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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Back to the Future
Volume 41, Number 4 - July/August 2017

Had an interesting call the other day from a colleague. The hall-of-fame-esque Roger Summit, founder and head of Dialog for so many years, contacted me to gather any memories or insights I might have as to what made Dialog great back in the day. He was campaigning for an award, much deserved of course. Oddly enough, when I got down to thinking of what made all the difference with Dialog, it was three things and three things only: scope, scope, and scope. More than anything else, Dialog offered huge silos of information, high-quality information from any and all major fields of study. The market for this massive array of information was knowledge professionals from every kind of scholarship, but the interim market was libraries and librarians; the intermediary searcher needed to do the actual searches.

Many times I can recall convincing skeptical clients that online answered every question (and when I said “online,” I usually meant Dialog). Sometimes I even showed off. I can remember one client who claimed he had discovered a completely new research areas called iatrogenics, the study of illness caused by medical examination or treatment. I did a free text search of MEDLINE and found several hundred hits on this “new” research area. Then I narrowed the search to descriptors assigned by librarians and got about 100 hits. The client couldn’t believe that lowly librarians already knew about the field. So then I dropped it to major descriptors: 27 hits. New research … Harrumph!

T’aint nothing new to online!

It was wonderful being an online searcher in those days. I was the two-legged Google. But the cumulative effect of convincing scholars and experts about the universal value of online became the basis of today’s universal online service. Oddly enough, part of the reason for online’s dominance became its one failure. It never expanded to track the web. If only, if only …

It’s a Google world now. But without Dialog, would Google have come to pass? We can only guess.

Roger That

In recognizing that as well-known as Roger Summit is to longtime info pros, the “younger generation” may need a history lesson of sorts, Online Searcher staff pulled together a mini-bio of this online information icon. To include reminiscences about his career in Summit’s own words, comments were culled from a series titled “Online Before the Internet: Early Pioneers Share Their Stories,” written by Susanne Bjøorner and Stephanie Ardito, which appeared in Searcher: The Magazine for Database Professionals over a 2-year (2003–04), multiple-issue time period.

 Roger Summit, the founder of Dialog, started his online information career when he took a summer job at Lockheed Missiles and Space Company in 1960 while a doctoral candidate in management science at Stanford University. He was charged with improving information retrieval methods. Two years later, he was appointed designer and project manager at Lockheed, and in 1964 headed its Information Sciences Laboratory. As he explained, “We talked our management into setting up the Information Sciences Laboratory at the time the IBM 360 was announced …” He went on to add, “The Information Sciences Laboratory was to examine the different opportunities that existed with third-generation hardware in the area of information. … 

This is how two other projects came about: “I wrote an unsolicited proposal to NASA to do a pilot demonstration of online information retrieval using the NASA database. That had to be about 1965 or 1966.” Two years or so later, in 1968, Summit won a major contract from NASA to develop an online information retrieval system and added other scientific and education databases to the mix. Within the 1967 time frame, Summit’s team “negotiated a contract with ESRO, the European Space Research Organization, to install a similar system in Europe with the NASA database, which we did, probably in 1968 or 1969. We called it Dialog, but they called it NASA/RECON.”

In early 1972, Dialog became a commercial entity with Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratory. Summit elaborated, “[W]e kind of take the year of 1972 as the birthdate … it was largely because Tymshare had set up a telecommunications network and we could get away from leased lines.” Ten years later, Lockheed spun off Dialog to become a wholly owned subsidiary with Roger Summit as president.

Subsequently, Dialog was owned by Knight Ridder, M.A.I.D., and the Thomson Corp. It is now part of ProQuest. Clearly, if there were an Online Information Hall of Fame, Roger Summit would be part of the inaugural class of inductees.


Roger Summit in Dialog’s data center during its early days.


Roger Summit enjoying retirement while at the AIIP (Association of Independent Information Professionals) conference in 2016.

The late Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, contributing editor for ITI's NewsBreaks, and a columnist for Information Today.


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