Sunday, 13 April 2008

History of an early digital academic library: the EUI library, 1979-1993

European University Institute' Home page in January 1997 (Wayback Machine)

Easter time 1979—the interviews for the history doctoral programme had just come to an end. My thesis would not be on  Belgian history, but on the Italian liberal state, a country of dreams and holidays I had known since I was six. Discovering the EUI publicity in Brussels inspired me: only in Florence could I achieve my goal whilst being happily surrounded by the Florentine hills.
Jean Marie Palayret’s book on the prehistory of the EUI mentioned Strasbourg as a candidate challenging Florence for the Institute. In my case—as for many researchers—the postgraduate institution’s location in Florence was the main reason for applying. (Although today Italy seems to have lost much of its attraction, along with the explosive intellectual and political creativity of the 1970s then carefully watched by many Europeans).
When I arrived at the EUI in August 1979, the History Department had only a few professors to deal with around thirty researchers. As a 22-year-old I was impressed: they were older and better trained to fluently speak in public. Among them I remember the greatly missed Viebeke Sørensen—and her colourful trousers. Peter Ludlow gave seminars in what is now the Law Library and home to Onofrio Pepe’s impressive sculpture. The Library then contained two seminar rooms furnished with only a white blackboard—no computers. Historians and economists shared the floor. When Carlo Cipolla taught in English, it was hard to follow his subtle sense of humour as he applied it to lectures on long-term trade between Italy and England. I felt more comfortable with René Girault teaching diplomatic history using my mother tongue.
EUI Library Home Page in 1997
In 1976 Italian history was not particularly developed in the fledgling EUI Library of about 10,000 volumes; today more then 800,000 volumes are owned and accessed in different formats. A thesis on Italian post-WWI history needed more than recent history monographs, but older books written in the post-war period or during the 1960s were absent. The EUI Library collections were developed from scratch starting in 1975. Document delivery was—and still is—an efficient service to fill the gap between research’s needs and a collection that could not compete with more established university libraries in Europe.
They were books on fascism; Adrian Lyttleton had just published his outstanding work and Renzo De Felice was working on Mussolini. Stuart Woolf—a pioneer historian of comparative European fascism—was not yet here and I was assigned to Roberto Vivarelli in Florence. Later, I wrote to the President, Werner Maihofer, to work with Peter Hertner—then a young assistant in the department—as internal supervisor. I was his first EUI student. During these early years, the lack of books was connected to the lack of internal supervision.
The History collections in the EUI Library were not the best ‘service’ it could offer to its users: the Library was very responsive to researcher’s needs. When requested to, the Library purchased Il movimento operaio italiano. Dizionario biografico 1853-1943. The wish to help the small community of researchers to find materials was and still is—I hope—Library policy. Thirty generations of researchers have since systematically suggested book purchases to the Library’s part-time history assistant. It was first the early modern historian Ole Grell (Austin Friars and the Puritan Revolution: the Dutch Church in London, 1603-1642) and then, the historian of ideas, Daniela Coli (La 'Casa Editrice di Benedetto Croce' e la cultura europea) who built the history collections, until 1984.
 Home page of the web of the EUI History Department in 1997 (First version saved in the Wayback Machine)
To start a PhD in history, one first had to read the secondary literature. For this, the Library was highly innovative. I remember sitting with Michiel Tegelaars (reference librarian since 1976), to compile my bibliography. By 1977, Michiel already had installed a modem connection for accessing Dialog! in California. The phone—locked because of the high cost of international calls—rested near the now Vasco de Gama room. Accessing on-line bibliographical databases such as the Social Sciences Citations Index (SSCI) was an expensive and precious event. For more than ten years, researchers had to define their information strategy off-line before connecting. Interrogations were complicated compared to today’s Internet. Nobody realized that using humanities computing was becoming a compulsory scientific behaviour for accessing information. For the first time, libraries offered remote digital information and not only printed books, as they had for the previous five centuries.
Such a technical revolution at the EUI Library was possible thanks to the Deputy Director of the Library, Michel Boisset, the inventor of the SBN, the Italian collective library catalogue. He created TRIBU (French acronym for “processing interactive relations between data base and users”) and loaded it on a MITRA server with double disk capacity: 50 megabytes, what we have in a USB pen today! The Library started to work without a printed catalogue. Researchers could look for information at any time from the terminal room, even when the Library was closed. At the time this was a real technological revolution. Furthermore, Boisset anticipated networked connections where computers installed in the National Library downtown could be used to view EUI library holdings.
The EUI was born fully automated and with outstanding in-house programmers. Because they were also top managers, they deeply influenced EUI choices and developments in that sector. The combination of administrative power and IT knowledge had been a virtuous coincidence and would place the Library in an advantageous position in the ICT revolution in the years to come. At the end of the 1970s, the EUI computational capacities (mainly word processing and data analysis) were offered to individual researchers with quality support from Computing Centre staff and Bob Danziger devoted hours in the terminal room to helping people find their way with almost all the available programmes.
In the period 1979-1985, Tim Berners-Lee had not yet invented the www, computer screens were black and DOS characters were white when we used them to word process our theses. MUSE was the main software for such purposes. Researchers had access to six computers in the Badia (the EUI was only the Badia Fiesolana), next to the Library. You had to wake up early to get one and be careful not to lose it to another user at lunchtime.
IT facilities and library collections developments during the years 1985-2005 were substantial. When, replacing Daniela Coli, as assistant for the History Department in the Library in 1985, I had to teach others how to use the computerized interfaces for accessing in-house and remote information and follow new technological developments. As a professional historian, my task should have been to help researchers and professors obtain books, fulfil their information needs and define their specialized bibliographies while another history assistant, Michael Goerke, was dealing with history computing. But here I was sitting next to the modem. Alan Milward, European integration history professor, was indeed surprised to discover the deep interest for his books in Brazilian academic journals. He contacted South American universities and, thanks to EUI library databases, discovered new academic and scientific networks there.
All this was done before the web took off in 1993… but that is another story.