Organizing Scientific Information after Sputnik

Helen L. Brownson

    As I think back over the early days of information science, when I was at the National Science Foundation, the memorable "moment" that first comes to mind occurred right after the 1957 launching of Sputnik. I was startled one evening to hear Eric Sevareid in his 11 PM radio broadcast describe the Soviet Union's All-Union Institute of Scientific and Technical Information and its coverage of the world's scientific and technical literature. He contrasted it with the Office of Technical Services, in the Department of Commerce, and its abstract journal, U.S. Government Research Reports. He apparently did not know that in the U.S. scientists and engineers relied on abstracting and indexing services covering their fields, such as Chemical Abstracts, Biological Abstracts, and Index Medicus.
     It seemed to me that this broadcast, and other reactions to the demonstrated technical achievement of the Soviets, contributed to a change of climate surrounding information science and also our NSF efforts to develop programs aimed at facilitating access to scientific literature. 1958 became the busiest year in my recollection. The President and his Science Advisory Committee, headed by Dr. James R. Killian, took an interest in the science information problem, The Committee named a special subcommittee, headed by Dr. W. O. Baker, Vice-President for Research of Bell Telephone Laboratories, to look at the problem of improving access to scientific literature. This subcommittee looked to us on the NSF staff for certain kinds of help and information; and we spent much time that year preparing special reports for them on the problems and current efforts toward that goal.

    The subcommittee's work resulted in a report of the President's Science Advisory Committee, "Improving the Availability of Scientific and Technical Information in the United States." It was issued by the White House on December 7, 1958, with a press release stating that "the President today approved a plan designed to help meet the critical needs of the Nation's scientists and engineers for better access to the rapidly mounting volume of scientific publication." The President directed that NSF take the leadership in bringing about effective coordination of scientific information activities within the Federal Government. Our mission was thus made clear.
NSF promptly announced, on December 11, 1958, the establishment of a Science Information Service, its objective to extend the Foundation's existing science information programs in order to carry out the President's objective. To oversee development of this expanded effort a Science Information Council was named with representation from Federal agencies and private scientific organizations.
    I might add that this memorable year was made still busier by NSF's participation in organizing the large International Conference on Scientific and Technical Information, which was held in Washington, November 16 to 21, 1958. It was sponsored Jointly by NSF, the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council, and the American Documentation Institute (predecessor of the ASIS). The conference was conceived three years earlier by members of ADI. I served on the program committee with responsibility for organizing and summarizing Area 1 ("Literature and Reference Needs of Scientists") of the seven areas on which sessions were held. The proceedings were published in two volumes by NAS-NRC in 1959.

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