A New Presidential Face at Thomson
Gale: Gordon T. Macomber
By Marydee Ojala
Early in April 2004, Thomson Gale, the publishing
entity formerly known as Gale Group, acquired a new
presidentGordon T. Macomber. His last name
rhymes with slumber, which is not to suggest he's
a slouch, snoozing on the job.
On the contrary, our attempts to connect for an interview
were thwarted several times, usually because of his
travel schedule as he visited with the various units
that constitute Gale, but occasionally because of mine.
Macomber comes from a solid electronic publishing
background. Just prior to Gale, he was CEO at Merriam-Webster,
Inc., a subsidiary of Encyclopedia Britannica. Earlier
he held several different positions at Simon & Schuster
companies, primarily with reference book responsibilities,
ending as the president of Macmillan Reference USA.
Some of the Simon & Schuster imprints, such as
Thorndike, Charles Scrib-ner's Sons, and Macmillan,
are now part of Thomson Gale. I asked him if taking
over the presidency of Gale was a bit like coming home.
He chuckled and admitted that he'd had to be reminded
that he'd been on the payroll briefly after Macmillan
Reference USA was sold to Thomson Learning in 1999.
In his new job, Macomber will report to Ronald Dunn,
president and CEO of Thomson Learning Academic & International
Group. Cue the soundtrack for "It's a Small World After
One of his more interesting positions for a couple
of years between his stints at Simon & Schuster
and Gale was as president and CEO of NYUOnline, the
university's attempt to monetize e-learning. Two revenue
streams still exist. One instructs corporate staff
in using online; learning for internal training purposes,
the other concentrates on content management systems.
THOMSON'S COMMON PLATFORM
At Gale, Macomber's been impressed with Thomson's
willingness to put huge resources into content and
invest in technology to create a common platform. Phase
one of Thomson PowerSearch will be available initially
across InfoTrac products, with the complete launch
scheduled for early 2005. This common platform should
allow for federated searching capabilities across all
Thomson contentand that's a lot of content. That
raised, in my mind, the question of which part of Thomson
has the most valuable content? How will Thomson divvy
this up internally?
"It's a classic publishing question," says Macomber. "We
will need to decide on the financial arrangements for
intra-Thomson transfers of information. Remember, not
every group is focused on the library market. Gale
is differentiated by its concentration on the library
market. We see this market as being academic, public,
K-12 school libraries, large ARL research libraries,
and community colleges. Although several of these could
be grouped together as academic libraries, they have
different buying patterns. Some Gale products are only
of interest to one part of our market. Thorndike large-print
books, for example, are only purchased by public libraries.
We reach the corporate and government market, but it's
through resellers rather than direct sales." What about
a geographic distribution? Thomson Gale is, of course,
known worldwide and has offices around the globe. "We're
seeing the same patterns of demand outside the U.S.
as we see in this country. There's growth in Europe
and the U.K. There's interest from Asia, particularly
China, and we're doing pretty well in India."
If you look at Macomber's career, a common theme
emergesmoving from traditional print to online
delivery of information, whether that information is
contained within a reference book or a professorial
lecture. It came as no surprise then to hear him describe
Gale's market as shifting to electronic delivery. "There
are three legs to the Gale stoolperiodical aggregation,
primary research, and proprietary informationthe
three Ps. We're going to intellectualize their content
and move it further towards electronic delivery."
Hmmm, those three stools sound a lot like the three
companies that Thomson brought together to form Gale
Group in the first place. The old Information Access
Company aggregates periodical articles in databases
and has always been an intrinsically online company.
Product names such as InfoTrac, various Resource Centers
(Biography, Business, Health & Wellness, History,
and Literature, to name a few), PROMT, Newsletter ASAP,
Computer Database, and TableBase are familiar to most
Primary Source is a microfilm company that, thankfully,
is moving towards digitization. One of its latest introductions
is The Making of Modern Law, a completely searchable
database of the microfilm archives of Anglo-American
legal treatises from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
It joins The Times Digital Archive, 1785-1985 and Eighteenth
Century Collections Online in Gale Digital Collections.
The third company was known as Gale Research, publisher
of reference books. Some 85 reference titles are now
available through the Gale Virtual Reference Library.
These e-books cover a wide range of subject areas.
You can put titles such as Business Plans Handbook,
International Directory of Company Histories, Encyclopedia
of Public Health, Contemporary Fashion, Video Hound's
Golden Movie Retriever, or Reference Guide to World
Literature on your virtual library shelves.
Would Gale ever consider adding textbooks to its
virtual book collection? Macomber thinks not. "The
technology for reference books relies heavily on searchability.
Every word can be searched. There's Boolean search
capability. Textbooks are used differently. You'd need
to bookmark pages and passages, a technical element
you don't require in reference books. When you think
about the pedagogical attributes of textbooks, they
probably work better in print." With Gale's deep backlist
of reference book titles and its ability to create
content, I suppose there's no real need to expand into
e-textbooks, even if Macomber felt the technology was
But there is something about the insatiable reach
of Thomson companies. In mid-June, Gale acquired the
products of Roth Publishing to augment its literature
portfolio. Roth's PoemFinder contains 125,000 full-text
poems, plus 850,000 cited and excerpted poems. There
are explanations, biographies, pictures, and a glossary
as well. LitFinder, which consists of StoryFinder,
PlayFinder, and SpeechFinder, complements the literary
criticism and author biographical material Gale already
owns. Also in June, Gale acquired Web Feet, a database
of carefully selected, cataloged Web sites appropriate
for the K-12 market. It can be accessed through the
Internet or integrated into library catalogs.
Additionally, Gale has formed a strategic partnership
with xreferplus to add xrefer's content to the Gale
Virtual Reference Library, adding a ready reference
component. xreferplus aggregates full-text content,
some 1.8 million entries, from hundreds of non-Gale
reference books. This is a reciprocal dealxreferplus
subscribers now have access to Thomson Gale information.
Although these transactions were obviously in the works
before Macomber joined Gale, his comments reflect a
deep sense of ownership of the acquisition process.
Content is important, but it's not everything. Structuring
data and concentrating on the search process is vital
to the successful use of content. Different types of
researchers use content differently, Macomber points
out. The scholar and serious researcher will search
across all Gale's content, hopefully integrating it
within their own intellectual frameworks, while students
need the information segmented and packaged to meet
their learning needs. "The killer ap is search. We
need fresh technology for better search. Research isn't
Googleit's much more. We intellectualize through
better search." To achieve better search, Gale is turning
to its vision of the common platform, but Macomber
includes the deep indexing of both e-books and the
periodical aggregations in his definition.
Macomber points to the Gale taxonomy as a competitive
advantage, not just with other companies creating and
disseminating premium content but also with general
Web search engines. "We're indexing even 18th century
materials with the Gale taxonomy. This isn't just literary;
you can actually search and discover how people described
wounds in the early 1700s."
What about the trend towards automating the taxonomy
assignment? Would Gale forego human indexing for products
from companies such as Inxight, Verity, ClearForest,
or Stratify? "We intend to be a late adopter of automated
taxonomies, although we're looking at the technology
carefully. We don't want to create an efficient process
if it means people can't find stuff when they're sitting
at home at 3 a.m. doing research. We must keep the
end user in mind. At this point, it's human beings
creating indexing for human beings. We have 10 terabytes
of information, very diverse information, and end users
should have seamless access to it."
IMPORTANCE OF LIBRARIES
When it comes to libraries, Macomber begins to sound
almost evangelical. "Libraries are necessary to an
educated society. We must draw people to the library.
Gale spends time strategically helping libraries market
themselves. If you hold a library card, you have the
deep Web at your fingertips. Libraries have the content;
it's not just the Web, where information is an inch
deep and a mile wide. Libraries need to get the word
out that you don't even have to leave your home or
your office to access this deep information."
Macomber then confuses me by talking about Mel. Feeling
somewhat stupid, I finally interrupt and ask who Mel
isperhaps a Gale staff member I should know?
Turns out, it isn't a who, it's a what. MeL is Michigan
eLibrary, an initiative of the Michigan State Library
[www.mel.org]. If you have a Michigan driver's license
or ID card, that's your access into the library system.
You don't even need a library card. Databases accessible
through MeL include Kids InfoBits, InfoTrac Kid's Edition,
AncestryPlus, Health & Wellness Resource Center,
General Reference Center Gold, and Custom Newspapers.
There are also encyclopedias, directories, and almanacs.
MeL obviously appeals to schoolchildren doing homework
assignments. The Michigan State Librarian, Christie
Brandau, says, "It's a safe site for parents and teachers
to direct kids for information, unlike the free Web." Since
the parents and teachers are the ones with the drivers'
licenses, not the kids, it would have to be something
first accessed by them. With the range of information
available, however, adults should enjoy researching
through MeL as well.
Macomber doesn't take credit for MeLthe project
was already in place when he arrived. What he does
have is a sincere appreciation for libraries. How relevant
are libraries in the age of electronic information
and Web search engines? "There's nothing more important," he
declares. And the future? He's excited about Gale's
new types of products and what he deems "new scholarship." Digitizing
history, for example, opens up new avenues for scholarly
research, a rediscovery of the past that will result
in a new understanding of it. Central to his thought
process are learning and teaching, of moving existing
information to electronic forms, and of creating new
information in the process. Gale is a business, so
his thoughts must also concern profit. Sooner or later
at Gale, Macomber will confront the same issue he identified
as key at NYUOnlinewhat people will (or, in the
case of libraries, can) pay for online access to electronic
information. Clearly, Macomber is committed to electronic
publishing and is realistic about the library market.
His enthusiasm about libraries is encouraging; his
interest in online gratifying.
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