Science blog

23 August 2023

50 years on: Information Retrieval and the British Library

The logo of BLAISE, showing BLAISE in angular letters in white on blue, with the full title "British Library Automated Information Service" and the original "open book" British Library logo
The fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the British Library is an opportunity to look back at the leading role the Library and its parent bodies played in introducing computerised information retrieval for science and medicine to the UK. Between 1965 and 1975 experiments in searching databases of medical research were carried out in partnership with the US National Library of Medicine (NLM)  together with computer scientists and medical users in the UK. Following the success of these experiments the Library launched BLAISE (British Library Automated Information Service)  as a national public service in 1977.

The NLM began publishing Index Medicus, an index of medical journal articles, in 1879. In 1960 printing was computerised and the machine readable data on tape became available for information retrieval. A publicly available US service, MEDLARS (Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System) opened in 1963 with MEDLINE  (MEDLARS online) going live in 1971. [1]

 In 1965 the NLM agreed with the National Lending Library for Science and Technology [2] to supply tapes in exchange for MEDLARS records of UK medical literature. With these tapes in hand the Office of Science and Technology Information [3]  funded Newcastle University to develop a retrieval package based on NLM’s IBM software to run on the university’s English Electric computer. Subsequent projects in 1973-74 tested the online environment and current awareness services with medical researchers and librarians in Leeds and Manchester over an online telephone link. [4]

The next step in service delivery was to establish online access to the NLM. University College London had set up a link to the US through ARPANET, the early version of the internet [5], and in 1973 British Library Research & Development [3] along with other public bodies, joined this network. This programme was historically significant as the first international communication over the internet. Project STEIN (Short Term Experimental Information Network) involved sixteen centres (e.g. the Royal Post-Graduate Medical School) each with its own terminal and trained intermediary.  The number of users (362) and searches (1217) was substantial and the study confirmed the need for intermediaries who were experienced in using the system and formulating searches. The clinicians and researchers who accompanied each session evaluated the results and gave feedback. Despite difficulties with telecoms, satisfaction was high as searches delivered articles that were new together with articles that were familiar to the users, thus increasing their confidence in the search. [6]

These encouraging results led the Library in 1977 to launch BLAISE, a fully supported public service providing Medline and databases for toxicology and cancer. Tapes were delivered monthly from Washington by diplomatic bag to a computer bureau in Harlow to run on an IBM 370 machine with NLM’s ELHILL retrieval software. Mounting tested software on an established bureau service meant that BLAISE went live within a year. Users benefited from the dedicated BLAISE PSS (Packet Switched Service) network and a support team that provided training, documentation and a help desk, alongside document supply from the British Library Lending Division at Boston Spa.[7] At first researchers and clinicians used Medline for checking references or keeping up to date but it has since become an essential tool for the evidence based medicine community to generate systematic reviews and contribute to the Cochrane Library.[8] From 1977 the Library was the sole provider of NLM databases in the UK but in a political decision in 1982 NLM, as a federal agency, was required to release its products to US online providers. With the ensuing competition BLAISE was no longer able to support a UK based service and it was relaunched as BLAISE-LINK, a UK portal for online access to NLM. Within a few years customers moved over to commercial online hosts and BLAISE-LINK closed. 

Today, the Library continues online healthcare with the publication of AMED (Allied and Complementary Medicine Database). This database supplements the coverage of Medline in areas such as alternative medicine, palliative care and rehabilitation. [9]

We have come a long way in fifty years.  In 1973 searching involved expensive telecoms and computer access, clumsy equipment  (who now remembers audio-acoustic couplers?) minimal records, complex Boolean search strings and the need for skilled medical librarians to navigate all these obstacles. Now, there is free access to the internet and PubMed, open access full text and sophisticated relevance searching empowering every user. Information has exploded:  in 1976, Medline and its associated files had 3.5 million records, by 2022, PubMed had 35 million. [10] 

References [BL shelfmark]

All URLs accessed on 7 July 2023.

[1] MEDLINE History.

[2] The National Lending Library for Science and Technology (NLLST) was the predecessor of the British Library Lending Division and later, the Document Supply Centre. The service is currently available as British Library On Demand.

Barr, D. P. The National Lending Library for Science and Technology. Postgraduate Medical Journal42.493 (1966): 695.

[3] The Office of Science and Technology Information (OSTI) was the predecessor of British Library Research & Development which promoted and funded R&D by the UK library and information community until its merger with the Library and Information Commission in 1999.

Baxter, P. "The role of the British Library R&D department in supporting library and information research in the United Kingdom." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 36.4 (1985): 276. 

[4] Barraclough, E. Information Retrieval, its origins in Newcastle.

Harley, A. J., and Elizabeth D. Barraclough. MEDLARS information retrieval in Britain. Postgraduate medical journal 42.484 (1966): 69.

[5] Kirstein, P. T. "Early experiences with the Arpanet and Internet in the United Kingdom." IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 21.1 (1999): 38-44.

Computer History – Internet history of the 1970s.

[6]  Holmes, P. A description of the British Library’s short-term experimental information network project. pp 231-237 - 1st International On-line Information Meeting, London 13-15 December 1977 / organised by On-line Review, the international journal of on-line information systems. (1977). Oxford ; New York: Learned Information. [available in the British Library at shelfmark 2719.x.4085 ]

Holmes, P. (1978). On-line information retrieval: An introduction and guide to the British Library's short-term experimental information network project / P.L. Holmes. Vol.2, Experimental use of medical information services. (Research and development reports (British Library) ; no.5397). London: British Library Research and Development Department. [available in the British Library at shelfmark 2113.560000F BLRDR 5397 ]

Trials were also made with other scientific and engineering databases on the Lockheed Dialog system.

(7) Holmes, P. L. The British Library Automated Information Service (BLAISE). Online Review 3.3 (1979): 265-274.       

BLAISE also provided bibliographic databases for the British National Bibliography and the Library of Congress, finally closing in 2002.

[8] McKibbon, K. A. Evidence-based practice. Bulletin of the medical library association 86.3 (1998): 396.

Cochrane Library.

[9] Allied and Complementary Medicine Database (AMED)

[10] Miles, W. (1982). A history of the National Library of Medicine : The nation's treasury of medical knowledge. (NIH publication ; no.82-1904). Bethesda, Md.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine. [p.386 -3.5 m records, 1976]

PubMed Milestone - 35 Millionth Journal Citation Added.

Further reading

Bourne, C., & Hahn, Trudi Bellardo. (2003). A history of online information services, 1963-1976, Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT. [Available in the British Library on open shelf: Humanities 2 Reading Room HUR 025.04]

Written by Richard Wakeford (Science Reference Specialist, Retired). Richard was a member of the BLAISE support team, 1981-1984.