05 September 2005

History of agricultural information systems

In today's inter-connected Internet world, its easy to take for granted the many agricultural databases and information resources (and libraries) around us. It wasn't always the case. Several personal memoirs and accounts help explain why and how some of these systems were set up.

Abe Lebowitz recalls his involvement with AGRIS between 1968 and 1994. He describes how AGRIS was established, the early discussions among FAO, CAB (as it was then) and the United States NAL, and its subsequent development within FAO. He illustrates some of the "conflicting interests" that were faced, concluding that participants were successful in building a global "AGRIS family."

Coincidentally, John Woolston - another key player in the setting up of AGRIS - wrote up his memoirs for a 2002 conference on the history of scientific and technological information systems. Woolston laments the decline in contributions to the database in recent years. At the same conference, another stalwart in this field - Michel Menou - surveyed the role of the FAO in helping developing countries upgrade their agricultural information systems. He concludes that the main results of these efforts can be seen today in the "people who have learned how to manage information and knowledge."

Of course, AGRIS and FAO are not the only players in global agricultural information. Internet searches reveal much 'historical' material on agricultural libraries and agricultural information organisations, such as: CAB International, the Danish Veterinary and Agricultural Library, the Central Agricultural Library in Poland, the US Agricultural Information Network, the Agricultural Scientech Information Network System in China, the Lithuanian Agricultural Library, and so on. A bibliography of the history of information science and technology by Bob Williams lists references to the US National Agricultural Library and other key developments.

Note: AGRIS was established in 1974 by FAO to facilitate information exchange and provide bibliographic control of the world's agricultural literature (www.fao.org/agris/). Its current strategy was set out in 2002.




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