Rob Atkinson, Fermilab librarian at the dawn of the Information Age, retires

Katie Wilson, Rob Atkinson and Paula Garrett smile for the camera. Garrett, now retired, hired Atkinson in 1992. Wilson, currently at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, worked at Fermilab for a short period in 1994. Photo: Heath O’Connell

When Rob Atkinson came to Fermilab 27 years ago, the lab had just finished the setup of its first computer book catalog. The lab community needed a professional catalog librarian, and Atkinson was just the person for the job. Now he is retiring. His last day is Aug. 9.

Atkinson came to Fermilab in 1992 from Auburn University, where he worked with science monographs.

“I was originally from the south suburbs, but by then I had been living in the South for several years,” Atkinson said. “I came up here and interviewed for my job in January 1992 and wondered why on Earth I wanted to come back to winter. But the lab was too interesting to pass up.”

Atkinson had majored in computer science as an undergraduate, and he became in charge of running the library catalog system, which was on a DEC mini-vax.

The start of his Fermilab career coincided with a visit from the Tiger Team, a Department of Energy team that conducted reviews at DOE laboratories. His first job was managing employees hired from a local library employment agency, and they worked in a room in the northeast corner of Wilson Hall’s ninth floor. They called it the Tiger Library. Well-regarded scientists and veteran staff continually visited the Tiger Library to retrieve documents needed by the Tiger Team. The library group’s job was to store those documents and make sure they were easily findable.

“It was nonstop chaos. Every day was like Barney Miller, except it was dead serious,” Atkinson said. “Fortunately we all survived.”

A year later, in spring 1993, Atkinson visited SLAC to study SPIRES, the database for physics reports, working papers, government documents, white papers and evaluations. He worked with Bob Gex there on a scheme of coordinated metadata entry for preprints in SPIRES. While there, he “witnessed something amazing for the time,” Atkinson said: a web interface for SPIRES, which SLAC’s Louise Addis had been working on with a few others.

A few preprints were available as TIFF files online from CERN. If someone had a workstation on the internet that had the software to render a TIFF on her monitor, and if she had some sort of http client, she could go to SPIRES and find a record for a preprint that had a http URL, and use that to get the paper to appear on your monitor.

“This is done all the time now, with a PDF, but in 1993, using a database to find something, then have the resource automagically appear on your monitor without having to go to the library to get it — that was a Big Deal,” Atkinson said. “I witnessed a bit of library and computing history in the making. I don’t think this was being done anywhere else at that time.”

Atkinson got to witness another incredible event: the 1995 announcement by CDF and DZero that they had detected the top quark.

“The world’s media converged on the lab and we had the ‘media circus’ experience. There were even top quark jokes in Jay Leno’s Tonight Show monologue on NBC,” Atkinson said. “There were these TV scrums in the atrium, each one with some country’s television reporters interviewing a physicist who was native to their country.”

In the library, Atkinson and crew had ordered a special preprint run of several hundred copies of the CDF and DZero papers on the top quark, anticipating a high demand. The two collaborations had put their top quark PDFs up on their respective file servers here. They wound up giving away around 10 of each preprint.

“That really hit home and was for us the first high-impact experience of the power of on-line media compared to paper,” Atkinson said. “That was when we knew the days of paper based print in physics were over. That was almost 25 years ago. Amazing.”

Heath O’Connell, current head of the Fermilab Information Resources Department, arrived in 2002. Within a year, he had Atkinson reclassified into database management, and Atkinson’s library career morphed back into IT and writing code. (And there was some moving furniture, too — a library kind of thing.)

“Over his 27 year career at Fermilab, Rob has combined technical savvy, knowledge of information management and a genuine interest in the mission of Fermilab, to serve the information needs of the HEP community in an ever expanding role,” O’Connell said. “He has worked in the Library, maintained the Fermilab SPIRES mirror, installed and managed the Fermilab INSPIRE mirror, and served as an administrator for both DocDB and Indico. His cheerful nature has made him great to work with over the years and I wish him all the best for a well-earned retirement.”

Colleagues say Atkinson was a diligent worker.

“Rob has been excellent to work with at the lab. His passion, drive and expertise have been invaluable to the team and the lab,” said Keenan Newton, head of the Content Management Department. “While I am very happy for Rob, I am also sad to see such a talented and resourceful person go.”

Atkinson comments on having good people as colleagues, making the colorful experiences that much more enjoyable.

“I’m grateful to have had Heath O’Connell and Keenan Newton as managers,” Atkinson said. “They have been wonderful to work for. I also wish to compliment Fermilab as being a place from which one can retire. That is getting rarer now and should be celebrated.”

During retirement, Atkinson plans to tackle some home improvement projects and repairs and spend more time developing his running ability. He’s also looking forward to delving more into amateur radio; he has a small electronics and machine shop set up in the basement. In a wonderful bit of irony, on his first day of not working, he’s going to be at his doctor’s office getting my annual physical examination.

“What was I thinking when I agreed to that — I have no idea,” he said.