Thursday, 28 January 2010

Professor Brian Vickery 1918 - 2009

We are very sorry to announce the death of Professor Brian Vickery on October 17th 2009, shortly after his 91st birthday.

Brian was an enormously influential figure in the field of classification and information retrieval, a powerful force in the development of faceted classification and retrieval theory, and a prolific writer and researcher throughout his life. A founder member of the Classification Research Group, he served as a practising librarian, research director at Aslib, and Director of the School of Library and Archive Studies at UCL (1973 - 1983).

He was made an honorary member of ISKO UK in 2008 to acknowledge his tremendous contribution to our field. ISKO UK members will feel privileged to have heard the masterly address he gave at the June 2008 meeting. A fuller appreciation will appear at the ISKO UK website shortly.


Shawne Miksa said...

In 1997, at a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Dorking Conference (held at UCL) I met Brian Vickery without realizing at the time who he was and what he had done. Ia McIlwaine kindly let me attend the event in exchange for helping to serve tea and cakes. It wasn't until I began my doctoral studies that I understood who I had met --along with Foskett, Mills, and Coates--and his role in the history and development of our field.
Over the next few years I was able to meet Brian on several other occasions. He was always excited about something, always had a smile and warm greeting. It was with great excitement that in 2002 I sent him my completed dissertation --a study of the CRG and CDCR (at Case Western Reserve) from 1952-1970 and the division between IR and classification research. He offered these comments:
"Your work is of value in exploring the question (p.130) why two research groups diverged when their objectives were clearly related. Does it answer the wider question of why library classification and IR researchers in general had different approaches? While facet analysis was in fact the only new development in classification in the 1900's, and did influence practical classification, dare I suggest that CWRU was a maverick in IR research? Its semantic factoring--so interesting theoretically--never had an impact (it receives no mention in the Sparck-Jones and Willett survey of IR research 1997). The other side of CWRU work--evaluation studies led by Saracevic--followed from Cleverdon and Lancaster."
Brian also offered his memories of working with Barbara Kyle, a fellow member of CRG who passed away in 1966, for a paper on Kyle's work that I was (still am) writing. In his reminiscences of her accomplishments he remarked on his own work shifting away from classification research in that time period and the work he still wanted to do: "I think that my own abiding interest has been the structure of knowledge and its organisation for retrieval, so I haven't really left classification. For a period I was actively involved with intelligent interfaces for online search, and we certainly found great need for classificatory ideas as well as for AI knowledge representation. I sometimes toy with the idea of writing something along the lines of 'can knowledge organisation contribute to WWW search?' I know that there is talk of ontologies and taxonomies and conceptual maps and the semantic web, but they do not seem to connect to the realities of full-text search. This, to me, is the big challenge." (2002 email)
I will remember Brian Vickerly fondly and with great respect, and will continue to introduce my students to his work and ideas. He was the epitome of a scholar who was also asking questions and seeking new avenues.

Dr. Shawne D. Miksa
Associate Professor, College of Information, University of North Texas

Claudio Gnoli said...

I really feel like Brian were still among us, as his ideas, including recent ones, commonly come to mind as an inspiring source for intellectual dialogue and research development. Despite his late age he was impressively well-informed about all recent advances, as his review papers on knowledge representation show. One of his last works must have been, in late Spring 2009, to be part of the scientific committee of ISKO 2010 conference, which is going to be held in Rome this month. Despite the blind peer-review process was managed by a complex, not-always-friendly CMS, he was perfectly able to provide all his four reviews in due time without asking for any technical help, unlike younger colleagues. Indeed I think he always liked trying new information tools.

To me, for longtime he was "the" author of a basic book on faceted classification. That book also contains some words I have often quoted, as they sound like written in 2005, while they were in 1960: "Mechanized systems only alter the mechanics of retrieval, the physical operations by which a search is effected. They do not alter the basic problems of subject analysis. The structure of a subject field, as laid bare by facet analysis, remains the same, and the same classification schedule can be adapted to either card cataloguing or mechanized searching" (p. 68).

I then got in personal contact when inviting him to contribute a special issue on faceted classification for "Axiomathes", and maybe it was there that he eventually wrote "something along the lines of 'can knowledge organisation contribute to WWW search?'" as he mentioned in the email quoted by Shawne (BTW, I look forward to read the book about Kyle!). Since then we kept in frequent email contact, and he provided relevant comments to the Leon Manifesto and encouraging suggestions for the Integrative Levels Classification project.

In 2007 I had the great opportunity to visit him in Oxford, together with Aida Slavic and her husband. Brian and his dog Max welcomed us in a very friendly and simple way, and in the same style he gifted us with some precious books he had prepared in a plastic bag. We discussed about current trends and fashions in KO, and informed him about ISKO's activities. Few hours later we were back to Aida's home, and in email she found a subscription form for ISKO filled by Brian Vickery! This should give an idea of how he was.

Nice autobiographical notes can be found in Brian Vickery, A long search for information, Graduate School of LIS, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Occasional papers, 213, May 2004, 33 p.

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Claudio Gnoli said...

JASIST editor-in-chief Blaise Cronin has just published an obituary of Brian in vol. 61 (2010), n. 4, p. 850-851.