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Fred Kilgour, 92; Developed International Library Network

August 06, 2006|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

When the information superhighway was in the design stages, librarian and educator Fred Kilgour dreamed about taking reference resources out of their traditional brick and mortar housing and making them more accessible.

His solution was to share information and connect libraries. His vehicle: a computer network.

So in 1967, he founded the Online Computer Library Center, a nonprofit computer library service and research organization. From that modest alliance of 54 Ohio colleges and universities sprang an international network of libraries that encompasses 55,000 institutions in 110 countries.

Kilgour died Monday of a brain hemorrhage at the University of North Carolina Medical Center in Chapel Hill, according to library center spokesman Bob Murphy. He was 92.

When he founded the library center organization at Ohio State University in 1967, its acronym stood for Ohio College Library Center. Kilgour's mission was to link the academic libraries in that state.

Before it was formed, librarians at individual institutions were cataloging the same work over and over. They would record book titles and related details on small paper cards and file them in cabinets. But once the libraries began to share the cataloged information in a common database within a network, they were able to cooperate further by lending books and other documents to participating libraries.

"Thirty years ago, that was way ahead of its time," Brian Schottlaender, university librarian at UC San Diego, said this week. "It's something we absolutely take for granted now."

Kilgour's innovations dramatically improved users' access to information, and the automation allowed libraries to reduce costs and devote their resources to rapidly expanding technology. Workers could be assigned tasks beyond repetitious cataloging, books could be shared rather than bought, and money could be spent on computer and networking equipment.

"Kilgour had as much to do with the advent of online information systems as anybody in the last 50 years," Schottlaender said. "And he had as much to do with the disappearance of the card catalog as anybody in the last 50 years."

In 1971, the nonprofit organization introduced WorldCat, a database that has since digitally cataloged more than 70 million books and other publications from 10,000 participating libraries.

Contributors include the Library of Congress, the British Library and numerous smaller historical institutions, art museums and public libraries. Later this month, the database will be available to the public at

Frederick Gridley Kilgour was born Jan. 6, 1914, in Springfield, Mass. He earned a bachelor's degree at Harvard College in 1935 and, while taking graduate courses part time, went to work at the Harvard University Library. He married a colleague, Eleanor Beach, in 1940.

Starting in 1942, while serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Kilgour collected international newspapers and other publications for the Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications. Microfilm copies were then sent to troops in the Pacific for intelligence-gathering. Kilgour received the Legion of Merit award for his intelligence work during World War II.

He moved to the State Department in 1946 as deputy director in the Office of Intelligence Collection and Dissemination, and in 1948 he became librarian at the Yale Medical Library. For nearly 20 years at Yale, he taught courses in the history of science and technology, wrote papers and experimented with automation at the university libraries.

After being hired by the Ohio College Assn. to form the library center organization in 1967, he was president of the center until 1980 and sat on the board of trustees until 1995. Meanwhile, he taught library administration at Ohio State until 1984.

From 1990 until his retirement in 2004, Kilgour was a distinguished research professor at the University of North Carolina. While there he wrote "The Evolution of the Book," detailing the history of printing and communication and explaining the transition from print to electronic media.

In addition to his wife, Kilgour is survived by three daughters, two grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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