commerce. This is probably the first time that the word online appeared in the records of the Chambers of Commerce.

The online users came from two environments: international corporations or universities. International corporations usually had a research group. In order to keep the researchers up to date, the information specialists sought in abstracts of scientific articles for new developments. On the other hand they were asked by researchers to search in databases in order to find a particular piece of information; that is why they called themselves sometimes intermediaries or literature researchers. So in The Netherlands you would find VOGIN members coming from research institutes like TNO, companies like DSM and universities.

The result of a search action on a host in 1978

The association was not just started for the recognition of the members. But the association was also active in getting connected to hosts. As online contact was made on normal telephone lines destined for voice with speeds ranging from 110bps to 300bps (in those days they spoke of baud as measure for speed) and there were no special dataline centers, the Dutch PTT was asked for assistance. Those pioneers could savour the time spent on tweaking for connections. Hosts were accessed by dumb terminals, terminals with thermal printers or through mini-computers.

First edition of Inleiding tot online literatuuronderzoek (collection jak Boumans)

By 1980 the association had a complete training program and wanted also a handbook. They turned to ITIS (Information Technology and Innovation Service), a department of VNU Database Publishing as the publisher. On 23 December 1980 the book Inleiding tot Online Literatuuronderzoek (Introduction to Online Literature Research) was published, according to the signature in my copy. The cover of the book shows the state of online in those days: a terminal with a thermal printer and in the back two naps to hold the telephone.

Over the years VOGIN educated many generations of professional searchers. Their members knew a lot of tricks to search the databases, but also a lot of short cuts to avoid high costs for the telephone connections, the fees for hosts and the copyright fees on the information.

They did not immediately embrace videotext as this was not important for their type of work. On the other hand, they jumped onto scientific literature CD-ROM. But when internet came about, I expected that the members would accept a social role and start educating the public in searching. But they did not. In fact they opted for an association as an independent sibling of the national library organisation.

Present logo of VOGIN

I learned searching from one of the founding fathers of VOGIN, Charles Citroen. To me he is the godfather of online in the Netherlands.; he was already involved in computed literature search since 1968. The VOGIN members of the pre-internet era were the real cybernauts avant la lettre.

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