Most people have heard of Arpanet, the computer network that presaged the internet as we know it. But most haven’t heard of SUPARS, an early information-retrieval engine that was designed, tested, and championed by campus librarians—and that set the stage for web search as we know it. At Aeon, Monica Westin tells the story.

SUPARS and other largely forgotten systems were the forerunners of the contemporary search engines we have today. While the popular history of the internet valorises Silicon Valley coders – or, sometimes, the former US vice president Al Gore – many of the original concepts for search emerged from library scientists focused on the accessibility of documents in time and space. Working with research and development funding from the military and industry, their advances can be seen everywhere in the current online information landscape – from general approaches to ingesting and indexing full-text documents, to free-text searching and a sophisticated algorithm utilising previous saved searches of others, a foundational building block for contemporary query expansion and autocomplete. Indeed, these and many other approaches developed by campus pioneers are still used by the multibillion-dollar businesses of web search and commercial library databases from Google to WorldCat today.