FM Interviews: Louise Addis
First Monday

FM Interviews: Louise Addis

I was so excited that I almost dropped the book.

I was reading Weaving the Web: The original design and ultimate destiny of the World Wide Web by its inventor, by Tim Berners-Lee. The paragraph that caused such a reaction described how Paul Kunz, a California physicist, had returned from a visit to CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire; now officially named the Organisation européenne pour la recherche nucléaire or European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland where he had seen an interesting technology developed by Berners-Lee. Kunz came home to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and told Louise Addis, a SLAC librarian, about this new invention, the World Wide Web.

Berners-Lee states that Louise saw the Web “as a godsend — a way to make SLAC’s substantial internal catalogue of online documents available to physicists worldwide.” [1] He further states that “under Louise’s encouragement SLAC started the first Web server outside of Europe.” [2]

The first Web server created in the United States — set up anywhere outside of its birthplace at CERN — was established at the encouragement of a librarian!

As someone working in both the Web world and the library community, I decided then that I had to meet, or at least talk to, Louise Addis. I knew that I could learn something from the librarian who saw the potential in this revolutionary technology before the majority of the world had even heard of the Internet.

I tracked Louise down using the Web (of course!) and e-mail. When we first spoke on the phone, I told her how excited I was to meet the person who was responsible for setting up the first Web server in the U.S. Louise laughed and disclaimed total responsibility for bringing the Web to America. She told me about her colleagues, Paul Kunz and Tony Johnson and others, who were critical to the launch of the first Web server at SLAC. At one point in the conversation, she noted that the history of the Web technology is rather like Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 movie in which the same story is told from widely diverging perspectives. It appears to be true that there are a number of stories about how the Web came to America. This is one of them. — Melissa Henderson.


First Monday (FM): Could you first tell me a bit about your academic background? Where did you study for your undergraduate degree?

Louise Addis (LA): I studied International Relations at Stanford University. I always had an interest in the sciences, however.

FM: And from Stanford?

LA: I initially went to work for a publisher of the “Dick and Jane series” in the claims department and as a sales correspondent. I then moved to the Stanford Research Institute Radio Science Lab where part of my job was handling classified documents. I was thinking about going to library school when a colleague encouraged me to apply for a position in the soon-to-be-opened library for Project M.

FM: Project M?

LA: “Project Monster” now known as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. At that time, it was still on the drawing board and had no funding. We started our library in a warehouse on the Stanford campus. It was the hottest place on campus; they ran water on roof to make it more bearable!

FM: How long were you at SLAC?

LA: From before the beginning! It was very exciting to build a library. I started as the assistant to the librarian in 1962 and retired in 1994 as Associate Head Librarian. Since retirement, I have continued to work off and on for the SPIRES-HEP database project at SLAC and most recently on Y2K conversion.

FM: What were you working on in your early years at SLAC?

LA: From about 1969 on, I was working with the SPIRES-HEP database of particle physics documents. SPIRES (initially, Stanford Physics Information Retrieval System, then Stanford Public Information Retrieval System) database management system was the product of brilliant programmers at Stanford. SLAC was a guinea pig for SPIRES, which was originally designed for an IBM mainframe environment. SLAC sponsored development of the Unix version, which is now in use.

FM: Did anything in your education or background prepare you for the higher level computing work you were doing with SPIRES-HEP or the Web?

LA: I got into programming and database development by picking up information on my own. If I needed to know something, I asked someone to show me how to do a particular task. Then I went back to the Library and tried it on my own.

When the SLAC Library was started, the Stanford University computing center was a little building with keypunch machines and a line printer. At the Stanford Research Institute, I had seen an “advanced serials handling system” which meant that each serial had its own punch card. This was cutting edge! So when we built the Library at SLAC, we put the serials on punch cards. I remember walking across campus with my stack of punch cards. So advanced!

FM: What was so important about SPIRES-HEP database of particle physics documents?

LA: There weren’t any library database management tools available at the time and SLAC needed something to meet the unique needs of particle physics researchers. Research papers produced by the particle physics community often have hundreds of authors. The record is 1,200 authors! We were committed to listing all authors or researchers and needed a tool that would accommodate us.

Addis quote

The SPIRES-HEP database covers the full literature of particle physics and is a collaborative project between a number of particle physics labs, primarily SLAC and DESY in Hamburg. It’s so very flexible, so it’s constantly developing. We've always been able to easily manipulate the database to do whatever we needed to do.

Of course, there are two sides to any database — the technology side and the content side. The content side is really what ultimately determines the value of any database. Bob Gex, then chief librarian at SLAC, was responsible for the content side, along with our long-time and remarkable preprint librarian, Rita Taylor. And from the beginning, there have been major contributions of content from our DESY partners.

FM: When did the Web first arrive at SLAC?

LA: On December 12, 1991, the first Web server in the U.S. was established at SLAC to help improve access to the SPIRES-HEP database. For a number of years, SLAC had been providing remote access to the SPIRES-HEP database. In fact, by the time we launched our first Web server, the SPIRES-HEP database had nearly 5,000 registered users in 40 countries.

George Crane had developed a remote interface, initially using BITNET. Researchers could send a search query to SPIRES-HEP via an interactive messaging tool, which was sort of like the instant messaging tools of today. Or they could request information via e-mail. When Internet access came along, the interactive messaging was no longer available; researchers had to use e-mail. Researchers were less satisfied with the e-mail interface; they liked the instant response system better.

Addis quote

FM: Was this a motivating issue when you first thought of setting up a Web server?

LA: Well, the real motivating issue was a project that we been working on earlier. In 1989–1990, I was helping set up a library at the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) project in Texas. Pat Kreitz, the SCC librarian, wanted to use the SPIRES-HEP database and wanted to present it to the SSC community in a seamless way within a graphical user interface. SSC had funded the development of an X-Windows interface to do this, but as soon as I saw the Web in action, I knew that it was a fast, cheap solution.

I can still remember the day Paul Kunz appeared in my office after his trip to CERN. He showed me the Web and we started moving right away. I scurried around and got some accounts that were needed. Paul and Terry Hung set up the server on our mainframe. George Crane was able to easily extend remote SPIRES to talk to the new interface. And I was able to make the SPIRES-HEP database write HTML.

I’ve always felt deeply indebted to Paul for spotting the potential of the Web for our situation and for helping develop the first Web server at SLAC, which proved that potential.

FM: This sounds like it was really a team effort.

LA: It was! While I was working on this project — and for most of my other projects at SLAC — I was constantly seeking input and advice from colleagues. There was almost always someone around who understood the most arcane, technical issues and was willing to help or to give advice. Sometimes conflicting advice!

FM: Did this teamwork model work?

LA: Yes, it was the only way any of these projects could continue. None of us got raises or payment for this work. We did some of it on our own time. We knew that there was value in the work — and it was fun! (I hope my colleagues would agree.)

By February 1992, I had twisted enough arms to start an ad hoc Web development and support group, the WWWizards. The initial group was made up of Mark Barnett, George Crane, Tony Johnson, Joan Winters, Bebo White, all of whom brought important skills to the project.


Addis and company
The original WWW Wizards at SLAC visit Paul Kunz. Left to right: Louise Addis, George Crane, Tony Johnson, Joan Winters, Paul Kunz, and a NeXt computer (missing: Bebo White and Mark Barnett). Photograph courtesy of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Archives & History Office, Stanford, Calif.


Again, I have to mention that in the beginning this was not part of our regular jobs. Luckily, the SLAC Computing Center was quite supportive. Les Cottrell, the assistant director of computing, could certainly have discouraged the computing staff from participating. Instead, they were able to work on the WWWizards team and to support this unsupported software. And, they helped run the server on their computer!

FM: Did you have any idea then of what the Web would become?

LA: No! I was just hoping it would survive at SLAC. For a long time, the Web suffered from the stigma of being unsupported software.

My goal was simply to provide better community access to the particle physics literature via SPIRES-HEP.

FM: Was SLAC a good environment for developing new tools, such as SPIRES-HEP or the Web?

LA: Yes! We always had the ability to respond quickly and be flexible. This was particularly instrumental in the development of the Web. When Paul Kunz came back from Europe and said, “Let’s do this,” the Library could move ahead.

And as soon as we were on the Web, we were able to start linking the records in our database to the TeX source at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) where, in August 1991, Paul Ginsparg had started the first e-print server. Paul, by the way, almost single-handedly made another kind of revolution in the way scientific literature is handled ... but that’s a whole other story.

Addis quote

FM: How were you able to just jump right into this new technology?

LA: First of all, our faculty were used to using unsupported software. We didn’t have manuals or training classes, but we did have all kinds of skills and knowledge available for something interesting. The Web was done entirely with volunteer labor at first.

Generally speaking, the Lab encourages experimentation, sometimes officially and sometimes not. The Web server project was something that the SLAC Library could jump right into because of our track record with SPIRES-HEP and our environment. All that had gone before made it easier to get management approval. Plus, the chief librarian, Bob Gex, was terribly supportive. I was lucky in that regard.

FM: Do you feel that development of resources such as SPIRES-HEP has gone faster with the implementation of Web technology?

LA: Oh yes. In fact, this was one of the things that really sold me on the Web — it was easy! The underlying Web server and Web browser programming is more technically complex, but creating the resources is much easier. For example, the x-windows project relied on programmers who could manipulate a more complex system. On the other hand, the Web allows for easy development of resources; you can make the page look exactly the way you want without deep programming.

FM: The particle physics world seems tailor-made for the World Wide Web — or should I say that the Web was tailor-made for the physics world?

LA: Absolutely! There is the issue of the need for rapid communication in a field that has a slow publication schedule. Additionally, the particle physics community is made up of very large groups of scientists all working on the same project, but from remote, diverse sites.

Also, these folks are used to trying something new. When we notified our registered users about how to get a free browser from Tim at CERN, many did right away. They wanted to get to our database, so they were really motivated to get that browser and get on the Web. This helped spread use of the Web in the particle physics community and it also helped people learn about the archives at LANL.

FM: What about the democratizing of the publishing process?

LA: Gray literature is a very important part of the particle physics world. One of the great things about the Web is that it democratized access to these resources. Before electronic communication people who were further away from population centers or technology centers were really behind. They had no way to find out quickly about research.

Addis quote

Before machine-readable, full-text e-prints were available, paper preprints were mailed by the author or the institution only to major institutions. And researchers at smaller institutions didn’t receive the preprints. The only way to find out about these articles was through a preprint list such as the one SLAC published weekly. The researcher then had to request the actual article through the mail. This was too slow.

FM: And the interactive nature of the Web?

LA: In large particle physics collaborations, the experiment may take years from conception through publication. And there may be hundreds of physicists around the world working on these projects. They are all producing materials that need input from others.

Many papers are almost dialogues. Papers go through revisions. Discussion is a big part of the process. Physicists really needed that ability to interact quickly.

The Web was a revolution!

FM: Back to your career development, did you feel more affiliated with the library community or the particle physics community?

LA: Much more affiliated with the particle physics community. Our issues were so different from what others in most libraries were experiencing. In a special library, you have to know your community and listen to them. They’re the people that need the library.

FM: Doesn’t this apply to all libraries?

LA: More so to special libraries, which are vulnerable and can be more easily closed.

FM: What do you think is the response to this vulnerability?

LA: We need to apply other skills and expertise in order to allow the library to succeed. You almost never have all the skills you need. You have to find them elsewhere. For example, at the SLAC Library we wanted to make PostScript files and graphics available via the Web, rather than just linking to the TeX sources. So, when Tony Johnson developed Midas, the first GUI browser that was bug-free enough for us to use, he added capability for reading and displaying postscript. This was the kind of development done on someone’s personal initiative. This is skill and interest that you cannot buy. Also, Tony had the breadth of knowledge of a particle physicist’s needs and a willingness to tinker.

FM: So, we’re back to an environment of experimentation ...

LA: Yes, a lot of environments don’t make it easy to go outside or take risks and that’s what is required to be visionary. You can’t pay attention to things like job descriptions.

FM: Is there anything that concerns you about the development of the Web?

LA: I’m concerned about commercialization. The Web has been a democratizing place. Now, we’re moving toward large entities controlling most content — or the content that most people see. You can get to other sites, but these services shape your experience. AOL tells you the story of the day and offers you its preferred links.

On the one hand, anyone with a little curiosity can find things they’d never dream of having access to. But portals do control what a lot of us see — or have time to see! But this has always been true of the media; the Web is just another instance of this.

FM: What about the issue of the digital divide? Or does this problem not exist in the academic community?

LA: Actually, this has been a continuing problem for some of the remote or less prosperous regions of the world. In the U.S., a small physics department in a small school may have a slow line or slow equipment.

When I was at SLAC, we always created pages in formats that were much simpler than what was technically possible. Harv (Hrovje) Galic, the HEP database manager at that time, originated much of our early Web interface. Harv was adamant about trying to have pages that could be easily read in some of the less prosperous parts of the particle physics community. Harv was from Zagreb and had a real awareness of the constraints faced by many of his colleagues.

In fact, we were occasionally ridiculed because our pages didn’t have graphics; but this was done purposely. The main reason was because many of our users didn’t have the capability to see graphics — or graphics were an impediment on a slow system.

The digital divide is real. It’s less of a problem in academic communities where the issue is fast or slow connection. Or good network support and stability. In society as a whole, the issue is having any access at all.

FM: Finally, do you think many folks will be surprised to learn that the first Web server in the U.S. was installed to help support a library project?

LA: Not at all! To me, it’s really significant that our own early success story on the Web was driven by the need to bring a large body of carefully organized bibliographic records, SPIRES-HEP, to its worldwide audience!

The Web has certainly proven to be a shiny but challenging new tool for librarians to use in their crucial role as collectors, organizers, preservers, and presenters of information. Librarians will continue to play a critical role in helping to organize and provide access to information. Perhaps an even larger and more important role now that we're in the “wild, wild west” era of Web content development.end of article



1. Tim Berners-Lee, 1999. Weaving the Web: The original design and ultimate destiny of the World Wide Web by its inventor. New York: Harper SanFranciso, p. 45.

2. Berners-Lee, p. 46.

Editorial history

Paper received 13 April 2000; accepted for publication 17 April 2000.

Copyright ©2000, First Monday.

FM Interviews: Louise Addis by Melissa Henderson
First Monday, volume 5, number 5 (May 2000),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.