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First Person: Claire Schultz

Claire Schultz, undated photograph. CHF Collections.

Most of CHF’s oral histories focus on scientists—the individuals producing scientific research and journal articles. But CHF also has an insider’s look into how that information gets to the scientist and other researchers via our Scientific and Technical Information Systems collection. This group of interviewees is comprised of those who made a significant contribution to how we understand and make sense of science: people who accessed, used, stored, disseminated, or classified information. One of these interviewees is Claire Schultz, who observed wartime technologies turn into to computerization and, ultimately, the internet – a tool that would revolutionize scientific research and human knowledge worldwide.

Born in 1924, Schultz was a determined student; by the time the United States entered World War II she was already attending medical school. But after the birth of her first child, the school’s dean forced her to leave. She then took a position at Merck Sharp & Dohne’s research library.

The war had changed the face of information, and Schultz was now in the midst of a new era. As she explained in her oral history,

Each new scientific discovery was leading to more discoveries. The literature was growing at a tremendous rate. The indexes were not keeping up with the literature. Individual researchers needed a lot of help just to stay current with what other researchers in their field were doing. Companies needed to capitalize quickly on internal discoveries so they could hurry products onto the market, competitively. Whoever came out second with the same or a similar product had lost the game. The information age was starting. It was frenetic….

During this period Schultz concentrated on information retrieval. Her work revolved around how she could “improve library services to individual scientists” as the library struggled to stay "up to date with the literature, given its rate of growth and that the commercial indexes were falling progressively behind what was being published.” After work and discussion, Schultz focused on the use of Boolean operators—and, or, and not—among other codes for searching and retrieval. Today’s Google and JSTOR searches take them for granted, but understanding how to plug these operators into punch cards – and later, computers – streamlined the laborious process of information retrieval. In an era when scientific information was booming, information specialists were developing many methods to cater to various needs of researchers.

Schultz worked in information technology for the next five decades, earning a master’s degree in Library Science on the way. By the 1990s, she was observing the advent of what we know today as the Internet – which Schultz described as “a huge, formless haystack in which to find needles.” Compounding that problem, she added, is the tendency of “each potential audience [to ask] questions in its own language. These elements of future database searches make for some very complex mixing and matching.”

Schultz saw this haystack even before the rise of instant, streaming feedback like Twitter, or the explosion of digital media. How does one index elements of paintings or songs? The prospect is daunting, but Schultz ended her interview hopefully, asserting that “such considerations make the future very exciting to contemplate.”

Sarah Hunter is a program associate in oral history at CHF. "First Person,” which highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories, appears the third Tuesday of every month.

Related:
First Person: Kathryn Hach-Darrow [Periodic Tabloid]
First Person: Julius Blank [Periodic Tabloid]

Posted In: History | Technology

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