The professor who never stops reading

"Why not, when the job is so fun?" he says, laughing loudly.

That Tom Wilson would become a professor wouldn't have been expected. He started working at the age of 16 as a library assistant at home in Durham, England. But eventually, he educated himself as a librarian and continued his studies while he worked.

"I got a degree in sociology and economics, and a doctorate in organisational theory. Then I researched something else," he says, laughing again.

"I have researched within the field of information behaviour, which is about the interaction between people and information, as well as information management."

In an early study, interviews were conducted to see how employees in social services in England received information.

"The main problem was that they did not have access to information or working methods for information management. This was a long time before computers and information was something of a non-issue."

Coined the term "information behaviour"

Tom Wilson coined the term "information behaviour," the research area he has devoted himself to both at the University of Sheffield, where he for many years was responsible for the department of information studies, and at other higher education institutions, such as the University of Borås. Now he's sitting in his home study in Sheffield with bookshelves that reach all the way up to the ceiling. A stool stands next to one bookshelf. On each surface of the room there are books.

He talks about the change when personal computers and PC networks entered the workplace. How e-mail caused information pathways in organisations to explode.

"In one project, I saw that British companies often had a strategy for information technology but lacked any information strategy. I also studied office automation and how to invest in paperless offices, such as automated news feeds on the BBC.”

In 1981, he visited the Swedish School of Library and Information Science to speak about a social work project.

"Since then, I have returned from time to time, and just before retiring in 2000, I became a guest professor. I have helped with the supervision of doctoral students and presented research ideas, such as about the integration of researchers who moved to Sweden from another countries."

Project on e-books

Now he has just completed a four-year project in Borås about e-books, "Books on Screens." For it, writers, publishers, librarians, bookstore owners, and readers have been interviewed.

"The development of e-books is in its infancy. They are a kind of by-product of the printing process, but the publishers don't know how to make money on them." On the question of how he continues to work year after year, he laughs for a long time before he stretches out his arms and answers.

"If you are having so much fun, why should you stop?" Being able to use his creativity and imagination at work is fun and also good for the health.

But, of course, it's nice to no longer manage staff, as he did at the University of Sheffield for many years.

Now, he often works from home, but also often travels to the universities he works with, such as the University of Borås, where he helps to develop the master's programme on digital libraries and research ideas.

Alliances with other disciplines

The future of his area is to some extent threatened now when everyone needs information and systems to handle information.

"That's why we must build strategic alliances with other disciplines. New programmes could be created in Borås, for example through collaboration between information and health science or information and textiles."

During his long career, he has received a number of awards. For example, an honorary doctorate from Gothenburg University 2005 and the American Society for Information Studies Award of Merit in 2017. The latter goes to people who have made "particularly noteworthy contributions" to research in the field of information.

"It's a great honour to receive such an award," he says. “That they think I'm so important, and that I received it 17 years after my retirement."

Then he speaks about his future plans. How he is at the beginning of a project in Lithuania, where methods that make it easier for people who have difficulty accessing information are to be tested.

"And in Borås, we want to study how electronic communication affects people aged 17-24. How they use social media and digital publishing. We hope to receive funding so that the project can get started."

Tom Wilson

Born: 1935.

Lives: In Sheffield since 1972.

Leisure Interest: Photography. Regularly publishes images on a website.

Reads: Both e-books and printed books. Much about nature and science, but also novels. For example, John le Carré, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbø, Rudyard Kipling, and Andrea Camilleri, as well as old detective novels, downloaded from and read on an iPad.

Reading right now: Meredith Broussard's "Artificial Unintelligence," which seems very promising.

If I had to live my life over: I would probably not do that much differently. Everything has happened randomly and I am completely satisfied with where I am now. Possibly I would study social anthropology. I could not study that because I could not combine it with working. Or maybe I would read biology and work in a national park.

Advice on information: Do not think that computers can solve your problems, it's only you who can do that.

Guests to a fictional dinner: Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Darwin, Fernando Pessoa, Mary Shelley, and Ada Lovelace. That would be interesting.

Becomes happy about: I'm usually happy and need nothing to make me happy. Existing makes me happy.

Gets angry with: Stupidity, especially political stupidity. So I'm more angry nowadays than before.

Weaknesses: Bad memory. And would like to be good at maths, music and chess – but am completely useless in these areas.

Favourite destination: Lisbon.

Text: Lena M Fredriksson

Photo: Ida Danell, Solveig Klug

Translation: Eva Medin