Colin does computing

I’ve been thinking about my background in computing lately, and it occurred to me to write down the story of how it all developed.

After a shaky start in the world of work, I became a librarian, gaining my professional qualifications in Glasgow and working in public libraries for ten years. I’d always had an interest in science, and wanted to work in scientific librarianship, but I didn’t have a science degree. Then the Open University started in 1971, and I was one of its first students, and later one of its first graduates.

I started my Open University degree course in 1971, taking Foundation courses in science and maths. In M100 I learned BASIC programming. I’d started with a Sinclair ZX81, and now I bought a BBC Model B micro. I crammed my studies, and graduated in 1973, also starting a new job as the Edinburgh Librarian of the Institute of Geological Sciences, later British Geological Survey. My OU courses included geology, geochemistry, geophysics, organic and inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, comparative physiology, ecology and the biological bases of behavior (neurophysiology, psychology, ethology).

Computing at IGS in 1975, when I moved the library into its new home in Murchison House, was then a specialist service run by NERC Computing Services. They used a mainframe computer, based I think in Swindon, with a DEC minicomputer in Edinburgh. If I remember correctly I was using a Commodore 64 as a dumb terminal, for comms , including emails, and access to databases using JANET.

Later I used a NERC-developed package for library loans, on a twin-floppy disk machine running CP/M. (Remember 5¼” disks? The program was on one disk, the data on the other.)

In 1985 I began a part-time PhD programme in the Department of Information Sciences at Strathclyde University. Broadly, my field was epistemology, studying the structure and transmission of knowledge itself. Specifically, I researched the processes of scientific communication, from the acquisition of new knowledge by research through to its incorporation in the corpus of accepted scientific paradigms (a la Popper and Kuhn). The particular discipline I focussed on was, naturally, geology.

In the course of it I learned a lot about statistics, evaluative bibliometrics, knowledge models (including those derived from epidemiology), information management, citation analysis, co-citation analysis, cluster analysis and the use of computers for mapping.

Halfway through my research I moved jobs to become Chief Librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) in 1988. I was a qualified librarian with a science degree, and a Member of the Institute of Information Scientists. My interests lay in information science and information management, not primarily in the technology, so they’ve always been platform-independent.

The Garden at that time ran all of its computing using an Altos mini, linked to dumb terminals. I felt it was inadequate for use in  word processing, library management and external communication, and I said so on a number of occasions. The Garden commissioned Edinburgh University to review its computing facilities, and to make recommendations for improving them. I was asked to liaise with the review team. The review found that the Altos, while adequate for the Garden’s small Finance Department, did not support scientific software, and it’s word processing software was extremely limited in scope. On receipt of its report, the Regis Keeper asked me to set up and chair a Computer Management Group, and to implement the recommendations. (I remained chair of the Group until 2000).

We acquired a number of IBM PS2 machines, among the first commercially available true personal computers, and networked them. One of my first tasks was to evaluate word processing programs for general use, since I had expressed such strong dissatisfaction with the previous system. I was familiar with WordStar, having used it on a my CP/M machine, but MS Word had just been released, and I checked its performance and ease of use against WordStar and Word Perfect. I recommended MS Word, and implemented it. I’ve used it, in all its iterations, ever since.

We went on to acquire and integrate taxonomic and database software on Apple computers, and to introduce specialist software for Finance and library management.

I was awarded my PhD in 1991, for research on scientific communication. As a late friend said about me, ‘Colin is all about communication.’ That remains true, whether it’s my scientific interests or my writing.

About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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2 Responses to Colin does computing

  1. John Barker says:

    When I saw the title I thought Ladybird may have tempted you to write children’s books! How did they link your DEC with Swindon; was it a dial up modem? I too had Wordstar & Supercalc but of course neither supported mice so fell by (my) wayside, although some control characters still apply to modern programs. I don’t know how you found time to assimilate all that stuff & you obviously still remember (most) of it. Am I reading notes for your forthcoming autobiography?

    BTW, my publisher has just asked for my bank details – hope to receive 10/6d shortly!

  2. sunnydunny says:

    IGS/BGS was on the Edinburgh University King’s Buildings campus, so the link was via JANET. I accessed IBM and GEC mainframes that way. I used that connection to access Science Citation Index for my PhD research. That was hosted in the UK by the British Library. I didn’t use the DEC all that much, apart from driving a flat-bed plotter to draw maps and plot points for the thesis.
    I’ve never really fancied writing an autobiography. The Book of Ways is as close as I want to get. It’s episodic, rather than chronological, and I prefer that.
    Hope you get your payment soon. Enough for another little sauvignon blanc perhaps?
    Cheers John.

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