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|In memoriam: |
Douglas Foskett, 1918-2004
By the time this tribute appears most members of SCONUL will have seen the obituaries of Douglas Foskett in the Times and in the July issue of Update. Inevitably there will be some repetition, but I hope, as his successor as Director of Central Library Services and Goldsmiths’ Librarian of the University of London Library, to throw some further light on his illustrious career, and to help bring the past to the present. I am conscious that Douglas Foskett retired twenty-one years ago - half a working lifetime for most people - so to current SCONUL members he may be only a name, albeit a distinguished one. There is no doubt, however, that he was one of the foremost librarians of the second half of the twentieth century. With experience of working in public, special, and academic libraries, Douglas firmly believed in the unity of the profession, and he strove always to promote it.
Most librarians of his age were bookmen, who loved the touch, the appearance and the smell of books, and who often formed their own collections. Douglas fitted that description; we were all proud to be called ‘Librarians’. Perhaps modern information professionals are similarly inspired by the computer and the world-wide web. But the 1970s was a decade when computer technologies were assuming ever-growing importance for the future of libraries, and Douglas Foskett, as much as anyone, anticipated their value and fostered their introduction. He had already written extensively on classification, and had been a founder member of a special Classification Group. Such publications as ‘Classification and indexing in the social sciences’ and ‘Science, humanism and libraries’, which appeared in the 1960s are still important texts today, despite the vast deluge of literature on information management which has been published since. Of course, times and practices have changed radically in university libraries in the past twenty-five years, with the explosion of technology, and the continuous growth in all digital products and services. There have also been changes in social attitudes and in the approach to work. For example, when Douglas, in his final post, introduced the first computer system (GEAC) in the University of London Library, the junior staff went on strike! Such a response would be unthinkable today. But the beginnings of the revolution were taking place. Then, all technological information
services were integrated, under the Director of Central Library Services, for all the college and institute libraries of the University. The Central Information Service did invaluable work in coordinating on-line searches of existing data-bases (then mostly in the medical and physical sciences), and in training librarians and academic staff, both within the University and externally, to undertake such tasks for themselves. The existing uses and future possibilities of computer technology were encouraged by example. Roots were put down which enabled the college libraries to plan and operate their own systems some years later.
Cooperation was a watchword to Douglas Foskett. He liked to bring librarians of all types together. To that end, whilst University Librarian, he formed a luncheon club in London of librarians of various public institutions, such as the Bank of England. Once he retired, so did the club. He also liaised with the Association of Chief Librarians of the Greater London boroughs. Again, in those days, the public could freely use university libraries, when necessary, not least because of the ‘library licence’ arrangements. Those more philanthropic times illustrate how ‘progress’ is not always for the better. Douglas was also instrumental in the formation of CURL (the Consortium of University Research Libraries), originally based on just the six major academic research libraries of London, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester and Leeds, and the plan to merge their catalogues into one database. As we know today, much was to result from that initiative. In the 1960s Douglas had published a paper entitled ‘The creed of a librarian’, the work of a forward-looking thinker about the profession. It proved to be one of the planks on which to base the first code of ethics for the Library Association. The code was finally adopted in 1983, and continued in force until CILIP was formed. The matter is now in the melting-pot again. In Who’s who Douglas listed travel as one of his interests, and he combined that with professional work by visiting many overseas countries on consultancies and special honorary appointments. Above all, he loved visiting China. Such diversity deservedly resulted in a ‘Festschrift’ in his honour, with many overseas contributors, published after his retirement.
None of us can pick the age into which we are born, and Douglas had a realistic view of life which, as with most men and women of his generation, was affected by his experiences during the Second World War. As a man, Douglas was short in stature but big in personality. He was genuinely able to win friends and influence people. I must repeat here his love of cricket. He thoroughly enjoyed his membership of the MCC, and served on their library committee. Everyone who joined him at Lord’s to watch a day’s play was assured of a convivial time, with lively conversation and laughter to mix with the thrills on the field. He wrote a poem on Sir Leonard Hutton, which appeared in the Cricketer, perfectly capturing the essence of his character and batsmanship; it deserves to be included in any new anthology of the poetry of cricket.
We salute the dead by grieving and by paying tribute to the lives they led. Douglas Foskett’s death has touched the hearts and minds of all his friends and colleagues, both for his attainments and for the man he was. We shall not forget him.
V. T. H. Parry
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