John Smith



In tribute to the memory of John Smith, one of the founders of ELPUB, we invite you to rediscover the history of the Conference through a beautiful text, written by Olivia Holmes at the occasion of ELPUB 2016. 


The Elpub History


From 14th – 16th April 1997 the first conference was held at the University of Kent in Canterbury.  It was entitled: “Electronic Publishing ’97 – New Models and Opportunities”.

First we must look to the night sky. Almost two years before on 23rd July 1995 a new comet was discovered, observed independently by two amateur astronomers, Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp, near their homes in New Mexico and Arizona. John Smith, science and technology librarian at the University of Kent and local organizer of the first conference, shared their enthusiasm for astronomy, often watching the stars from his garden to the north of Canterbury.

Preparations for the conference were intensive during the final days of March 1997 when Comet Hale-Bopp was at its closest to the earth and visible to the naked eye. We often worked long after the Library had closed and, apart from the light in John’s office, the building was shrouded in darkness. Driving home one night through the woods north of Canterbury we looked up at the sky and there it was, incredibly bright and unbelievably beautiful – a comet, sign of momentous change since ancient times, was passing over our new conference, that was something really special.

This is how we arrived at that night.

Two international organizations and a small group of individuals were responsible for the creation of the Electronic Publishing Conference which this year celebrates its twentieth anniversary. The first organization was the International Council for Computer Communications (ICCC) and the second the International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP).

The idea of a conference on electronic publishing was first discussed at IFIP and a joint conference with ICCC suggested by Prof. Dipak Khakhar of the University of Lund, treasurer of IFIP and a member of the Executive Committee of ICCC during the 1990s.

ICCC was a non-profit corporation set up in 1972 and an affiliate member of IFIP. Members were known as governors and their numbers limited to 125. They came from all fields of computer communications and included distinguished scientists, technologists, economists and government officials.

“By 1970 one human generation had seen several generations of computers used in almost all forms of endeavour. With the expansion of applications had come the need for computers to collect, share and distribute information over large distances. The courtship of computers and telecommunications had begun. Mismatches had appeared, mismatches between computer needs and telecommunication services, mismatches that varied by country, mismatches whose timely resolutions were made difficult by mismatched planning cycles and mismatched interests.”

The governors of ICCC were the ‘matchmakers’, “providing stimuli and means for communication between people of many interests and disciplines who could contribute to the general understanding of potential advances, risks, problems and solutions related to computer communications.”

IFIP is the leading multinational, apolitical organization in Information and Communications Technologies and Sciences. It is recognized by the United Nations and other world bodies and has a consultative role in UNESCO. It represents IT societies from 56 countries or regions across the world and sponsors 100 conferences a year. It links more than 3,500 scientists from Academia and Industry organized in over 100 working groups reporting to 13 technical committees.

In 1996 a COMNET workshop was organised by Dr. S. Ramani of ICCC at his college (the  National Centre for Software Technology) in Mumbai. COMNET was a conference series similar to Electronic Publishing organised by ICCC and Dr.Ramani was the organizer in India. The aim of these conferences was to study computer networks, their applications and impacts. After the workshop a party was held on the roof terrace of Dr. Ramani’s house and it was here that he introduced Prof. Khakhar and Dr. Michael Miller, also a member of ICCC, to John Smith who expressed an interest in organising the conference. Already it had an international flavour with the night sky again providing the backdrop. A senior manager at British Telecom Laboratories, Michael was an expert in digital communications. John had a particular interest in the growing use of networks and computing in academic communications. Dr. Ramani had first contacted John in the early 1990s when he noticed his work as reviews editor for the quarterly newsletter of the Society of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour (AISB) What had caught his eye was John’s job title at the time ‘National Project Officer at the UK Office for Library Networking (UKOLN) because he had been planning a series of workshops on the topic of Library Networking for the British Council. A series of meetings were held and the idea became a reality.

Prof. Jack Meadows from Loughborough University, where both Dipak and John had studied, was invited to head the Programme Committee and they were joined by Fytton Rowland, also from Loughborough. The team was in place, the call for papers went out and the first Electronic Publishing Conference was under way.

The conference was aimed at anyone involved in the production, provision or use of electronic publishing, its products and academic study of these activities. In the press release and repeated on the final programme, Prof. Meadows wrote: “We intend that this conference be a stimulating experience, with a great deal of cross fertilization of ideas. The combination of practical experience and the latest discoveries of academic research will undoubtedly lead to new models of academic and other publication in the near future”.

There were two parallel tracks, one on socio-economic issues and the other on technical issues and plenary sessions for papers and discussions covering all aspects of electronic publishing. In 1997 more papers were submitted on socio-economic than technical issues so the second track included both. “All the papers were necessarily concerned with some aspect of the transition from printed to electronic information.”

Now we must return for a moment to the beginning and the garden. As registrations started to come in we put a map of the world on the wall in John’s office in the library and marked with pins the home countries of our delegates, three different colours to distinguish delegates, speakers and committee members. When we were in the garden watching the stars we often saw planes flying out from London and wondered about the people on board and the countries they were heading for. Would some of those planes now be carrying our delegates on their return flights. By the eve of the conference we had 130 pins in 28 countries. Soon we would see the faces of all the names on our list and we imagined everyone packing their cases and heading for stations and airports to travel to Canterbury. Would they really come? Would it be a success? They did, it was and so it has continued with delegates from fifty countries travelling to venues across the world.

In 1997 a group of about twenty delegates from Central and Eastern Europe travelled to Canterbury under the auspices of the Electronic Publishing Development Programme of the Open Society Institute (OSI) based in Budapest and led by Michael Kay. The OSI is part of the Open Society Foundation, founded by George Soros in 1979 to encourage the replacement of authoritarian governments with open and democratic societies. Originally it was planned to hold the conference every two years but the OSI expressed an interest in hosting it at the Central European University in Budapest (founded by Soros in 1991) the following year and so it became an annual event. The involvement of the OSI enriched the early years of the conference enormously by broadening the diversity of countries represented and the range of challenges faced. Attending as delegates in Canterbury many were then speakers in Budapest and Sweden. Their papers described the terrible events taking place in their countries and are still powerful and moving to read today:

The conference in Budapest was entitled “Electronic Publishing ’98 – Towards the Information Rich Society”, Milena Dobreva and Serguey Ivanov from Bulgaria posed the question:

“What does it mean in countries which are not rich and where information is not valued”.

The following year in Sweden Kemal Bakarsic from Saravejo and Zoran Gligorov from Macedonia presented papers concerning war and democracy in their countries.

Kemal Bakarsic spoke of the struggle to recover in Bosnia after the near obliteration of book production and the “killing of memory” through the “deliberate destruction of libraries”.

Zoran Gligorov wrote his paper as NATO troops were entering Macedonia. He talked to local people about democracy and found a difference between the reactions of young and old: “it is obvious that the totalitarian forces still have their effects on the citizens, and not all will talk freely what they feel and think. This is true especially with the elderly people, those who felt the totalitarian forces on their skin”. It was easier for young people in countries in transition to access democracy through the internet and become ‘digital citizens’.

As a result of the special contribution of the OSI it was decided to try and alternate between east and west. After Sweden the conference was held in Russia in 2000 and then returned to Kent in 2001. This ceased after ten years mostly due to difficulties in finding organizers in eastern countries but also because the east-west concept had shifted out of focus.

The final event on the programme is the hand-over. People wishing to host an Elpub conference in their own country are required to play a part on the programme committee of the previous conference. This idea came out of the first Conference and for two decades has generated a strong sense of continuity within the organizing and programme committees.

Without the vision and commitment of the people described in this article and those who took over from them, the conference would not be celebrating its twentieth anniversary this summer, an achievement of which everyone involved can be proud.

My hope is that around the world, from Armenia to the USA, people will continue to stand in their gardens searching the sky for comets and stars –  and planes carrying delegates to future conferences to meet and exchange ideas.

I am indebted to Dipak Khakhar and John Smith for sharing their memories with me and to Peter Linde for all his encouragement, thereby enabling the completion of this history.

Olivia Holmes, May 2016


Countries represented in 1997: Armenia, Australia, Belarus, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom, USA.

Countries represented in 1998: Albania, Australia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Netherlands, China, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom, USA, Yugoslavia.