International Cooperative Abstracting on Building: An Appraisal
This is the story of an idea, worked over by Working Parties, hammered out in Committees, adopted by a representative conference and put into practice by quite a large number of countries. It has not achieved the results expected of it. Why not? Assuming the original idea to be basically sound, what are the causes of failure? Can they be eliminated? The paper is brought to the Conference in the hope of discussion with fresh, informed and impartial minds; that the lessons learned in this field may help pitfalls in other fields to be avoided and in this way may make a contribution to technological documentation.
The problem in 1948 was to set up machinery whereby the results of world experience and research in building might be most efficiently and satisfactorily documented for practitioners. The normal pattern of service had hitherto been for the library (or documentation centre) attached to a building research institute to subscribe to a large number of periodicals from a number of countries; to assemble books and pamphlets; and to prepare abstracts of a selection of the material thought to be of value to the research workers and other members of the employing organization. Thus there were such publications as Building Science Abstracts compiled by Building Research Station, Watford, England; Ministry of Works Library Bulletin compiled in London; Documentations Techniques, of l’Institut Technique du Bâtiment, Paris, and sundry others. For each such publication there was a team reading between 200 and 600 periodicals in eight or a dozen languages (some of which were relatively unfamiliar and therefore difficult to read easily and to assess the value of the paper). The cost of such a service is high and beyond the means of organizations in smaller countries.
A.B.AGARD EVANS Chief Librarian, Ministry of Works, London.
The various problems were brought to discussion at a hard-working conference in 1949 in Geneva under the auspices of U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, where plans were formulated on a practical basis and with unanimous agreement. The details were worked over and adopted at a Conference in Paris in 1950, at which the International Council for Building Documentation was formed.
So far as the abstracts were concerned, the Working Plan was briefly as follows:
Each member country should have a National Building Documentation Committee;
The National Committee should be responsible for covering the literature of its own country, within a defined range of subjects in the building field;
Each country should prepare abstracts of its literature and provide a translation of the abstracts in a major language, i.e., English, French or Russian;
These abstracts would be published by printing on cards of uniform size, with a standard bibliographic reference and a common classification (Universal Decimal Classification governed by a special selection schedule);
Three copies of the abstracts would be supplied free of charge to each National Committee; further copies would be available at reasonable rates;
The literature of countries not participating in the Council was to be covered by members by agreement;
All abstracts should be free of copyright.
By these means it was intended to provide in each country a collection of abstracts on cards covering the most important parts of the world literature, selected by native experts, working in their own language and familiar with the authenticity of the original material. The further dissemination of the information within the respective countries was the responsibility of the National Committees. It was thought that it would be done principally by republication in a National Abstract Journal or in the pages of one or more periodicals; or that the various documentation centres in the country should subscribe to the original sheets of abstracts from abroad.
Of the fifteen countries which agreed to cooperate, nine of them (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland) have produced abstracts conforming to the standards. Even in these cases, however, there is some unconfirmed suspicion that the coverage is not 100% and the English (or French) translation sometimes falls short of comprehensibility.
Belgium contributes an analysis of the national literature, but in non-standard form. Germany produces abstracts in the prescribed form, but only in German and the native German articles are not segregated from those of other countries.
In the U.K., where abstracting services have long been well established, certain modifications in classification and in the size of the abstracts (to enable them to be cut and pasted to standard cards) have been made, but there has been no serious attempt to implement the international recommendations.
In France, the abstracts are produced in the prescribed form but printed on thin paper and not on cards.
The U.S.A. has not been participant. Japan and Jugoslavia have taken part in the discussions on classification, but have not (so far as the writer is aware) produced the national quota of international abstracts. Indonesia has produced some abstracts in the international form.
On the whole, therefore, after seven years, the arrangements have failed to succeed.
Reasons for failure
I believe the plan to be philosophically sound. In practice, it has not worked. The achievement of a unified pool of abstracts of world literature in the building field is obviously desirable. The present spectacle of several centres expensively achieving a partial result and each going over the same ground in doing so is deplorable. Because the various abstract journals do cover so much common ground, it is not easy to collate them and thereby derive additional benefit from the others’ efforts.
The first obvious reason for failure is financial. The abstract form adopted is expensive to print in the small numbers that are required. A high proportion of the whole has to be given away (in exchange for other abstracts, it is true) and the remainder (limited to national abstracts) has a very limited market. In the case of the smaller countries the total sum involved is relatively insignificant and can be met by members of the National Building Documentation Committee, putting their hands in their pocket, if need be. In larger countries whose contribution may be as high as 1000 abstracts, the expense is a budget item, and a difficult one to sustain. The return, consisting at present of abstracts from only the smaller countries, is of slight counterbalancing weight.
The second reason, particularly in the larger countries, is vested interest. There is no question of setting up a brand-new organization for the job. It must be done by existing organizations, whose primary duty is to their own membership.
In the U.K., for example, there are three principal building documentation centres: viz., Building Research Station, which has published Building Science Abstracts since 1928; Royal Institute of British Architects which has brought out a Library Bulletin for over 20 years; and Ministry of Works, which has produced a Library Bulletin since 1944.
All these publications have developed a form designed to serve the needs of their own readers. The provenance is world-wide and the subject coverage is that required by the organizations. The essence of analytical journals is their continuity; they cannot be drastically altered in order to serve a problematic scheme.
Therefore, until an international scheme is proven to be a satisfactory substitute, they must continue in their present form. Each represents a major effort by the staff employed on them and there is little surplus labour available for additional tasks. It would be possible for some appointed person to select abstracts from these publications and to republish in international card form. But the cost would not be less than £2,000 a year, with no visible return. This proposal was canvassed, but adequate support was not available. (It is practicable to supply the abstracts, if a publisher could be found: see below.)
Meanwhile, Building Science Abstracts adopted the practice of adding UDC Classification; the M.O.W. Library Bulletin was produced in double-column form so that the abstracts could be pasted onto cards and interfiled with the orthodox international cards.
Similar considerations affected the French. In Germany, the abstracts were required to be financially self-supporting: a great and praiseworthy effort has been made by producing them in international form; but the customers required the analysis to include foreign literature and arrangements could not be stretched to provide translation and publication in English or French.
No effective body seems to have appeared in the U.S.A. to participate and, in view of the unsatisfactory position to date, there would seem to be little incentive to do so in the present circumstances. The abstracts produced by the Building Research Institute could be developed on the international lines, given the right conditions.
A third factor of importance is the need for central editing. A guiding hand, rather than a dictatorship, is required if a satisfactorily uniform standard of paper is to be selected for abstracting. Additionally, some of the translations would benefit from verbal editing.
The fourth factor is marketing or availability. In order that an institution may obtain all the various abstracts, it is necessary first to discover who publishes what at how much and then to enter quite a large number of subscriptions in various currencies. They are not generally available through international
booksellers. The frequency of publication tends to be erratic, thus making control more difficult.
Conditions for success
Considerable progress has been made in a plan for Bouwcentrum, Rotterdam, to publish a consolidated edition in English. This would relieve individual countries from the need to publish internationally; provide the editorial supervision; solve the marketing problem.
Financing the scheme presents the difficulty that the national contributions required are comparatively trivial. Many of the National Building Documentation Committees are consultative, rather than executive and, since the work is done by a few member organizations, the creation of working funds has not been seriously tackled, because there has been no recognizable need for them. A committee is a hopeless organization for Executive action. It is obviously desirable for each country to throw up a Building Documentation Centre, with responsibility for International liaison and national action contributing thereto; in practice, it is not so easy to find a volunteer to shoulder the burden alone, nor to achieve a practical and equitable contribution of money and effort from the other members.
However, a solution of the problem is required, if the worthwhile objective is to be achieved. The matter is of additional importance, since building documentation is developing actively in Asia and the Far East. The cooperation of USSR and the east European countries is a distinct possibility. Hungarian Technical abstracts and the Polish Institute of Housing already produce some material of interest and it would not be difficult for them to produce national abstracts in the building range from among the technical abstracts already being prepared.