Claudio Todeschini joined the INIS Section during the final phases of the design of the INIS System and then became a Subject Specialist for Engineering and Instrumentation. He was later promoted to Head of the Subject Control Unit and finally was appointed Head of the INIS Section until his retirement.
Do you remember punched paper tape? That’s how many INIS Member States sent their input to the database in the early years of the system. And you had to be careful with that tape; a torn paper tape was a nuisance. Of course the rolls of paper came by post, how else? And if it took two weeks to get a postal package with paper tape in it from somewhere in Asia to Vienna, so be it! Of course the more sophisticated INIS imputing centers used magnetic tapes. Yes, magnetic tapes were also shipped by post from the ends of the earth to Vienna and that also sometimes took weeks. I recall the total thesaurus revision that we undertook in 1971. INIS had taken over the nuclear terminology contained in the thesaurus of the ENDS system (European Nuclear Documentation System of the European Community) but soon decided on a total revision, total in the sense that we decided to revise both the terminological content of the thesaurus AND the structure (interrelationships) that was given to the terminology. Who were the “we” who carried out the revision? Staff at the national INIS centres of Czechoslovakia (as it was at the time), France, the U.S.A. and staff at the University of California in Berkley, California, plus of course the INIS staff in Vienna. Magnetic tapes were naturally the support used for the exchange of data. Can you imagine the crisscrossing of tapes around the globe during that one year of work? Almost incredible by today’s standards, where the tip of a key will send immeasurably vaster quantities of data anywhere on earth within a fraction of a second!
But work on the thesaurus brings back other memories. There was the time – a Friday - when we printed out the first ‘draft’ version of the thesaurus. It was printed on one of those endless rolls of ‘computer paper’ that ended up as a thick stack of paper, with two endless rows of holes on the left and right edges used to feed the paper through the printer. I remember looking at the ‘draft’ with the computer programmer that had written the program for the printer and we couldn’t make any sense of the jumble of terms spilled out by the machine. After careful consideration we realized that all the thousands of terms were in alphabetical order all right, but sorted by the second letter of each term. The Head of the INIS Section decreed that the program had to be changed immediately and the whole thesaurus reprinted during the week-end and made ready for Monday morning. The programmer made the required change and a poor computer/printer operator then spent the weekend rerunning the machines to produce the draft with a sensible alphabetical order for all the terms. Incidentally, the operator that spent his weekend doing that, was one of the many young musically talented staff members that had come to Vienna (in his case from the Middle-East) hoping to make a career in music, as he had a beautiful baritone voice. On many occasions, knowing that I was Italian and therefore, by definition (!) an opera lover, he would greet me in the corridor by singing a well-known aria from some Italian opera.
FIG. 1. At the celebration of 25 years of INIS. (l. to r. Edward Brunenkant, Keynote speaker, former Director, Division of Scientific and Technical Information; Dr. Hans Blix, Director General, IAEA; Ms. Joyce Amenta, Director, Division of Scientific and Technical Information; Mr. Alexander Sorokin, Head of INIS Section.
INIS was always proud – and rightly so – of its collection of the full text of the ‘non-conventional literature’. How was it stored? On microfiche of course. The ‘Clearing House’ within the INIS Section had a string of rooms to house not only the thousands and thousands of microfiche, but also for the cameras with which to photograph each page of the documents in the collection and for all the tanks and chemicals needed to develop the films and for the microfiche readers used to check all the fiche produced. The cameras photographed away and after each photo, someone had to turn the page. “Have a good day Mr. Operator” as he spent day after day turning thousands of pages, one at a time!
But then, right from its founding, the INIS system was intended to be at the avant-garde of information technology and so the constant driving force was for the system to remain at the cutting edge of developments in that field. The thought of having a spelling check on every word in every abstract (of course only in the English language at the time) was mind boggling! Today it is available on the simplest of mobile phones. And so we could continue to recall the advances from which INIS profited in its core activity of data processing; its crucial aspect being that of making all the data gathered and included in the database readily available to institutional and individual users throughout the Member States. From the beginnings of a printed semi-monthly Atomindex, (to be put on the shelves of libraries at nuclear research centres, universities or at industrial companies involved in nuclear work), plus copies of the updates to the database made available to the INIS centres of participating Member States via magnetic tapes (all distributed by post to all corners of the globe via what is known today as “snail-mail”) things then changed with changing technology to reach today’s instant availability world-wide via the Internet.
But apart from its technological aspects and the continuous developments that these were subjected to and from which the system profited, it was the human aspect of the system, that is, the people that made INIS work, that was so interesting, challenging and finally rewarding for all those involved. And here we must immediately stress that what made the system such a success over these past 45 years, was that it was based on the cooperation between people working at the INIS Secretariat in Vienna and the many many members of the staff at the national INIS centres in all the Member States. As has frequently been pointed out, without that close cooperation, first of all between the Member States and secondly between the Member States and the Secretariat, there was no chance that the system could be a success. And while we are talking about INIS staff, it should be noted that the Division of Scientific and Technical Information, of which the INIS Section was a large part, was the first Division ever at the IAEA to have a woman as its Director! (see picture below).
FIG. 2. Dr. Hans Blix addressing the INIS Liaison Officers at the celebration of 25 years of INIS
The interest in making INIS a success was pushed by what we could say were two ‘groups’ of Member States. The first group consisted of the industrialized, technologically very advanced States whose interest was to obtain ready and quick access to nuclear information no matter where it was being generated without incurring disproportionally high costs. Since they were the States generating by far the largest volume of nuclear information, it was just a question of having all this information processed only once for the benefit of all, with costs shared in some agreeable manner. The second group consisted of States that did not have a well-developed industrial base or nuclear research facilities nor possessed sophisticated information technology infrastructures but certainly had an interest in enjoying the benefits that the exploitation of the peaceful applications of nuclear energy could bring to their peoples. These States also had an interest in having ready access to nuclear information though they themselves generated little new information.
The cooperation between these two ‘groups’ of States was a ‘win-win’ proposition. Once it was agreed that the most equitable policy for cost sharing was that each participating Member State should process and prepare for input to the database information on all the nuclear literature published within the national confines of that State, practically all other considerations for establishing the system were of a technical nature. These could be dealt with efficiently and relatively easily by information specialists not burdened by political or financial considerations. Once the Member States had agreed on the basic operational structure of the system and on the fact that the responsibility for the central processing of the collected data was to lie with an organization within the United Nations family, the way was clear for the start to the system. Only financial considerations, first and foremost within the Member States (establishment of an INIS inputting centre at each Member State), and then at the International Atomic Energy Agency, were to be resolved. Not always an easy task.
At the INIS Secretariat, within the IAEA, the very early years of INIS, the 1970’s, were perhaps the most interesting as seen from the personal perspective of those of us that were there. There was the excitement of working with world ranking specialists and ‘experts’ from all corners of the globe and establishing personal relationships with them; working relationships of course, which however also led to friendships that lasted over the years. The INIS staff in Vienna was also very mixed, made up of men and women with many different mother tongues and, though English was the language most frequently used for official correspondence, the possibility of communicating in many languages was also helpful in establishing those easy and informal working relations that led to successful cooperation in achieving the goals that INIS had set itself.
Technical matters were the concern of all members. To ensure that all operational aspects of the system were implemented only with the agreement of the members, meetings of technical committees were arranged and changes to the system were made following approval by all the members. A key modus operandi implemented from the very first years of operation was to hold each year a meeting of all the INIS Liaison Officers, each Officer having been appointed by the nuclear authorities of that Member State. It was also agreed to hold these yearly meetings alternatively one year in Vienna and the next year in one of the Member States at the invitation of that State. Thus the Liaison Officers and the Vienna staff started referring to the group as ‘the INIS family’! The ‘family’ became familiar with the working environment in many of the participating Member States, because of the meetings held in various countries and also because of the many training seminars, taught by INIS staff also held in many far away countries. This also further ensured a strong cooperative spirit based on personal relations. That part of the ‘family’ that was actually the staff at the Secretariat in Vienna, of course celebrated birthdays, weddings, birth of babies and other notable events as if they all really were members of an enlarged family. Have you ever blown out the candles on a birthday cake that was balancing on the top of a magnetic tape drive?
FIG. 3. First ever INIS Regional Training Seminar, Trombay Nuclear Research Centre, Bombay (now Mumbai), India; December 1970. Front Row: 6th from l. - Dr. V.A.Kamath (Indian Liaison Officer); 7th from l. – Ms. M. Bingelli (INIS staff, Instructor); 8th from l. - Mr. C. Todeschini (INIS staff, Instructor); 10th from l. – Mr. M. Komurka (INIS staff, Instructor).
INIS was also responsible for the holding of at least two International Symposia, one in Varna (Bulgaria) and the second in Leningrad (Soviet Union), attended by many world experts in Information Systems. Notable was also the special celebration held in 1995 in conjunction with that year’s meeting of the Liaison Officers, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of INIS operations. Four world authorities were invited to give keynote addresses, plus a former Director of the IAEA’s Division of Scientific and Technical Information, within which the INIS Section was located, was also invited. He had been instrumental 25 years before in convincing Member States and the IAEA to set up the system (see picture below). The meeting was addressed by the Director General of the IAEA, Dr. Hans Blix. As is well known, ten years later the IAEA shared with its Director General at the time, Mohammed el-Baradei, the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. Each member of the INIS staff can therefore rightly claim (!) to have won the Nobel Peace Prize (or a little piece of it)!
“Who needs a large database of nuclear information? It’s all on the Internet anyway!”
Heard that before? Try to find recent papers that give you information on the exact level of radiation that the seeds or sources should have for effective brachytherapy of a tumor in the prostate. Got the right terms to define the information you need? YES SIR! Got your information from INIS!
Want to know the full history of INIS in all its details? See the book I was asked to write in 2010 by the IAEA: The International Nuclear Information System–The First Forty Years 1970-2010.