10 Conferences

Martin White

Throughout the existence of the IIS the initially biennial conference was fundamental to the building of networks across the profession that are a hallmark of an information scientist. The loss of the IIS archives during the amalgamation with CILIP included the disappearance of the IIS conference proceedings. Fortunately there are copies of most of the conference proceedings in the holdings of the British Library.

The management of the conferences

For a small professional society with limited administrative support, staging a successful conference was challenging. Initially the conferences were organised by the Meetings Committee but the work quickly overwhelmed the other work of the Committee and a separate Conference Committee was established. This reported to Meetings Committee and one of its members was also a member of Meetings Committee to ensure good communications. A decision was taken early on by Meetings Committee that the conferences should be held in different parts of the UK.

One of the benefits of rotating the location around the UK was that the local Branches competed with each other in the quality of the programme and of the overall organisation. However this was always a friendly competition and the exchange of good practice from one conference to the next was very good. The fact that so many people could be involved in the development and management of these conferences was a reflection on the generosity of employers at this time, who not only did not worry too much about absence from the office but also provided a range of support services to employees involved in these events.

The early years 1964–1977

The first Institute Conference was held in July 1965 at Merton College, Oxford. In his reflections on the event John Campbell wrote that Council had initially considered running a conference to be a fairly daring venture[1]. Although the publicity only went to members, sixty four people attended. The fee was £6.50 for members and £7.50 for non-members. The conference was held in the Old Warden’s Lodge and eight papers were given, four by non-members. The profit was £84.

The second conference returned to Oxford (Jesus College) in 1966 and attracted nearly 150 people. In 1968 the conference was held in Sheffield with the very active support of the Department of Information and Library Studies (now the Information School) at the University of Sheffield.

The conference moved to Reading in 1970, St. Andrews in 1972, Manchester in 1974, Guildford in 1976, York in 1977 and Loughborough in 1978. There were usually around 150 delegates, which at that time was close to 15% of the membership.

1979 ‘Towards 2001’ conference, Torquay

The decision was taken in early 1978 to celebrate the 21 years since the founding of the Institute with a high-profile event in 1979. The conference programme would be designed to explore strategic opportunities and challenges using presentations mainly from member practitioners, with fewer external speakers than at previous conferences.

It did not take the Conference Committee long to find out that there were few locations that were suitable and the decision was taken to hold the conference in the 5-star Imperial Hotel in Torquay. The draft programme was submitted to Council along with the estimate that the delegate fee would be £110, rather than the £50 average for previous conferences. It took some effort to convince Council that the risk was worth taking but at the last minute before the venue was approved the Institute of Scientific Information, through its President Gene Garfield, offered to make up for any losses that the conference might make.

The outcome was that over 300 delegates registered for the conference and, as the size of the potential audience became clear, sponsors were more than ready to support the event. This was before the first International Online Information Meeting (IOLIM) in London in 1979 which in future years turned into the definitive location for the information vendor community. The financial outcome was a stunning £10,000 profit. In 2020 values this equates to a profit of £50,000.

1980 – Tripartite conference

The comments below are extracted from ‘The Sheffield Tripartite Conference 1980’, a Guest Editorial by Professor Wilf Saunders, Journal of Information Science, 2(5) 207-208.

“So it has happened at last: the Institute of Information Scientists, Aslib and the Library Association have come together not just at official or secretariat level, but in the most effective way of all – at membership level. At Sheffield, from 15-18 September, some 850 participants gathered in a tripartite conference which represented virtually the complete spectrum of the library and information professions in the UK, plus a strong contingent from the information industry. Public librarians rubbed shoulders with information brokers, information researchers with information users; the richness and variety of the mix was surely unique in British library and information history.

Was it successful? Certainly all the ingredients for success were there: a theme – The nationwide provision and use of information – which was a ‘natural’ for a conference of this character; papers which addressed the theme from every conceivable viewpoint – philosophical, technological, commercial, political, social, professional – and of which the only significant complaint was that there was too much choice; a fine social programme in a city renowned for its hospitality; and one of the best and most wide-ranging exhibitions ever brought together for a library/information conference.

Organisationally, the whole complex operation was conducted with smoothness and efficiency, and reflected great credit on the planning committee. But in spite of all of this, the conference would have failed in a major objective if the three membership groups had stood aloof from one another, had not mixed, had not taken advantage of this opportunity to explore and identify both differences and common ground. In the event, the merging and mixing of the three memberships turned out to be one of the most heartening and promising aspects of the whole conference.

If some of the librarians were left slightly breathless by the aggressive (I use the word in the best, American, sense) approach of colleagues from a distinctly commercial or industrial environment, then so much the better. If some Aslib and Institute members came to revise their view of the extent to which librarians, too, are in the information business, then this was wholly to the good. Such mutual educational activity was in fact going on throughout the week, and was one of the most important benefits of the whole exercise. But more productive perhaps than any of the formal programme, in its contribution to ecumenical objectives, was the slick and scintillating entertainment called ‘Infotainment’. This revue put on by the Institute, which ‘sent up’ librarians and information scientists with delightful impartiality, kept a very large audience in stitches till around the final midnight.”

1982–2000 – Partnering and Silver Jubilee

The Torquay conference was the apogee of the IIS conferences. Although subsequent conferences matched it in terms of the quality of the presentations the number of delegates began to decrease and with that the profit contribution. This was because of a combination of the annual International Online Information Meeting (IOLIM) event in London, the inauguration of the UKOLUG conferences, and the decision to run a series of Text Retrieval conferences.

A feature of this period was the number of conferences in which the IIS joined with partner organisations. The first of these was in Dublin in 1982 which was a Joint Conference with the American Society for Information Science.

The Silver Jubilee of the IIS was celebrated in 1983 at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. The keynote speaker was Kenneth Baker MP, who at that time had an information technology portfolio. Behind the scenes there were two tricky moments. The first was that Robert Maxwell decided at very short notice not to speak at the IIS President’s Dinner. The President at the time was Justin Dukes, then on the staff of the Financial Times, which had published some critical comments about Maxwell’s business dealings. The second was that the Treasurer of the IIS sought out the Chairman of Council just before the conference dinner to say that the Inland Revenue wanted £10,000 from the Institute over a failure to charge VAT on its courses and conferences. By good fortune the Chairman (Martin White) was working for Reed Publishing at the time and was able to make use of its considerable financial and legal services to show that in fact VAT was not due as the IIS was performing an educational role for its members.

The organisers of the 1984 Conference, which was held in Canterbury, laid on a coach trip to a chateau just outside Calais for the conference dinner and overnight accommodation. The keynote speaker was Sir Fred Hoyle, the distinguished astronomer, who had a cottage in the area as he was at that time working for the Royal Observatory at Hearstmonceux.

The conference stayed in the south of England in 1985. This was the second tripartite event hosted by the IIS, the Library Association and Aslib and was held in the Bournemouth Conference Centre. This was despite the fact that the IIS had already agreed to run its own conference in Warwick before the idea of the Tripartite Conference was conceived.

In 1987 the conference was held at a hotel in Peebles, Scotland. It then journeyed the length of the country to Exeter in 1988. The IIS decided around this time that events in the information business and the rapid increase in membership called for conferences to be organised on an annual basis. The 1989 conference was  held in Harrogate. ‘Information 90’, sponsored by the IIS, Aslib, COPOL, the LA and the Society of Archivists, was held in Bournemouth. The attendance was over 300 and the conference was deemed to be a great success by all concerned.

Bedford was the venue for the 1991 event. In 1992 the theme was the ‘Common Market for Information’ with a strong focus on developments in the EU and in Eastern Europe. There was no conference in 1993 but in 1994 it returned to Bedford. 1995 was again a tripartite event with Aslib and the LA but this time the IIS did not hold its own conference and instead offered a Members’ Day in London. The 1996 IIS event was the first to be held in Wales, with the venue being the University of Cardiff. There was no stand-alone conference in 1997. Instead there were IIS sessions at the LA Umbrella conference in June.

The 40th Anniversary Conference took place in Sheffield. This turned out to be the last IIS conference. In 1999 the IIS again ran its event within the LA Umbrella meeting and no events were held in 2000 and 2001 as discussions for the merging of the LA and the IIS progressed.

The table below lists the conferences in chronological order, and indicates where the proceedings are held by the British Library.

Year Location Proceedings
1965 Oxford BL
1966 Oxford BL
1968 Sheffield BL
1970 Reading
1972 St. Andrews
1974 Manchester
1976 Guildford
1977 York BL
1978 Loughborough
1979 Torquay BL
1980 (Tripartite) Aberystwyth BL
1981 Torquay
1982 Dublin BL
1983 Oxford
1984 Canterbury
1985 Warwick
1985 (Tripartite) Bournemouth
1987 Peebles BL
1988 Exeter
1989 Harrogate BL
1990 (Multipartite) Bournemouth
1992 Bedford
1994 Bedford BL
1995 (Tripartite) London
1996 Cardiff
1998 Sheffield
1999 (Umbrella) London
2000 (Members  Day pre AGM seminars) London Inform
2001 (Members Day pre AGM seminars) London Inform

Note – the Members Days were informal, popular and well-attended.


One of the highlights of the 1980, 1985 and 1990 multipartite conferences, as well as the 1983 Institute conference, was Infotainment. Organised by Brian Kingsmill under the benevolent guidance of Rex Cooke, the performers were either members of the Institute or their friends. These late night entertainments comprised a mixture of library and information-related comedy sketches and musical interludes.

Text Retrieval Conferences

The IIS organised a series of conferences on text retrieval software and its applications from 1984 to 1997. To appreciate the importance of the Text Retrieval conferences it is important to place them in the context of the period.

By the mid-1970s mini-computers were being adopted very widely, and many organisations and companies saw this as an opportunity to develop text/document retrieval software products for these mini-computers. In the USA these included BASIS (Battelle Institute) and INQUIRE (Infodata). The mini-computer market stimulated software development in the UK as well, including ASSASSIN (ICI), STATUS (Atomic Weapons Research Establishment), CAIRS (Leatherhead Food Research Association) and DECO (Unilever). This illustrates the range of organisations that were at the forefront of text retrieval. Many of the research associations in the UK published abstracts journals and recognised the value of offering search services based on these journals to the members of the associations. As a result these applications all evolved from specific organisational requirements which were then productised for use more widely. Initially these systems were accessed through dedicated terminals (the IBM PC was not launched until 1981 and the Ethernet local area network technology only became widely adopted from around 1986 onwards).

The STATUS User Group in particular was very active. Because none of the vendors were initially interested in the commercial success of their products, users of these products were very willing to share their experience.

With so many products coming onto the market, the issue of how to compare them emerged quite strongly. A paper by Peter Hoey (a long-standing member of the IIS) is a good illustration of the challenges[2].

The first conference on this topic was organised by the IIS on 12-13 November 1979 at the Royal Society. The conference title was ‘Computer Packages for Information Storage and Retrieval’ and attracted an audience of around 200, a good indication of the level of interest in the subject. The IIS Special Interest Group on Word Processors and Information Handling was set up in 1980. At that time the IIS was in a strong financial position as a result of the success of the 1979 Annual Conference and a decision was taken to inaugurate the first of what turned out to be a very successful series of ‘Text Retrieval – the State of the Art’ conferences. This was held at the London Zoological Society in 1984, and was organised by members of the Southern Branch.

The themes of subsequent conferences were:

1984    Text retrieval in context (P)

1985    Text with non-text retrieval (P)

1986    Information handling for the office (P)

1988    The user experience (held at the BAFTA office in Piccadilly, London) (P)

1989    Text management (P)

1990    ID Information first (P)

1992    Information now

1994    Document and text management  – management and technology

1995    Document and text management

1997    New research, new products

The 1999 and 2001 conferences were held jointly by the IIS and the British Computer Society.

It appears that papers from the conferences in 1991, 1992, 1994 and 1997 were not published as proceedings (P). In 1993 the IIS sponsored the launch of the Journal of Document and Text Management which was published annually for the IIS by Taylor Graham Ltd.  Not all the papers were published in this journal.  Its title was changed to New Review of Document and Text Processing in 1995 because the Library Association considered that the title was too close to its Journal of Documentation.

Year Location Proceedings
1979 London
1984 London BL
1985 London BL
1986 London BL
1988 London BL
1989 London BL
1990 London BL
1991 London New Review of Document and Text Processing
1992 London New Review of Document and Text Processing
1993 London New Review of Document and Text Processing
1994 London New Review of Document and Text Processing
1995 London Journal of Document and Text Management[3].
1997 London Journal of Document and Text Management
1999 (with BCS) London
2001 (with BCS) London

The IIS compiled a Directory of Text Retrieval Software in 1985. A supplement was issued in 1986 and revised editions were published in 1987, 1990 and 1993.  Copies of all the issues are held by the British Library. 

[3] The British Library holds copies of the Journal of Document and Text Management.

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