Frederick G. Kilgour

Pioneer of inter-library cataloguing


Frederick Gridley Kilgour, librarian: born Springfield, Massachusetts 6 January 1914; President and Executive Director, Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) 1967-80; Distinguished Research Professor, University of North Carolina 1990-2004 (Emeritus); married 1940 Eleanor Beach (three daughters); died Chapel Hill, North Carolina 31 July 2006.

When the history of libraries in the 20th century comes to be written, there will be a special place in it for Frederick G. Kilgour, who in 1967 cut the Gordian knot of cataloguing. Librarians had up to then insisted on the quality of the information in the description of books; Kilgour showed that quantity could be just as important, and proved the point by building a co-operative network that now stretches worldwide.

Computers, Eniac in particular, had been one of the factors that won the Second World War for the Allies. The war over, a new breed of computerologists looked round for new worlds to conquer. They built systems to deal with the vast detail of government departments. They then went on to the very few commercial giants with a payroll, customer-base or inventory so large as to be worth the then huge cost and complex machinery involved in computerisation. That done, they looked round for something else, something that existed in vast quantities and needed sorting, alphabetically or numerically.

Their eye lit on libraries - books, millions of them, that all had to be sorted by author, title, subject, shelf-mark, a vast new world to conquer. So they descended on libraries, crying, "Boys, you can throw away all those slips and cards and typewriters. We can do it all for you." "Oh," said the librarians, "so you think cataloguing books is easy. Let us just show you a thing or two," and they proceeded to show how much experience and knowledge it took only to record all those details that looked so simple, let alone sort them in any order.

Nothing daunted, the computerologists sat down and invented systems that met what the librarians said were the basic standards of cataloguing. The librarians, interested in spite of themselves, began to grapple with what the computerologists called "logic", which struck the librarians as the very reverse of what the philosophers on their shelves said it was. Just like Stickly-Prickly and Slow-and-Solid in the Just So Stories, they came to grow more and more like each other, and the armadillo of the computer-cataloguer came into existence.

The Library of Congress, the temple of book-cataloguing in the United States, had been the epicentre of this process. For years, it had created, and issued to other libraries in letter-press printed form, cards that fitted into cabinets in libraries all over the country. Were these to be supplanted by electronic data? It was not going to be easy. Few libraries could afford the equipment, none had experienced staff; above all, cataloguing itself, up to the standards imposed by the Library of Congress, was so difficult. Enter Fred Kilgour.

Born in Massachusetts, Kilgour had gone to Harvard and found a job in its library before the war. Joining the US Navy, like many librarians he gravitated into intelligence work, specialising in the collection and dissemination of information acquired from enemy sources. On leaving government service in 1948, he went to Yale, where he became associate librarian for research and development. Then, in 1967, he was lured away by the Ohio College Association to run a system that would pool the catalogues of its 54 libraries in the state.

OCLC, the "Ohio College Library Center", was born. The task before it was, in theory, massive. Each of the libraries had records of their holdings, many of them copies of the same book, all in slightly different forms. They could be, and were, transferred into electronic data, but there they showed up as different books. It would have taken an eternity to standardise them. Kilgour took the common-sense decision: it didn't matter - all readers in libraries needed to know was that a book something like what they wanted existed, and where it was.

The success of this experiment, launched in 1971, was immediate. From its base in Dublin, Ohio, OCLC took in records from any library that wanted to participate. As computer cataloguing improved, so did OCLC's systems. Funny things happened from time to time, as when a whole lot of manuscript records crept in by mistake, but by and large it got better and better, though never rising to the Library of Congress approved standards of RLIN (the Research Libraries Information Network).

But, for the ordinary needs of ordinary libraries, OCLC did very well. The deal was simple. OCLC charged new members so much a record for supplying digital records of any book they had on file; if the new entrant could provide details of any book not on OCLC, it paid them. Its initials now stand for Online Computer Library Center, and it has some 10,000 participating libraries all over the world (among them our own London Library), and more than a billion records. Very soon, all these will be available online to anyone with an internet connection.

Kilgour retired in 1980, and was latterly Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, where he went on teaching until he was 90. He knew and wrote a lot, about the history of science and the evolution of the book, but nothing was quite as important as that flash of inspiration, almost 40 years ago, that brought OCLC into being.

Nicolas Barker

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?