Searching with SUPARS.

Monica Westin writes at Aeon about the prehistory of internet searching, something entirely unknown to me:

Throughout an unusually sunny Fall in 1970, hundreds of students and faculty at Syracuse University sat one at a time before a printing computer terminal (similar to an electric typewriter) connected to an IBM 360 mainframe located across campus in New York state. Almost none of them had ever used a computer before, let alone a computer-based information retrieval system. Their hands trembled as they touched the keyboard; several later reported that they had been afraid of breaking the entire system as they typed.

The participants were performing their first online searches, entering carefully chosen words to find relevant psychology abstracts in a brand-new database. […] Participants had trouble signing on to the system and experienced unpredictable failures, ‘irrelevant output’ and, most of all, not knowing ‘what words to use in a search’. Yet they also found the system intriguing and exciting (‘fun’, ‘thorough’, ‘I dig computers’), and 94 per cent said they would use SUPARS (the Syracuse University Psychological Abstracts Retrieval Service) again if it were available. Several offered to keep the experiment running past its deadline by asking their departments to contribute funding to the project.

This group of academic guinea pigs, mostly graduate students in education, psychology and librarianship, were part of a radical online search experiment run by the Syracuse University School of Library Science. SUPARS was one of many ambitious information-retrieval studies that took place between the late 1960s and mid-1970s on US university campuses. […]

It’s easy to see why librarians of the 1970s set out to revolutionise search. Work across the academy was expanding to such a degree that, soon, there would not be enough human librarians to support all of it. Yet, to get the information they needed, researchers would face a time-consuming, physically involved process that required librarian intervention. While academic researchers could browse new issues of journals in their field, for a focused search of all that had come before they still had to consult with a reference librarian to look up the correct Library of Congress subject headings within a multivolume manual. Armed with a set of subject headings, the researcher would then search across the library catalogue for books and in citation indexes for journal articles, including subscription databases such as the Science Citation Index as well as hand-built bibliographies created by their university’s subject librarians. Finally, they would physically track down the correct books and bound periodicals that included articles they thought might be relevant – if the volumes happened to be on the library shelves.

It’s no wonder that SUPARS participants found the system compelling, despite its limitations. And given how familiar university librarians were with the challenges of search, it makes sense that the system they designed bypassed subject headings and citation indexes. What’s more surprising is that, of all the online search experiments that took place during this period – including commercially focused search systems like Lockheed’s Dialog, which has since become an enterprise product – SUPARS mimicked contemporary web search more closely than any other, prefiguring several primary features of web-search protocols we rely on more than 50 years later.

Fascinating stuff, and I always like to see librarians feature as culture heroes.


  1. Stu Clayton says

    Until about 8 years ago, I had vaguely imagined that public libraries are still as they were when I used them as a kid in El Paso. Then Julia (Buenos Aires, now doing Cervantes in Azul (or something like that…)) asked me if I could obtain for her a copy of a 1980s essay by some German author. So for the first time I joined the Cologne Municipal Library by walking to the district library just around the corner. I usually buy my books so that I can write in them …

    To my surprise, I was then able to search online for the essay and apply for a facsimile. The second and last time I had to set my sorry ass in motion was to pick up the facsimile and mail it to Julia. There are international networks of libraries that you can access in all propriety while sitting naked before a monitor at home.

    I still prefer to get physical with books.

  2. John Cowan says

    When I was attending Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1977-78, I got access to their terminal for OCLC (the ancestor of WorldCat) when no library staffers were using it, basically by showing the librarians that I knew what I was doing around computers and wouldn’t need hand-holding if they gave me the manual to read. As a result, I got to do my own interlibrary loan lookups and requests as if I were a member of the staff. Very cool, though I am not sure it reached beyond Ohio in those days. Among other things, I made ILL requests for all the Oz books (the ones by Baum) and I think I got all of them to read; some books may have been too brittle to send out, thanks to the acid paper. This was before they all went into the public domain and were reprinted.

    This was about a year after I first got access to the Arpanet as a high-school intern working for the University of Pennsylvania (a “Very Distant Host”, connected by a serial line to an IMP at some other university), the job where I wrote a Finger client for TOPS-10 in Cobol.

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