An inadequate thankyou for UKOLN

1 Aug

I’ve been struggling to find a way to mark the passing of UKOLN, or at least UKOLN as we knew it (I’m not sure whether the remaining rump is still called UKOLN; the website has not been updated with much if any information about the changes that occurred on 1 August, as of this writing). I enjoyed the tweet-sized memories yesterday under the #foreverukoln hashtag. The trouble is, any proper marking of UKOLN needs more than a tweet, more than a post, more even than a book. And any less proper marking risks leaving out people who should be thanked.

But, I can’t just leave it unmarked. So you have to accept that this is just some of the things I’ve appreciated from UKOLN, and names just some of the many people from UKOLN who have helped and supported me. If you’re left out, please blame my memory and not any ill-intent, but also note this doesn’t attempt to be comprehensive.

So here’s the first thing. I’ve found in my store of ancient documents the text of the draft brochure for the eLib Programme, written in 1995 or 1996 (some of you will remember its strange square format and over-busy blue logo). Right at the bottom it says:

“The eLib web pages are maintained by UKOLN and can be found at

Now (currently at least, if you click on that link it will still work, redirecting you to There have been multiple changes to the UKOLN website over the years, and they have always maintained the working links. I don’t know most of the people who did this (though Andy Powell and Paul Walk both had something to do with it), but my heartfelt thanks to them. Those readers who work anywhere near Library management or Library systems teams: PLEASE demand that prior URIs continue to work, when getting your websites updated!

The first phase of the eLib programme had around 60 projects, many of them 3 year projects. As we moved towards the second and third phases, the numbers of projects dropped, and it was clear that the UK’s digital library movement was losing many people with hard-won experience in this new world. (In fact, we were mainly losing them to the academic Libraries, so it was not necessarily a Bad Thing.) I remember trying to persuade JISC that we needed a few organisations with greater continuity, so we wouldn’t always have new project staff trying to learn everything from the ground up. Whether they listened or not, over the years UKOLN provided much of that continuity.

Another backroom group has also been hugely important to me. Over the 15 years I was working with them, UKOLN staff organised countless workshops and conferences for eLib, for JISC and for the DCC. These staff were a little better publicly known, as they staffed the welcome desks and communicated personally with many delegates. They were always professional, courteous, charming, and beyond helpful. I don’t remember all the names; I thank them all, but remember Hazel Gott from earlier andNatasha Bishop and Bridget Robinson in more recent times.

A smaller group with much higher visibility would be the Directors of UKOLN. Lorcan Dempsey was an inspired appointment as Director, and his thoughtful analyses did much to establish UKOLN as a force to be reckoned with. I’d never met anyone who read authors like Manuel Castells for fun. I was a simple-minded, naïve engineer, and being in 4-way conversations with Lorcan, Dan Greenstein of the AHDS, and John Kelleher of the Tavistock Institute, larded with long words and concepts from Social Science and Library Science, sometimes made my brain hurt! But it was always stimulating.

When Lorcan moved on, the role was taken by Liz Lyon, whom I had first met as project coordinator of the PATRON project at the University of Surrey. A very different person, she continued the tradition of thoughtful analyses, and promoted UKOLN and later the DCC tirelessly with her hectic globetrotting presentations. She was always a great supporter of and contributor to the DCC, and I have a lot to thank her for.

One of the interesting aspects of UKOLN was the idea of a “focus” person. Brian Kelly made a huge impact as UK Web Focus until just yesterday, and though our paths didn’t cross that often, I always enjoyed a chat over a pint somewhere with Brian. Paul Miller, if I remember right, was Interoperability Focus (something to do with Z39.50?), before moving on to become yet another high-flying industry guru and consultant!

That reminds me that one of my favourite eLib projects was MODELS (MOving to Distributed Environments for Library Services, we were big on acronyms!), which was project managed by Rosemary Russell, comprising a series of around 11 workshops. The second MODELS workshop was also the second Dublin Core workshop, so you can see it was at the heart of things. Sadly at the next workshop I coined the neologism “clumps” for groups of distributed catalogues, and nobody stopped me! We chased around a Z39.50 rabbit hole for a few years, which was a shame, but probably a necessary trial. Later workshops looked at ideas like the Distributed National Electronic Resource, information architectures, integrated environments for learning and teaching, hybrid environments, rights management and terminologies. And the last workshop was in 2000! Always huge fun, the workshops were often chaired by Richard Heseltine from Hull, who had a great knack for summarising where we’d got to (and who I think was involved directly in UKOLN oversight in some way).

Rachel Heery also joined UKOLN to work on an eLib project, ROADS, looking at resource discovery. She had a huge impact on UKOLN and on many different areas of digital libraries before illness led to her retirement in 2007 and sadly her death in 2009. The UKOLN tribute to her is moving.

UKOLN did most of the groundwork on eLib PR in the early days, and John Kirriemuir was taken on as Information Officer. I particularly remember that he refused to use the first publicity mugshot I sent; he told me over the phone that when it opened on his PC someone in the office screamed, and they decided it would frighten small children! I think John was responsible for most of the still-working eLib website (set up in 1995, nota bene Jeff Rothenberg!).

Ariadne has become strongly identified with UKOLN, but was originally suggested by John MacColl, then at Abertay, Dundee and now St Andrews, and jointly proposed by John and Lorcan as a print/electronic parallel publication. John Kirriemuir worked on the electronic version in the early days, I believe, later followed by Philip Hunter and Richard Waller, both of whom also worked on IJDC (as also did Bridget Robinson).  Ariadne is a major success; I am sure there are many more who worked on making her so, and my thanks and congratulations to all of them.

Most recently I interacted with UKOLN mostly in terms of the DCC. As well as Liz and those working on IJDC, Alex Ball, Michael Day, Manjula Patel and Maureen Pennock made major contributions, and wrote many useful DCC papers.

Last but by no means least, we tend to forget to thank the office staff behind the scenes. I don’t remember most names, my sincere apologies, but you were always so helpful to me and to others, you definitely deserve my thanks.

… and to so many more UKOLN staff over the years, some of whom I should have remembered and acknowledged, and some of whom I didn’t really know: thanks to you from all of us!


2 Responses to “An inadequate thankyou for UKOLN”

  1. John Kirriemuir 1 August, 2013 at 13:45 #

    That’s a great and detailed post. Enjoyed that (wish my memory was as good as yours).

    One thing I did remember was you telling me to put together and do a presentation on things that had gone wrong in eLib projects. Your principle of “Don’t brush failures under the carpet but examine them openly so they are not repeated” was radical. Your post inspired me to hunt down the powerpoint; recovered and it’s downloadable from:


  1. An inadequate thankyou for UKOLN | Unsustainabl... - 30 January, 2014

    […] I've been struggling to find a way to mark the passing of UKOLN, or at least UKOLN as we knew it (I'm not sure whether the remaining rump is still called UKOLN; the website has not been updated with much if any information …  […]

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