Online Before The Internet, Part 7:
Early Pioneers Tell Their Stories: BRS—An Interview
with Jan Egeland
by Susanne Bjørner • Bjørner &
& Stephanie C. Ardito • Ardito Information &
Previous installments in this series have featured
interviews with Carlos Cuadra, creator of SDC's ORBIT
Search Service; Roger Summit, originator of Lockheed's
Dialog; and Richard Giering, developer of the technology
underlying LexisNexis. This segment features Jan
Egeland, one of the founders of BRS (Bibliographic
Retrieval Services), a commercial system that grew
out of the Biomedical Communication Network, an early
consortium of New York medical libraries.
Bjørner met with Jan Egeland in
August 2000, in Saratoga Springs, New York, for an
An Interview with Jan Egeland
We understand that BRS was the first commercial
online service to have the MEDLINE database.
Absolutely. The whole history of BRS was medical.
The real pioneer, if the truth be told, in all of online,
including Lockheed, SDC, and everybody else, was Irwin
Pizer at the State University of New York Medical Center,
a librarian. He was the director of the Upstate New
York Medical Center Library and began an effort to
get medical literature online before the National
Library of Medicine (NLM) had its own service.
I think that was also a far-reaching vision of Joseph
Leiter, who was the director of the NLM library, in
Bethesda, Maryland. Leiter had a team of people working
at the National Library of Medicine on a project called
ELHILL. Davis McCarn headed the in-house effort within
NLM, which was to do an online version of Index Medicus.
The BCN Idea
Egeland: Irwin Pizer knew that an online Index
Medicus was happening and he wanted to get in on it.
For his own library, he wanted some way of providing
the same kind of access to important monographic information.
So, in 1968, he put together a project called the SUNY
Biomedical Communication Network (BCN) that was funded
by the State of New York. The service was online in
1969. I was there at the time.
I came to SUNY in a way that I had never predicted
my career would go. I had a master's degree in psychology
and my husband was a professor at Syracuse University.
We moved there in 1966, and I found a job in a marketing
research firm. I left that job quickly marketing
research was my intended career, but something happened
and I realized I didn't want any part of it in any
way. Meanwhile, the woman who lived next door was the
head cataloguer at the Upstate Medical Center library.
She said, "My boss, Irwin Pizer" he was a Ph.D.,
Irwin was, Dr. Pizer "he's embarking on a very
interesting project, and we are looking for people
to index monographic literature. In particular, we
need somebody who has medical knowledge for the behavioral
science collection." I said, "What would that involve?" My
neighbor replied, "Indexing monographic literature
for an online service." I asked, "What's an online
service?" I didn't know! And indexing? ... I had an idea what
indexing was, but it wasn't my career.
I went and talked to Irwin Pizer. He discussed the
project with me in great detail and told me his vision.
It was exciting. He was so enthusiastic almost
obsessed with it. This was going to happen, it had
to happen, and it was just a question of forcing the
technology people to get up to his level. It wasn't
the other way around. This is my perspective. Technology
can do anything. It's a question of forcing it to do
something that you want it to do that is useful.
This was a library-based service. Getting medical
information out faster was becoming critical. In the
medical library environment, people struggled through
Index Medicus it was an indexed system, not
full-text and they had to go to the reference
librarian for help. There was an 8,000-term vocabulary.
If people didn't know the vocabulary, they couldn't
find anything. The first part of the project was to
index all the monographic literature. My job was to
take the MeSH vocabulary and, out of those 8,323 terms
at the time, I had to find descriptive terms that would
index the monographs.
We used MeSH because we knew the vocabulary would
be the standard for some time to come, and it still
is. No matter what, even to this day, if you want quality,
to-the-point material in the medical literature not
the lay literature, the medical literature you
have to do a search in MEDLINE. You have to do the
same thing we did 20 years ago. Except it's a lot easier
We didn't talk about the end-user market. Our end
user was the library user. It meant coming into the
library but not having to go through someone like a
reference librarian. It was a professional user. It
was not sitting in your home at 4:00 in the morning,
looking up alternative medicine. The intent at BCN
was a library-based service only. With BRS later on,
it quickly became clear that there were applications
for end users in the nonprofessional environment, the
nonlibrary environment, the home environment, but only
to a point, because the technology was not there yet,
and it was not economically feasible. At any rate,
this medical system started for professional users.
You were working as an indexer?
I was working as an indexer. No one knew anything
really ... we were all flying blind. We had technical
people from the State University of New York central
computer center in Albany. They came to the library
and set up a computer center in the basement; we had
our own IBM 360/40. We all sat down in a conference
room and said to the programmers, "Here's what we want
to do." They did not say to us, "Here's what you can do." We
told them what we wanted to do.
Fortunately, we had incredibly creative technical
people. They established BCN in the basement and dedicated
five programmers. This was in the Rockefeller years:
the state had money, they saw the potential, they were
interested, and the medical center director, the president
of Upstate Medical Central, was very supportive. He
was a young, aggressive man, and he thought it was
wonderful that the library wanted to do something like
this. So we had money from the Medical Center itself
and from SUNY central, and we established BCN Irwin
Pizer did, it was his thing.
My work as an indexer quickly turned into other things.
Once we started working day by day with the programmers,
I became a systems designer, de facto. They were using
an early version of STAIRS. It was rough, but very
powerful. Very powerful.
You gave the programmers the broad picture of
what you wanted?
And the detailed picture. It was this particular
group of people that eventually all but one
of whom became BRS in 1976. This was way back
in 1968. We didn't just appear on the horizon in the
mid-1970s and say, "Let's be a competitor in the online
Development of BCN
Egeland: Our goal was to serve the medical
center libraries in the SUNY system throughout all
of New York. We had 73 campuses. There were four major
medical centers and other centers that had a health
science component. We had a number of campuses that
were candidates. Initially, again through Irwin Pizer who
was always very aggressive in bringing other libraries
into things that he felt would be beneficial we
had a lot of private medical libraries in New York:
Cornell, the University of Rochester, Columbia. Irwin
brought these centers together the librarians and
said, "Here's what we're doing; do you want to participate?"
Well, of course they did. This was in the 1960s.
This was when librarians were beginning to come
out of their own independent libraries and cooperating
more with each other.
We had a great mix of librarians ... very creative,
innovative people ... Henry Lemkow at Rochester ...
young, energetic men who wanted to bring their libraries
into this new thing. The original SUNY Biomedical Communication
Network included nine libraries, plus Harvard and Johns
Hopkins not in New York at all. The medical
library community was a very insular group and a very
It really had nothing to do with me. These were major
academic medical research centers. This was critical
information for them. It wasn't entertainment. It was
time-critical information transfer. We never imagined
that we would ever develop out of the medical area
into anything else. That was not our intent. This was
the SUNY Biomedical Communication Network. We
ran that network from 1969 to 1976, when BRS started.
It's that transition that I want to talk about.
And I want to talk about that, but before we do
...were you born in the Upstate New York area? Did
you grow up here?
I grew up in Illinois. I went to school at the University
of Iowa because it was closer to my home in Illinois
than the University of Illinois. It was a smaller campus,
and it had a better football team my whole family
were sports nuts. I met my husband there; I graduated
from there. My undergraduate degree was in social psychology,
and I got a double master's in psychology and mass
communications, because I thought I wanted to do market
research. At that time, the biggest component of market
research was personality profiling and development
of things like Likert scales. You needed to have a
broad behavioral sciences background, so it was recommended
to do the mix. I spent equal time in communications
and behavioral science.
I was never remotely interested in being a psychotherapist.
I wanted to get what I thought was the best base to
take into a career that I thought would be fun.
And then I had an early experience, and if that had
not happened, I probably would not be talking to you.
Briefly, it was an experience in conducting focus groups
with a test market in Syracuse, and I did not like
it. I can't speak about it publicly. I ended up leaving
the job suddenly.
So I was "at liberty" and thinking about going back
to get a Ph.D., but within several days, I had the
conversation with my neighbor about having left my
job, and it wasn't more than a week to 10 days before
I was into something totally different.
So back to BCN. Let's talk about the transition
to BRS. Was BCN in trouble financially?
No, not at all. There was a perception after the
fact that BRS appeared and preempted the business of
the SUNY Biomedical Communications Network, but this
was not the case. By then, I was the director of the
Network. We started with nine libraries. We had MEDLINE
online, we had a database of our monographic literature,
and we had a serials component online. That went on
for a period of time and we added libraries occasionally.
From 1969 to 1975 that's 7 years the
Network grew, we began taking in other medical libraries
out of state, indeed, all over the country. By the
time it became clear that the State of New York was
not going to continue this service, I believe we had
31 libraries, and in addition to the medical databases,
we had added databases that were useful and requested
Growing the Network
Egeland: From the very beginning of the BCN
network, we had user involvement. The medical library
staff who did searches would come together; we had
annual meetings even then. The librarians were integral
to what happened with the progression of the network.
They said, "Could you possibly put Biological Abstracts
online, now that we have Index Medicus?" It made sense.
So that became a major project, and we did, in fact,
put Biological Abstracts online. We got ERIC because
we had eight or nine SUNY campuses on the Network,
and users wanted access to it. The State Education
Department was a big user; ERIC was free, and they
wanted it. ERIC became our third database.
At the same time and right in parallel, the commercial
services (Lockheed Dialog and SDC ORBIT) were also
growing and adding users. Remember, originally we were
the only service with MEDLINE online commercially.
Shortly after the BCN project, which was jointly funded
between the National Library of Medicine and SUNY to
get MEDLARS online and tested, NLM put MEDLARS online
at NLM. Then it became available to everyone. It was
at that point that Lockheed decided they wanted to
have MEDLINE. That was fine. It was a government-funded
database, available to anyone. So Lockheed put MEDLINE
online. We could see a pattern developing: Competition
was perceived. At the time Lockheed put the medical
files online they had heretofore been known
for a lot of technical files and government databases once
they put MEDLARS online, it was clear that Lockheed
was branching out as well.
We had the medical market pretty well served. We
had started adding other files. There was competition
between SDC and Lockheed. NLM mounted its own internal
service; and here's BCN over here serving a very restricted,
very targeted market.
Challenges to BCN
Egeland: In 1976, early in the year, I was
working in the central office, in Albany. The vice
chancellor called me in and said, "There's something
I need to discuss with you. We have a problem."
Apparently, SUNY Central had been contacted by politicians
or government agencies that disapproved of the BCN
service. The idea of government services competing
with commercial enterprises was controversial then.
The intent was clear. SUNY Central feared they were
going to be accused of competing.
Do you have any idea whether this was a concern
of the State of New York, or was it larger?
I don't know, and I did ask. I said, "Can you tell
me where this pressure is coming from?" The vice chancellor
said, "No, not really. It hasn't been just one there
have been several inquiries. 'Inquiries have been made." It
was clear that the State University didn't want to
be in a position seen as garnering business that belonged
in the private sector. The state government was a huge machine
at that time; they were not interested in fighting
it out in a commercial marketplace. It had been their
understanding that SUNY BCN was performing a service
that was not already being performed, at a price that
was affordable to their user community. That was true
at the beginning. But now there were other alternatives.
MEDLINE was available elsewhere. That was the crux
of the issue.
The state said, "Your Network that we spent all this
money on...you've got a wonderful market, and we've
got a great service going, but it is seen as a competitor
in the private sector. We can't compete in the private
sector without a lot of inquiries, and we're beginning
to get some." Basically, I was being put on notice....
I left that office in shock. The vice chancellor
had said, "We cannot do this anymore; we need to phase
it out and move users to other services." I said, "There's
no way they can afford it. These are huge users. We've
built a system and made time-critical information available
to them, and they're going to have to move? I don't
know what to tell them." They could not afford it.
The other part of it is that this Network had a lot
of other services on it that were important and specific
to our libraries serials lists, for example.
They all would have to be shifted. That would cost
a lot of money and probably was of more immediate concern.
Looking for an Alternative
Egeland: It was a mess. I immediately called
the president of our users' group and said, "I need
to see you; we have a problem." And I'm telling you,
these people got themselves geared together.
Do you remember who the president was then?
Henry Lemkow from the University of Rochester and
Ursula Poland from Albany Medical Center were co-chairing
the group. They beat the bushes. They got every one
of those directors together. They told them what was
happening. They requested a meeting with the vice chancellor,
who was the head of all the computer systems and centralized
applications, and me. Henry and Ursula and I went into
the meeting. This was maybe 4 months later; we're into
1976. We sat him down, and they pleaded their case.
These two fairly strong personalities made a very good
case for why BCN was not competing with the private
sector. They had their ducks in a row, and for a while,
I thought that it would be enough to pull it off. The
vice chancellor said he'd take it under consideration.
Two other of his people were with him and he said, "I
can't be too encouraging. I've got to tell you that
the pressure is too high." Of course, Henry and Ursula
wanted to know who it was....
But they really wouldn't tell?
We'll never know. It doesn't really matter, but
How real was it? Was it only perceived to be real?
It was perceived to be real. And therefore it was real.
At that point, the Network was certainly not generating
a lot of income for the state, but it was probably
paying for itself, and a nice service was being performed.
It was a service that had been pioneered by the university,
on its money. I think they had a right to continue
that service to the extent that they had the market.
The competitive issues that you see now are nothing.
At the time, public-private sector competition was
a major issue, and the university was very politically
sensitive. But SUNY wasn't interested in fighting senators
or congressmen who had heard complaints about unfair
competition in the private sector.
So, although the vice chancellor was gracious and
said he would take the matter under further consideration,
he came back and said, "No." He gave us until the end
of the year to close down. We were kind of resigned
to the fact that, if this is the way it goes, this
is the way it goes.
Egeland: Well, the librarians weren't resigned
to BCN closing down. They got together. They called
me and asked, "Is there any possibility that you could
run this service yourselves? You guys have done it.
You know how. You've got the people. If we can provide
enough income to get it going, can you do it?"
I was preparing to leave SUNY, and this whole discussion
was going on among the librarians. They gave us a proposal. "Here's
what we want, and here's what we'll pay." They, in
turn, were willing to sign that proposal, saying that
if the service was as described, available by the end
of 1976, they would pay X dollars a year for it, and
they would sign a contract to do that. They got together
and browbeat every one of those librarians into getting
those contracts signed. Can you imagine how their administration
could have ever managed to get that done? They were
determined, because they knew that they could not afford
to move to another system. It wasn't a question that
the other service wasn't as good. It had nothing to
do with anything at that point in time it was
economics. Though there's no question that our search
system was way superior. It was tailored to MEDLINE,
specifically to medical literature, and it did do many
things that commercial services could not provide.
And they were used to it and didn't want to move.
And they knew the system. But at the base was the
economic issue. Looking at their number of hours used
every month and translating that into Lockheed's or
SDC's rates it was just not even a possibility.
That's what they said to their administrators. They
came back to us with signed agreements in their hands.
Twenty-three of them.
BRS Under Construction
Egeland: We took those signed agreements to
the bank. We had no money. We got a bank loan. We quickly
incorporated ourselves in June 1976, and about 3 days
later, I dragged myself out to SLA, which was the next
conference. SLA was not our choice, but we had missed
MLA. I had left SUNY by then. I said, "We're starting
a service in December; here's what we plan to do." The
booth was two blinking lights and a huge visual in
the back with a construction crane. Up at the top it
said, "BRS Under Construction."
In the meantime, of course, we had from June until
December to get the service up. We had no computers;
we had no money. Ron Quake, who had been my partner
at BCN, had left SUNY and was working for the New York
Department of Criminal Justice Services. I knew I could
not do it without him, so I had to approach him. It
is all quite incredible when I think back on it. I
remember sitting around a dining room table in a private
home in Albany with 11 medical center librarians. They
knew Ron, they knew me, they knew two of the other
people who were key programmers. The librarians asked, "Will
you do it? We trust you if you say you can do it; we'll
sign the agreements; here's what we want you to do." This
is mid-summer. Ron went scrambling, trying to find
a home and a computer.
We took the agreements into the Schenectady Trust
Bank and borrowed on Ron's car and my car, and then
against those agreements, to have enough money just
to pay the programmers. Ron and I weren't paid for
many, many months. We had to advance some rent on this
warehouse that we found over in Schenectady. It was
an old, defunct computer center. A friend of Ron's
was running a time-sharing operation and they allowed
us to lease space. We put in our own disk drives ...
this is what Ron Quake did. It would not have happened
without him. He was the most creative negotiator, and
he's a true entrepreneur. He went around with very
little to offer anybody and negotiated leases with
Memorex, without any advance payment, for the disk
drives. He negotiated an arrangement with Finserv,
a time-sharing computer service here in Schenectady.
We had to get all this in place to know that we could
do it before we could commit to these people and tell
them, "Yes, you can plan on it."
I'm realizing that, of course, it was the technology
that was so expensive. Today, if this were happening
... it's easy and cheap to set up a Web site. But
in 1976, you had to develop a huge infrastructure.
Absolutely. And it was very costly and scary. It
was scary for Ron because he left a good job to do
it. I had left SUNY anyway and would have gone on to
something else, but I felt personally committed to
these people. I think one of the things that kept momentum
going and made the librarians feel they could take
the reins and run with them is that they knew we would
do what we said. And we did! It surprised all of us,
but we did it. But it was not easy.
And then somewhere I saw in the literature, shortly
after you started, Carrier Corporation said that
they couldn't provide the computers anymore.
Right. But actually, it was a good thing. Things
always happen in sequence like that for reasons. We
described our plans when we went to Minneapolis to
a conference of the MLA in October. That's when the
notorious "spaghetti factory" meeting happened. We
had a huge get-together of all the interested medical
librarians to describe what we were going to do. Irwin
Pizer was there, and the computer guy from Finserv
came up with Ron, and we presented our plan. It was
a restaurant in a spaghetti factory, and it was hysterical,
because we had no idea if anybody would show up. The
meeting wasn't on the official program of MLA word
had to be passed around verbally. But people were standing
outside the doors; they were falling out of the rafters.
It was so rewarding because they were serious, and
I think at that time we were still wondering, "Can
Finserv soon fizzled out. We already knew that it
was not going to work with them. Ron was frantically
negotiating with Carrier to lease time from them, and
in fact, when we opened, we were leasing time on Carrier's
computer. We had our first user meeting in December
Before BRS was actually open?
Before BRS was even open. We had a prototype up and
running and we had our little terminal you know
those old clunky portables that weighed 30 pounds or
Yes, the Texas Instrument acoustic coupler. The TI
terminal was really the only game in town at that point.
The terminals were heavy and clunky, but they were
better than the old 2741 affixed to the floor they
typed at 10 characters a second. We thought we were
really big stuff with these little portables! I think
that's why I still have a very bad shoulder and I've
had it for years. Kay Durkin and Liz Marlowe, my marketing
crew, and I had to haul those things all over the place.
I think the meeting in Minneapolis was the turning
point. It became clear that the customers were there,
and we could go ahead and commit to the resources to
establish the service. They did not give us any money
in advance. But we did have the signed contracts.
BRS Opens Its Doors
Egeland: We took a loan, and we knew that
we had to pay it back soon, but as long as the service
could begin on January 1, 1977, when the payments were
due, we would be all right. It was an annual payment,
due January 1, and we made it clear that we had to
have it. The librarians couldn't say "I want to do
it, but we'll pay you next month." They paid us. We
were able to pay back the note immediately from the
fees coming in, and of course, immediately, we started
letting other libraries begin to use the service if
they wanted to come and pay, and we started actively
How did you come up with the pricing structure,
which was different from other services at the time?
We didn't come up with it; the librarians did. They
told us what they would do. It's practical, common
sense. Library budgets are annual budgets. They wanted
to have an amount to put in their budget as a subscription.
That's how they're used to paying for things. They
couldn't do that with the other services.
What about the split fee between the connect time
(the online time) and the royalty fee?
We just covered everything. They paid us an annual
fee for everything. In this structure, we had to allow
for extra usage and for the communications costs. So
when they told us they'd pay, as it turned out in the
beginning, the figure was $7,500 a year; that was our
price, for unlimited access.
That's a lot of money at that point, but these
were heavy users.
Yes, they used 100 hours and up a month. So, if they
had been paying by the hour for that, plus paying their
communication charges, there's no way they could have
Marketing the Service
Egeland: Then we realized we were in business,
in a competitive market, and we couldn't make it on
just these users we needed more. So we had to
get out and do some marketing. In the beginning, we
went strictly to the medical market. We looked for
more medical centers, because there was a huge portion
of that market yet untapped, and pharmaceutical libraries.
We looked for libraries with money. This was back when
there was no way to bring the service into a public
library or to take it to a small academic library.
They'd love to have had it, but they couldn't afford
it. We had a very targeted marketing effort, and I
think that's what made our service more successful.
We didn't try to shotgun the world, as the other services
did. We didn't try to serve everybody. We had a very
limited niche who had enough money to pay an online
subscription fee for a year and had enough usage to
justify it. As it turned out, there were lots of those
people out there. We started getting the pharmaceutical
You knew who they were because you knew that field
We knew that market. We'd been in the library market
for years, and Kay Durkin, our first official employee,
had been with Biological Abstracts. Liz Marlowe came
from Biological Abstracts about a year later. We knew
all the librarians. We were part of that group. We
went to the conferences. My title, when I was at Upstate,
was assistant librarian. Even though I was not an MLS and
you couldn't do that today I actually was part
of the library system there and had to fit into that
somehow, so they made me the assistant director.
The other services were jealous, I think, that
you were able to undercut the price. They didn't
understand the market in the same way. Or maybe their
markets were different?
Both Carlos Cuadra and Roger Summit are great people.
I never got to know them well personally at all, because
almost from the beginning, there seemed to be an animosity.
I guess it's only natural. We had been in the market
for a long time, but we came into it as a commercial
service at a point where they were also expanding and
probably having their own problems.
They did have their own problems, internally within
But I do recall, at SLA, that first meeting where
I had my little booth with the construction sign, some
people came up to me and said, "You're going to be
sued." I said, "Really? For what?" They responded, "Predatory
pricing." I asked, "Predatory pricing? Who's going
to do that?" They said, "Well, SDC." And I replied, "More
power to them. We're just competing; it's fair market
competition here. We're charging what our users can
pay. We didn't come up with the schedule they
did. This is their fee schedule. It's available to
I think the whole business environment at that time
was very uneducated, in terms of who the user bases
were and what the economics were. They priced their
services on what they needed in order to pay their
technical costs. We were pricing ours on what the users
would pay. We bought into our prices; we didn't set
the prices. From the beginning, our service was user-driven.
Egeland: Our technology was market-driven;
it wasn't the other way around. We didn't come up with
a feature and say, "This is a great feature." All the
features that we developed technically were requested
by the users. We kept that system of advisory committees
in place. We had a technical advisory committee and
a database acquisition committee. The database committee
selected the content and the technical committee told
the programmers what they wanted as features.
I realize that model came from what BCN had done
before, but was that like what OCLC was doing at
the time? Do you think that's where the idea came
No, because at that time, medical libraries were
not intimately involved with OCLC. There wasn't much
connection. We knew Fred Kilgour was out there in Ohio
doing online cataloging. Some of the medical center
libraries were interested, but medical cataloging is
very specialized. There was an awareness but no real
interplay. We weren't aware of what OCLC was doing
with their committees. We'd been doing the committee
thing since 1968, and it just carried over to BRS.
For the most part, it was a cohesive group of people.
Some of the librarians who started with us in 1968-69
were with us right to the end. Ann Van Camp was one.
She was on both of the councils.
Bjørner: She wrote for ONLINE for
We had extremely dedicated users. I think it's because
we listened to them and tried to do what they wanted.
If they felt that something was too difficult to use,
if they needed something in the way of a different
type of access, we would try. I'll give you a classic
example, just one, that will tell how our software
development made the BRS search system one of the most
sophisticated in the world at the time, on the input
of the people who used it every day.
It had to do with title searching. Lockheed and SDC
both had mounted MEDLINE, and we of course had it,
and NLM had it. The only way users could find a word
in a title was to first put in an index term to get
a subset of information. Only after a subset, defined
by an index term, had been created would the computer
do a literal string search on the title for exactly
what you put in. It had to go through every title.
But you got lost in your attempt to get anything that
was comprehensive, because first you had to pick an
index term to create the subset.
The user groups said, "We want to get right at those
titles directly. We want to be able to say, I want
everything with the word 'Ritalin' in the title. And
more than that, I want it to have 'Ritalin' in the
title, but I also want it to have 'hyperactivity' in
the title and maybe the word 'therapy,' etc. I don't
want to first have to go in under 'methylphenidate'
or something else as an index term. I just want to
say, 'I want anything that's got Ritalin in the title.'"
We gave the job to the programmers, and in a matter
of weeks, the guys had come up with a title search
capability where they inverted every word in the title every
significant word they threw it into the inverted
file, marked with a paragraph designator. Then you
could sit down and plunk in "Ritalin" and everything
with "Ritalin" in the title came up. The librarians
were beside themselves. Probably the single biggest
event that I remember is the looks on their faces at
the meeting when we said, "OK, you asked for it; you
got it." There were a lot of times like that.
Now, it doesn't sound like a very difficult thing
to do today because we see it elsewhere, but it wasn't
available at that time on the other services?
No, not at all. It was subsequently, of course. I
think our competition was very healthy; we kept them
on their toes in a lot of ways technically in terms
of subtle but very important software design features
that made the systems easier to use.
Now, you changed the BRS software somewhere along
Oh, absolutely. We had to rewrite and make our own
software. The code for STAIRS was cumbersome. It was
written in Assembler and was way too space intensive,
management-wise. We were side by side, running STAIRS
and developing our own system. When we finally got
completely out of the IBM code and transferred over
to our own search system, it was transparent to the
users. They really didn't know.
Who realized that this had to happen? Was that
Ron Quake and Bob Hamilton, the two technical people.
Originally in BRS, there were three of us: Lloyd
Palmer, Ron Quake, and myself. Lloyd left after a year.
Our key technical guru was Bob Hamilton. He was a genius
way ahead of his time. He knew, in 1970, that there
was going to be a personal computer on everybody's
desk. He knew that there had to be a Windows. He used
to talk about it all the time. He was way ahead of
the wave of technology. He was a software engineer,
a SUNY graduate from Buffalo, bright. He and Ron developed
a lot of small software application businesses after
BRS. In fact, we all did. We started a second service
(Software Group) that resulted in the Enable software.
Ron and Bob stayed in that. I did it only long enough
to get their user market plan and their documentation
That was your intention? That's all you wanted
Yes, oh yes.
I have to ask you about when you left BRS. The
word in the literature was that you were leaving
on your 40th birthday, and retiring.
Yes. That's what I did.
Because we had sold the business. It wasn't ours
anymore. We sold the business in 1980.
In the next segment of "Online Before the Internet," Jan
Egeland continues her story of the courtship and
purchase of BRS. In addition, others involved in
the early years of BRS comment on the unique culture
of one of the first online start-ups.
|4 Web Only Sidebars
Key Dates in the Life of BRS
1966: Jan Egeland indexing monographic literature
for BCN (Biomedical Communications Network),
a project of SUNY and the National Library of
1968: BCN goes online; Egeland later becomes
director of SUNY BCN.
1976, Spring: BRS organized with Ron Quake as
president, Jan Egeland as vice president in charge
of marketing and training, and Lloyd Palmer as
vice president of systems.
1976, December: First BRS User Meeting in Syracuse,
1977, January: BRS starts commercial operations
with 20 databases (including first national commercial
availability of MEDLINE) and 9 million records,
using modified IBM STAIRS software, Telenet for
telecommunications, and timesharing mainframe
computers of Carrier Corporation.
1980, October: BRS sold by Egeland and Quake
to Thyssen-Bornemisza Corporation.
1983: BRS introduces BRS/After Dark, a reduced-rate
service for end users.
1983: BRS and W.B. Saunders joint venture introduces
Colleague medical end user service.
1989: BRS Information Technologies, serving
the medical and academic library marketplace
with over 150 databases, acquired by Robert Maxwell
and Macmillan Inc.
1989: Maxwell Online, Inc. announces planned
incorporation of the ORBIT Search Service and
BRS Information Technologies.
1989: BRS/LINK (hypertext connection of databases;
first application delivering full text) announced.
1991: Robert Maxwell dies, empire descends into
1994: BRS Online Products sold by InfoPro Technologies,
a subsidiary of MHC Inc. (holding company for
Macmillan Inc.), to CD Plus Technologies.
1995: Company renamed Ovid.
1998: Ovid sold to Wolters Kluwer.
2001: SilverPlatter Information is purchased
by Wolters Kluwer and merged with Ovid.
Who’s Who: Key People Mentioned in This
Durkin, Kay — Early in her career, worked
as a senior research scientist at glaxosmithkline
and then as director of product marketing at
BioSciences Information Services (now known as
BIOSIS). 1977: Vice president, marketing, BRS.
1989: Founded Phoenix Partners, a recruiting
Hamilton, Robert — 1976–1980: Vice
president, systems development, BRS. While at
BRS, he began creating the concept that would
eventually become Enable. Enable was later marketed
by the Software Group (founded by Ron Quake),
where Hamilton was vice president, software development.
Kilgour, Frederick G. — 1967–1980:
Founder, president, and executive director of
College Library Center, later named Online Computer
Library Center (OCLC).
Leiter, Joseph — 1972–1976: As deputy
director, National Library of Medicine Operations,
served on the SUNY BCN User’s Task Force
Committee. 1979: Led the team that developed
McCarn, Davis B. — 1967-1972: Deputy director,
R&D, National Library of Medicine (NLM).
1972-1977: Associate director, computers, NLM.
1977–1978: Associate director, planning,
NLM. Managed the development of MEDLINE and designed
Grateful Med. Died in 2000.
Palmer, Lloyd G. — 1976: One of three
co-founders (with Jan Egeland and Ron Quake)
of BRS. Left BRS after 1 year, but returned in
1983, helping to introduce BRS/After Dark, a
reduced rate service offered to end users.
Pizer, Irwin — 1964–1969: Library
director, SUNY Upstate Medical Library. 1966–1970:
Director, SUNY Biomedical Communication Network
(SUNY BCN), which evolved into the commercial
system, Bibliographic Retrieval Services (BRS).
1971–1989: Professor, library administration,
Library of the Health Sciences, University of
Poland, Ursula H. — 1964–1987: Librarian
and professor of medical science, Albany Medical
College, Albany, NY.
Quake, Ron — 1976: With partners Jan Egeland
and Lloyd Palmer, commercialized the SUNY Biomedical
Communication Network (SUNY BCN) into Bibliographic
Retrieval Services (BRS).
Van Camp, Ann J. — Librarian at Indiana
University School of Medicine. Served on BCN
Advisory Committee. 1976–1981: Member of
the BRS Technical Subcommittee. 1981–1984:
Served on the BRS Advisory Board.
What’s What: Names, Acronyms, and Abbreviations
Mentioned in This Installment
BRS — Bibliographic Retrieval Services,
begun as a commercial outgrowth of the SUNY Biomedical
Communication Network in 1976. In 1994, BRS was
purchased by Ovid Technologies. In 1998, Wolters
Kluwer bought Ovid.
ELHILL — Retrieval system developed by
Systems Development Corporation (SDC), which
provided access to the MEDLINE database.
Enable — 1984: Integrated software system,
incorporating word processing, spreadsheet, graphics,
database access, and communication. Created by
Robert Hamilton and marketed by the Software
Group, a company founded by Ron Quake.
ERIC — The Educational Resources Information
Center (ERIC). National information system providing
access to education-related literature. Established
in 1966, ERIC is supported by the U.S. Department
of Education’s Office of Educational Research
and Improvement and is now administered by the
National Library of Education (NLE).
Finserv — A time-sharing computer service,
based in Schenectady, NY, at the time BRS was
IBM 360/40 — The original 360 family was
announced in 1964; the lower midrange model 40
was the first to ship a year later and may have
been the most popular machine of the series.
Index Medicus — Print index equivalent
of the MEDLINE/PubMed databases, started by John
Shaw Billings in 1879, and published for 125
consecutive years. Publication will cease at
the end of 2004.
MEDLARS — Medical Literature Analysis
and Retrieval System. Computerized bibliographic
system, originally used in the National Library
of Medicine (NLM), and named by NLM’s Frank
Rogers and Seymour Taine in 1960. MEDLARS was
designed by General Electric, which completed
the system in 1964. MEDLARS II was designed and
developed by SDC, which completed the system
MEDLINE — MEDLARS onLINE. Online system
of indexed journal citations and abstracts developed
for users outside the National Library of Medicine
(NLM) in 1971. MEDLINE is the major component
of NLM’s PubMed database, which is now
searchable via the Internet.
MeSH — Medical Subject Headings taxonomy
used to index MEDLINE records.
MLA — Medical Library Association. Founded
NLM — National Library of Medicine. Organized
under the U.S. Department of Health, National
Institutes of Health (NIH). For more than 100
years, the Library has published the Index Medicus,
a guide to journal articles. This information
is available in the databases MEDLINE and PubMed.
ORBIT — In 1969, the System Development
Corporation (SDC) created the ELHILL retrieval
program for the National Library of Medicine
(NLM). ORBIT, a commercial offshoot of ELHILL,
became publicly available in 1972. Robert Maxwell
(Pergamon Press) bought ORBIT in 1987 and renamed
it Pergamon Orbit Infoline. In 1989, with Maxwell’s
purchase of Bibliographic Retrieval Service (BRS),
the entire group was renamed Maxwell Online.
In 1994, Questel, the French-based online host,
bought Orbit and named the composite company
STAIRS — STorage And Information Retrieval
System. Text search software originally developed
for the IBM mainframe.
SUNY Biomedical Communication Network — Online
bibliographic retrieval service developed by
Irwin Pizer at SUNY Upstate Medical Library in
1968. In 1976, Jan Egeland and others commercialized
the service, which became known as Bibliographic
Retrieval Services (BRS).
Amdahl, G. M., G. A. Blaauw, F. P. Brooks, Jr., “Architecture
of the IBM System/360,” IBM Journal of
Research and Development, vol. 44, no. 1/2, January/March
Bourne, Charles P. and Trudi Bellardo Hahn, “State
University of New York Biomedical Communication
Network, 1965-1976,” in A History of Online
Information Services, 1963-1976, Cambridge, MA:
The MIT Press, pp. 259-277, 295-297, 355-357.
Burrows, Suzetta, Sylvia Kyle, “Searching
the MEDLARS File on NLM and BRS: A Comparative
Study,” Bulletin of the Medical Library
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Egeland, Janet, “The Importance of User
Education and Training in a Multi-Data Base Online
Information Network,” in Zunde, Pranas,
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DC: ASIS, 1974, pp. 137-140.
Egeland, Janet, “In-Depth Indexing of
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IL: Graduate School of Library Science, University
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Bibliographic Search: The
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“History of Innovation: Texas Instruments
Announces New ‘Silent 700’ Portable
“History of the [SUNY] Health Sciences
“Index Medicus to Cease as Print Publication,” NLM
Technical Bulletin, vol. 338, May-June 2004 [http://www.nlm.nih.gov/pubs/
Marquis Who’s Who (Dialog File 234):
Kilgour, Frederick Gridley; Davis Barton McCarn,
Irwin Howard Pizer.
“MEDLINE Pioneer Davis McCarn Dies,” NLM
Newsline, January-June 2001, vol. 56, nos. 1
and 2, January-June 2001 [http://www.nlm.nih.gov/pubs/
Miles, Wyndham D., A History of the National
Library of Medicine: The Nation’s Treasury
of Medical Knowledge, Washington, DC: U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service,
National Institutes of Health, National Library
of Medicine, 1982, pp. 388-390.
Machrone, Bill, “Profiles in Technical
Excellence: In Praise of Unsung Heroes (1985),” PC
Magazine (20th Anniversary Issue), March 12,
0,1759,1167685,00.asp] (Robert Hamilton).
Provenzano, Dominic, “Where Are They Now?,” ONLINE
(Special 10th Anniversary Issue), vol. 11, no.
1, January 1987, pp. 35-39.
“Remembering ELHILL,” NLM Technical
Bulletin, July-August 1999, p. 309 [http://www.nlm.nih.gov/pubs/
“Timeline History of SUNY Upstate Medical
Van Camp, Ann J., “Memories of an Online
Pioneer,” Database, vol. 11, no. 5, October
1988, p. 38.
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