Monday, July 31, 2006

Frederick G. Kilgour 1914-2006

We just heard that Fred Kilgour, OCLC's founder, has died at 92. He gave a lecture at OCLC sometime in the past couple of years and his mind was still sharp and his manner still feisty.

Here are the official words.

Frederick G. Kilgour, a librarian and educator who created an international computer library network and database that changed the way people use libraries, died on July 31, 2006. He was 92 years old and had lived since 1990 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Kilgour is widely recognized as one of the leading figures in 20th century librarianship for his work in using computer networks to increase access to information in libraries around the world. He was among the earliest proponents of adapting computer technology to library processes. At the dawn of library automation in the early 1970’s, he founded OCLC Online Computer Library Center and led the creation of a library network that today links 55,000 institutions in 110 countries.

Kilgour had been an academic librarian and historian of science and technology at Harvard and Yale for 30 years when the Ohio College Association hired him in 1967 to establish the world’s first computerized library network, the Ohio College Library Center, on the campus of The Ohio State University in Columbus. Under Kilgour’s leadership, the nonprofit corporation introduced a shared cataloging system in 1971 for 54 Ohio academic libraries.

At the time, most libraries maintained card catalogs as guides to their collections, and librarians would type individual cards for each item, which was labor-intensive, expensive and involved a great deal of duplicate effort.

The shared cataloging system and database that Kilgour devised made it unnecessary for more than one library to originally catalog an item. Libraries would either use the cataloging information that already existed in the database, or they would put it in for other libraries to use. The shared catalog also provided information about materials in libraries in the rest of the network. For the first time, a user in one library could easily find out what was held in another library. The network quickly grew outside Ohio to all 50 states and then internationally.

The database that Kilgour created, now called WorldCat, is regarded as the world’s largest computerized library catalog, including not only entries from large institutions such as the Library of Congress, the British Library, the Russian State Library and Singapore, but also from small public libraries, art museums and historical societies. It contains descriptions of library materials and their locations. More recently, the database provides access to the electronic full text of articles, books as well as images and sound recordings. It spans 4,000 years of recorded knowledge. It contains more than 70 million records and one billion location listings. Every 10 seconds a library adds a new record. It is available on the World Wide Web.

Thanks to Kilgour, WorldCat connects libraries of all types and sizes, from giant research libraries to small public libraries around the world. It enables people to have access to library collections irrespective of where they are located.

Frederick Gridley Kilgour was born in Springfield, Mass. on Jan. 6, 1914, to Edward Francis and Lillian Piper Kilgour. He worked his way through Harvard College. Upon graduating in 1935, he took a job as assistant to the director of Harvard University Library.

While there, he began experimenting in automating library procedures, primarily the use of punched cards for a circulation system. He also studied under George Sarton, a pioneer in the new discipline of the history of science, and began publishing scholarly papers. He also launched a project to build a collection of microfilmed foreign newspapers to help scholars have access to newspapers from abroad. This activity quickly came to the attention of government officials in Washington, D.C.

In 1942 to 1945, Kilgour served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve and was Executive Secretary and Acting Chairman of the U.S. government’s Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications (IDC), which developed a system for obtaining publications from enemy and enemy-occupied areas. This organization of 150 persons in outposts around the world microfilmed newspapers and other printed information items and sent them back to Washington, DC.

An example of the kind of intelligence gathered was the Japanese “News for Sailors” reports that listed new mine fields. These reports were sent from Washington, D.C. directly to Pearl Harbor and U.S. submarines in the Western Pacific. Kilgour received the Legion of Merit for his intelligence work in 1945.

From 1946 to 1948, Kilgour served as deputy director in the Office of Intelligence Collection and Dissemination in the Department of State.

In 1948, he was named Librarian of the Yale Medical Library. At Yale he was also a lecturer in the history of science and technology and published many scholarly articles on those topics.
While running the Yale Medical Library, Kilgour began publishing studies and articles on library use and effectiveness. He asked his staff to collect empirical data, such as use of books and journals by categories of borrowers to guide selection and retention of titles. He viewed the library “not merely as a depository of knowledge,” but as “an instrument of education.”

In 1961, he was one of the leaders in the development of a prototype computerized library catalog system for the medical libraries at Columbia, Harvard and Yale Universities that was funded by the National Science Foundation. In 1965, Kilgour was named associate librarian for research and development at Yale University. He continued to conduct experiments in library automation and to promote their potential benefits in the professional literature.

In his professional writings, Kilgour was one of the earliest proponents of applying computerization to librarianship. He pointed out that the explosion of research information was placing new demands on libraries to furnish information completely and rapidly. He advocated the use of the computer to eliminate human repetitive tasks from library procedures, such as catalog card production. He recognized nearly 40 years ago the potential of linking libraries in computer networks to create economies of scale and generate “network effects” that would increase the value of the network as more participants were added.

In 1967, the Ohio College Association (a group comprising the presidents of Ohio’s colleges and universities) hired Kilgour to lead a nonprofit corporation, the Ohio College Library Center (OCLC), in the development of a computerized library system for the academic libraries in the state. In 1971, after four years of development, OCLC introduced its online shared cataloging system, which would achieve dramatic cost savings for libraries. For example, in the first year of system use, the Alden Library at Ohio University was able to increase the number of books it cataloged by a third, while it reducing its staff by 17 positions. Word of this new idea spread on campuses across the country, starting an online revolution in libraries that continues to this day.
Kilgour was president of OCLC from 1967 to 1980, presiding over its rapid growth from an intrastate network to an international network. In addition to creating the WorldCat database, he developed an online interlibrary loan system that last year libraries used to arrange nearly 10 million loans. Today, OCLC has a staff of 1,200 and offices in seven countries. Its mission remains the same: to further access to the world’s information and reduce library costs.
In 1981 he stepped down from management but continued to serve on the OCLC Board of Trustees until 1995.

In 1990, he was named Distinguished Research Professor of the School of Information and Library Science, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and served on the faculty until his retirement in 2004.

Kilgour was the author of 205 scholarly papers. He was the founder and first editor of the journal, Information Technology and Libraries. In 1999, Oxford University Press published his book, The Evolution of the Book. His other books include: Engineering in History; The Library of the Medical Institution of Yale College and its Catalogue of 1865; and the Library and Information Science CumIndex.

He received numerous awards from library associations and five honorary doctorates.
In 1982, the American Library Association presented him with Honorary Life Membership. The citation read:

In recognition of his successful pioneering efforts to master technology in the service of librarianship; the acuity of his vision that helped to introduce the most modern and powerful technologies into the practice of librarianship; the establishment and development of a practical vehicle for making the benefits of technology readily available to thousands of libraries; his long and distinguished career as a practicing librarian; his voluminous, scholarly and prophetic writings; and above all his fostering the means for ensuring the economic viability of libraries, the American Library Association hereby cites Frederick Gridley Kilgour as scholar, entrepreneur, innovator, and interpreter of technology steadfastly committed to the preservation of humanistic values.

In 1979, the American Society for Information Science and Technology gave him the Award of Merit. The citation read:

Presented to Frederick G. Kilgour, in recognition of his leadership in the field of library automation: As Executive Director of OCLC since 1967, he has succeeded in changing the conception of what is feasible in library automation and library networking. His major technological developments, superb planning and executive abilities, deep insight into bibliographic and information needs, and unfaltering leadership have transformed a state association of libraries in a national interlibrary bibliographic utility.

OCLC has proved the feasibility of nationwide sharing of catalog-record creation and has helped libraries to maintain and to enhance the quality and speed of service while achieving cost control—and even cost reduction—in the face of severely reduced funding. This achievement may be the single greatest contribution to national networking in the United States. His work will have a lasting impact on the field of information science.

In 1940, he married Eleanor Margaret Beach, who had graduated from Mt. Holyoke and taken a job at the Harvard College Library, where they met. He is survived by his wife and their daughters, Martha Kilgour and Alison Kilgour of New York City, and Meredith Kilgour Perdiew of North Edison, New Jersey; and two grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

12 comments:

Michele M. James said...

The world has lost an amazing man! It will never be able to replace such foresight and innovation, but we can continue to build upon all of the advancements that Mr. Kilgour produced. The world of libraries was blessed to have such a remarkable man among its ranks for such a long time. I hope his family remembers the good times and knows that we of the library profession appreciate him more than they could ever know.

Anonymous said...

It's disheartening to see this grand and well-earned tribute marred by bad grammar:

"Here's the official words."

And coming from library staff, no less. Please be more mindful.

peter.pehrson@writtenbyhand.com

Alane said...

Well, Peter, I'll just rip up my English degree....that should hearten you right back up!
Yes, even English majors and people who write a lot for a living make mistakes. It's fixed now.

Alice said...

I just added Kilgour to Wikipedia, too, so his good work can be discovered and appreciated by even more people.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kilgour was a great man and OCLC a revolutionary invention. Where would we be without it? However, even in the 1960's you could buy catalog card sets from the Library of Congress; there was no need for "librarians ... [to] type individual cards for each item." And if they were typing cards, let's hope that "librarians" weren't spending their professional time doing it.

shermaniac said...

Fred Kilgour came to Cleveland in the fall of 1972 to talk to us Case Western library school students. His "messianic zeal" was infectious. We continued to type cards (or p-slips) for a while, and then we produced cards for several more years, but the world was indeed changed.

Jeffrey Beall said...

During my last semester of library school (spring, 1990) Mr. Kilgour (as we called him) taught a seminar which I took. He and his wife had moved to Chapel Hill just a few months earlier, and he was appointed "Distinguished Professor" at the library school. I think it was the first college class he had ever taught. It was a great seminar, I learned a lot, and I got an "H," for "high", the top grade.

A year later I had an article entitled "Class with Fred Kilgour" published in the (now defunct) OCLC Newsletter, which described my experiences in the class.

In 1996, while I was still working as a librarian at Harvard (from where Mr. Kilgour had graduated 60 years earlier), he came up to speak to the Harvard Librarians. We were all assembled in the function room, waiting for him to begin his talk. The directors of the Harvard College Library and the Harvard University Library stood with him on stage. He saw me in the audience and motioned for me to come up to the stage, which I did. He shook my hand and told me that he was happy to see me, all in front of about 200 Harvard Librarians, my colleagues.

Anyone who ever heard Mr. Kilgour speak knows he said a lot of really wild things. Occasionally, a few brave souls would rise to disagree with him, but he shot them down. Still, he said things that were genuinely outlandish. OCLC would send truth squads out after him wherever he spoke, just to set the record straight.

Eventually, I figured out why he spoke the nonsense. I realized he didn't really believe every ridiculous thing he said, he just wanted to stir people up out of their complacency. It was his way of making librarianship better by challenging librarians to defend what they were doing and by making them see the profession from a radically different view.

Fred Kilgour is the Melvil Dewey of the 20th century.

stephen v pomes said...

I added some brief information and a link to this tribute in Wikipedia.

Anonymous said...

In the mid-1990's I shared an office with Mr. Kilgour while I was teaching "Internet 101" at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. When I knew this was going to happen I planned to give him grief about OCLC and 4,2,2,1 and such searching techniques.

Instead I spent my time listening to what he had to say about libraries and librarianship. He was keen, sharp, and perceptive. He was writing a book about the history of the book, and at the same time, he was doing information science by doing some citation analysis.

One of the greatest things he taught me was to write my ideas down on paper in journals, and to this day I make my own books and write my ideas in them.

I owe Mr. Kilgour.

--
Eric Lease Morgan
University Libraries of Notre Dame

Judith Hopkins said...

I have been away from the Internet for several weeks so it was only today (Friday)that I heard of Mr. Kilgour's death.

It was my great good luck to work for Mr. Kilgour in the early days of OCLC at the end of the 1960s when I was the only librarian (aside from him) on the staff; the rest were system analysts and programmers. He was also my dissertation supervisor. I have always said that I learned more in those two years than I did in any equal period, including my years as a student.

We sometimes disagreed (for example, he didn't believe in the value of authority control but I didn't have the level of knowledge to defend my belief in it effectively) but I have always treasured the opportunity that I had to work for him. He taught me so much!

Bob Holley said...

I still talk to my classes about Fred's short one hour speech that remains with me as one of the moments that changed my view of libraries. I was attending a short conference where Kilgour gave a brillian lecture on how librarians are concerned about "expenditures"--how much money goes out the door--rather than costs--what the process requires in terms of both human and financial resources. A good example is the one I use in class where the head of copy cataloging gets in trouble for tripling production because the current budget didn't include funding for the associated expenses like OCLC charges, binding, etc. I then to on to make many of the points that Fred did that such thinking can explain decisions in non-profit organizations that would be senseless in the corporate world.

Ohio Medical Board said...

Peter, was that really necessary? It's a small mistake. I think the tribute was more marred by your comment than the small grammatical mistake.