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Magazines > Searcher > November/December 2004
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Vol. 12 No. 10 — Nov/Dec 2004
FEATURE
Online Before The Internet, Part 8:
Early Pioneers Tell Their Stories: BRS—An Interview with Jan Egeland

by Susanne Bjørner • Bjørner & Associates
& Stephanie C. Ardito • Ardito Information & Research, Inc.


Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Home

This eighth installment of "Online Before the Internet" presents excerpts from part 2 of Susanne's interview with BRS co-founder Jan Egeland. (See part 1 of Egeland's interview in the July/August 2004 issue of Searcher, http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/jul04/ardito_bjorner.shtml.) We begin part 2 with Egeland's story about the purchase of BRS by Thyssen-Bornemisza Corporation in 1980.

This article features "Web-only Content" — the complete interview with Jan Egeland (including an update on her recent entrepreneurial activities), as well as perspectives from Debbie Hull, BRS' 25th employee, and Ann J. Van Camp, a participant in various BCN and BRS user groups.

Sorting out the Suitors

Were you looking for a buyer or did a buyer come looking for you?

We didn't look. We were clueless! If we had been in today's market, we probably would have been a dot-com, or we would have done an IPO. But no. We had only been in business for 4 years: 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980. People just came looking. At this time, major companies were trying to get into "information technology," a term that used to mean something that it doesn't anymore, I think. Everybody wanted to get some foothold, and BRS was the only game in town, in terms of what we did and our size. We had received inquiries from lots of people ... Carl Keil of the New York Times Information Bank ... Robert Maxwell, the British publishing magnate....

You talked with Maxwell way back then? Did you meet him?

He flew us to London. This was probably in 1979. He wanted to buy us in the worst way. We said we weren't really interested. And he said, "Will you just come over and talk to us about it?" So Ron Quake said, "Okay, but we really don't want to sell." We went over and met with him. Maxwell and Ron didn't see eye-to-eye at all. He aggravated Ron, and we abruptly got up and left and flew home. "Thank you so much, but no thank you."

But then a group came along from the Indian Head/Thyssen conglomerate and by that time, we were at a turning point. It was 1980. We knew we were going to have to put a lot of money into the system. The Thyssen group was very aggressive and persuasive, and it appeared to be a good mix, because they already had an information technology unit.

Did they already have Predicasts?

Yes, they had purchased Predicasts. We could see that they were courting companies where there would be a synergistic acquisition.

We were protective of our users, even then. We didn't want to sell BRS to someone who wouldn't preserve our service and care for the users; maybe an outside company would even give our users something in addition that would be beneficial.

The Decision to Sell

Egeland: Thyssen guaranteed us complete operating freedom and complete separation. Yet they were willing to put in the cash necessary to grow the business to the next phase. We had started the BRS After Dark service, and we were heavy into a lot of full-text medical applications with Colleague.

We knew that we needed cash to pursue this additional market. We were going to have to upgrade our equipment. We would have to make some basic changes in the company. We needed more people. In another part of the business, we were also off on another tangent — minicomputers — Bob Hamilton had already started his microcomputer research. We had lots of things that needed cash if they were to grow. We felt that Thyssen was a fairly synergistic possibility, so we were willing to consider it.

We spent a lot of time talking with them. We visited their different groups. We already knew Sam Wolpert from Predicasts. As it turned out, both Ron and I decided we were kind of war-weary. We had that very, very intensive period from 1976 to '79 and '80. It was a long, hard road. It took a lot out of both of us personally, I think, because every ounce of energy and enthusiasm that we had went into that business. And when you see light at the end of a tunnel like that, it's attractive.

And you realized that probably this would be a good match with Thyssen.

Right. We had several rounds of meetings with them, met their different divisions, and talked with the people. The people were innovative and creative. They were all into the information technology age, and they were serious about it. They didn't just want a little toy to play with, and they didn't want only to be able to say to their investors that they owned an information technology company — they wanted to do it.

Finally it came time to say yes or no, are you or aren't you? We agonized and agonized and agonized, and then we made the decision in a parking lot at a hotel where we were meeting with Thyssen. We were down to the wire and had to make a decision. Ron and I went outside and walked around the parking lot. It was freezing cold. Ron said ... I think it was his comment that kind of did it, finally, because neither of us really wanted to sell ... it really wasn't like him, but he said, "You know, I think maybe I'm a little bit tired."

It was an agonizing decision and we knew it would be upsetting to our staff. We had a very close-knit group. People talk about corporate culture now, but ours really was like a family. We just spent so much time together. In the early days, we would be up all night long. All of us, in the warehouse. All doing 50,000 things to keep us together.

After the Sale

Egeland: With the sale, we were required to stay on. That was part of the deal; it was in the contract. Ron was to move down to New York, to Indian Head, and I had to become the president of BRS. I really didn't want to do that.

I was marketing. I didn't want to be in a position where I was so tied up with administration that I wasn't out in the market with users doing what I liked. Of course, that is exactly what happened, and I knew it would happen. Fortuitously, they found someone to come in, and I was able to leave in July 1982.

That was Bill Marovitz. Did you know him?

No, I had never met him. Of course, they brought him up as the sale went through, but.... There was a turning point in my mind and the history of BRS, because the focus became something entirely different after that. Not better or worse, just different. The whole management style, the whole corporate image, everything, was altered. It was not an environment in which I personally would have survived.

You're sure of that?

Egeland: Absolutely. I was committed for a year, and then, on the year, probably to the day, I retired.

A Special Birthday

Egeland: It happened to be my 40th birthday. I threw myself a party. I called a staff meeting at the Americana, which was a hotel not too far from our building. I said we would do something a little different and have a lunch meeting. All the management staff assembled at the pool. I had champagne brought out, and had everybody sit. They're all looking at me strangely, because this was a beer and pizza crowd. I clinked on my glass and said, "I'm 40 years old today; this is my 40th birthday. I want you all to celebrate it with me, and by the way, I'm retiring. Today."

What a moment!

We were a little disruptive. Kay Durkin, Liz Marlowe, and I ended up in the pool with our clothes on. We actually got thrown out of the hotel. It was a wonderful event, although it was painful for me, because of the people.

Bill Marovitz came in very shortly thereafter. I introduced him at the next staff meeting, and then I did a little bit of back-and-forth, some consulting, just during the transition period, until the end of the year.

But you not only left BRS; you walked out of the industry. You didn't consider going someplace else? You didn't want to?

No.

Were you burned out?

Well, that's an overused expression, I think, but in that sense, yes. I was tired. I felt like I really needed a break from doing anything because I had not thought ahead to what I might want to do later on. I was fortunate that I did not have to work. I started doing things that I had never had time to do. I had worked since I was 14 years old. I never had any spare time. So when I got it, I really made great use of it, and I did all kinds of things that I had not had time to do previously.

The People of BRS

You mentioned the culture, and Debbie Hull has spoken to us about the culture. She told us about working hard, playing hard, and how much she learned at BRS. She said that everything she had learned at BRS she later brought to use at Ovid. It sounds like those early years were a wonderful time.

Debbie saw the more fruitful part of what we were doing. By the time she came on, we had enough money to pay people on a regular basis, and we didn't make them drink Gallo wine and whatever for dinner. Kay, Liz, and I lived out of suitcases and boxes and supported ourselves. There was no expense money; we paid out of our own pockets. Liz, Kay, and I are lifelong friends, and we still get together.

As time went along, there were many opportunities to hire people, Lots of people wanted to come work for us because we were perceived as being the fun bunch. We picked people who really got way more involved . If you talk to anybody from BRS, I think they would say, for the most part, that their experiences there were fun and rewarding. We had a reunion in 1987, on the 10th year anniversary. We had it on my farm near Albany. I sent out a notice, tried to find everybody who had been associated with us during what we called "the warehouse years."

The thing that I want most to come across in this story is the importance of the staff. They put up with a lot. What we were doing, in the time frame that we were doing it, was intensive. You didn't go to work at 8:00 and leave at 5:00. It was around the clock a lot of times because of the nature of the business — getting databases up, technical failures happening in the middle of the night, and having them fixed by the time the system's up in the morning. We used a lot of time at night to run offline databases, where we would do huge batch searching in retrospective files.

It was a 24-hour-a-day commitment. Ron and I got all the credit, but it really belongs out there with Kay and Liz on the marketing side, and Bob Hamilton, Andy Wyszkowski, and Jeff Wescott on the technical side ...fabulously talented, dedicated people who worked way more hours than they should have for what they were being paid. To me, the most valuable experience was being with people who were willing to do that.

We tried to keep the group fairly cohesive, keep it small. We never had a lot of programming staff. We had a few good programmers. And we had a few marketers.

Good programmers, with a service attitude. Having that attitude in a programmer is really key, and rare, I think.

Out of the Back Room

Egeland: You could talk with any of the head technical people. They were in awe of our users. As opposed to many other situations, at that time certainly, our technical people met directly with users. Not through us. We made them come out of the back room and sit down and talk to the customers. And they loved it. They came to all the advisory meetings and heard it directly, so they felt they were responding to something. They had a reason to do what they were doing. We didn't come back from a meeting and say, "You have to do this." They heard one of the librarians say, "We need this because...." So it became a personal thing. If one of those librarians called and wanted to know how such-and-such was coming, I would tell whoever took the call, "Transfer them directly to Bob. Let them ask Bob or Jeff." We had an active dialog going between our users and our technical people. They got to know each other and became friends. It made it more interesting for everybody. There was no mystery behind BRS.

We explained to users how something was done technically, as best we could, in language that they could understand. We tried to explain how an inverted file system worked. I remember one time at a conference I was accosted by someone from one of the other services saying, "I wish you would stop trying to teach people how these inverted file systems work. It's causing us all kinds of trouble." He said, "They don't need to know that." I said, "You know what? They do need to know that. Because it explains to them why certain things can be done and why others can't, and they're certainly capable of knowing that, and they need to know it." And we kept right on teaching it.

Influential Industry Personnel

Who else can you remember from those years who are noteworthy, who you would consider perhaps other pioneers or important influences, either on you or on the whole industry?

Judy Wanger was a wonderful marketing person for SDC. At that time, she was one of the few female people in the business. We all liked her. She was a truly creative marketing person, very interested in users and in their input.

The most important influence on me, without any question, was Irwin Pizer. Other people important to me were the librarians in the medical centers. I became good friends with them, Ann Van Camp being one of several. But in the other part of the industry, I think of people that we just enjoyed being around, like Tom Hogan. Jeff Pemberton was always a good objective person, we felt, when the business was hitting a competitive kind of nastiness in the late 1970s. He always seemed fairly even keel. We got to know a number of people from different database vending organizations that we were involved with. We had very good relationships always with Joe Leiter at the National Library of Medicine; he had always been a very objective, supportive person. There were a lot of really good people out there. Sam Wolpert from Predicasts was an interesting character, to be sure. Dick Harris, I knew from when he was at ISI.

Do you remember, was ABI/INFORM coming on while you were at BRS?

Oh, yes. That was owned by one of the few other women in the business — Loene Trubkin.

We also dealt with the people from Mead Data Central. We visited them and had talks with them way back.

Was that to possibly work together?

Egeland: Yes. Talk about a restricted market! Theirs was a highly targeted market, in most cases of use only to attorneys. Yet, it wasn't set up so that an attorney could successfully use it by himself. We talked to them about interfaces, because they did not have an effective search service. They had the database, but they had no effective search capability. It was all dedicated, expensive access. We didn't get far. We never pursued it, because it seemed like their interest in making a Windows sort of interface to their database was not real great at that time.

So you were involved in making Windows accessible, or foreseeing it?

Well, we like to think that we were onto Windows way before Microsoft ever came around. Bob Hamilton had a user interface written back in 1978 or '79 that was a Windows type of program, but we never implemented it. The thing that's interesting in terms of Windows now is that certainly it happened at a time when the equipment technology was such that you could get to the point-and-click kind of mechanics. That wasn't possible at the time we were writing our interfaces. There can be a lot of transparency and a lot of assumption on the part of the system, but that immediate point-and-click Windows sort of application really was only possible when terminals became fast enough and cheap enough and when visibility — the pixel count and the resolution on these screens — was enough to handle it. And that came much later.

After BRS

What else did you do after 40?

I quickly became involved in a lot of not-for-profit volunteer activities. I pretty much took on a full-time job when I moved to Sanibel, Florida. My love, in my personal life, is animals. There is a wildlife center on Sanibel, where they bring in all the injured native wildlife. There was a very small organization to provide tender loving care, bandaging, etc., called Care and Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW). I became involved with CROW, and it was a challenge. I became a member of the board of directors. We started talking about expansion and improvements and I said that the first thing to is to get enough money to hire a veterinarian. Because we were sending animals into veterinarians in town, and this is an island... . Anyway, for the first 2 years that I was in Florida, it was a full-time volunteer job.

So that tremendous dedication that you were putting into BRS, the real single-mindedness...

It went into the wildlife organization. I transferred it over there. But consider the difference in environment! I didn't even sit at a computer until several years after that.

I wasn't ready or interested in making a commitment to a business. This was something I could leave anytime. Of course I didn't, and wouldn't have, because I was committed to getting this organization on its feet, but if I didn't want to be there anymore, I could leave. I wasn't willing to make a commitment to a business.

But you’ve done other things, too. Were you in an advertising agency?

Yes. I had an advertising agency. I had a health club. The ad agency experience happened in Albany shortly after I retired from BRS and was a very short-lived thing. I did it for 2 years. I helped a friend get a business started; she was the advertising person. I just helped her with the business side. I moved to Florida permanently in 1985; it was then that I got involved with the wildlife center. There were several other things in the middle of all this. Smaller ventures, but my latest …

I have just started a classical ballet school with two partners who were dancers. I, of course, was not a dancer. I am the businessperson. It’s okay to be the businessperson under these circumstances.

This is a new venture in Fort Meyers, Fla. They can teach, and they’ll do a fabulous job with the program once it gets going, but they weren’t prepared to go through what you have to go through to get a business started. Again, in my case, I’ll be marketing. This time I’m marketing a school. Then again, this is not something I chose out of the blue. It came to me because of connections with my two partners who are dancers; they wanted to do this, and they wanted help getting the business going.

And you’ve proved you can get a business going.

Postscript

As the issue was going to press, we asked Jan Egeland to update her activities since we first interviewed her in 2000.

Our ballet school is in its fourth year and is going strong. I also started another new business! A friend and I opened a small home and garden retail shop 2 years ago. It’s an eclectic mix of the old and the new, in a vintage cottage in Fort Myers. We are having a ball buying and selling all kinds of neat “stuff.” This winter, two other friends and I are investigating the possibility of opening a small restaurant/bar on Sanibel.

I guess I am still intrigued by new ventures … the fun is still in the successful start-up!

Debbie Hull, BRS’ 25th Employee

The following interview with Debbie Hull, then President and CEO of Ovid Technologies, Inc., was conducted in May 2000, in New York City, by Stephanie Ardito and Susanne Bjørner. In 2004, Debbie officially retired. She currently serves on the boards of MedCases, BLR, and Octagon Research as well as a selection of not-for-profit organizations.

Hull: What a wonderful mentoring group it was, when I was new and young, to be around all these dynamic women who said, “We’re going for it!” You know, we never thought we could fail. It never occurred to Jan Egeland that she might not succeed.

Ardito: You went to BRS in 1978?

Yes. I had been working in King of Prussia, Pa., at a government agency called Research and Information Services for Education (RISE). Originally it was a Dialog test site for online databases; they were given ERIC and other databases at almost no cost for testing. I worked for 4 years for them as a researcher. I had just had a baby, so I was glad to have a good part-time job.

Any educator in the state of Pennsylvania could call in and ask, “What’s the latest? Can you give me information on the newest treatment programs for teenagers who are into drugs? What are schools doing with vocational education?” We would search the literature, get the articles, add other peripheral material, and send them a whole package of information.

Ardito: You were searching Dialog?

I searched Dialog. That was my initial introduction into searching, from 1974 to 1978. I was not a librarian by training, so this was all new to me.

Bjørner: Were you a teacher?

I had been teaching special education. I have a background in psychology and a master’s in education for counseling. I had taught at a special school; then I stopped for 3 years, had my daughter, got my master’s, and then went to work at RISE. The draw was that I could work 20 to 25 hours a week. I learned to search Dialog, primarily ERIC and Psych Abstracts — not the
business databases, but MEDLINE.

During that time, Kay Durkin of BRS came to call on RISE to try to get us to use BRS. She made a package deal with us for ERIC. I don’t remember what the amount was, but it was less than Dialog—she was trying to inspire us to use BRS and Dialog. She came and made the sale, and then she came and trained us. She ran a class for 12 of us who did searching.

I liked it. I liked her a lot as a person, so I looked up her home phone number, called her, and said, “I like searching, I really like BRS, and I think I’m ready to work more full time now than I have been. My daughter is now 7 years old. If you’re looking for anyone for teaching, I would be interested.” She called me back and we met, and within a month of that conversation, I joined BRS.

We agreed that they would pay me for 4 days a week; I didn’t want 5. I would work out of my home to develop training materials and go out training. Kay was my boss; she also worked out of her home at that time. I was the 25th employee of BRS. I was flown up to Albany, to Scotia — the warehouse … BRS was in one end of a warehouse that housed mostly 7-Up. I met Jan Egeland for the first time.

First Days at BRS

Ardito: What was it like meeting Jan?

Wonderful. I also remember meeting Ron Quake. He said, “Oh, another one of the girls is coming!” We were all “the girls” then. It was Kay Durkin, Jan Egeland, and Liz Marlow — I was the fourth one hired. All of us women, except for Jan, were working remotely, out of our homes. But we would all come in to the office at the same time for a meeting, so then they said, “the girls are here.” Now, none of us was ever quiet and shy and retiring. Bette Brunelle also came on board when I did. She was an M.L.S. student at SUNY Albany. She works for Ovid now. She was hired to do documentation.

So I was brought into Scotia. I had one class. Somebody sat me down in a room and said, “Now, this is what it is; this is how you teach it; now would you please get on a plane and go to Arkadelphia, Ark., because they’ve been asking for training for a year and we’ve never had anybody to send.” So my first training trip was to Arkadelphia, Ark. — the watermelon capital of the world. I flew into Little Rock and stayed in a horrible Holiday Inn. I did the training. I had never trained before.

Ardito: Were you scared?

I remember being a little scared. The harder part was that I had to go from there to Washington the next day, where I was supposed to watch Laura Kassenbaum or Jan teach, and I was supposed to teach part of that day. That was going to be my education. But there were thunderstorms and my planes were cancelled. So on my first trip, I could only get to Atlanta. I was put into a hotel at 2 in the morning and had to get up at 5 to get to Washington. I got to Washington, and I taught a lot of the day. I remember at lunch some bigwig at the Patent Office came up to me and said, “You have the most wonderful hands.” I do use my hands a lot in teaching. That was my initiation to training.

For the first year, I worked out of my home, setting up training and going out and doing it, and writing materials. Then we got to be enough people, when Kay hired Diane Hoffman, that we got an office that held four of us in the Philadelphia area: Later we upgraded to a large office. For the first 3 years that I was at BRS, we did mostly training. Then I became head of training and hired people to work for me. But nothing was ever set there. Everybody just sort of did everything. We’d be doing marketing, then you found that you were also doing what today would be sales. Jan and Kay proceeded to hire other women: Jane Caldwell and Cathy Anderson. All of us who were external just happened to be women.

Ardito: You say it just happened. So, having a female force wasn’t part of the strategy?

I think Jan attracted other women. She was a very dynamic person to work for. She was extremely opinionated, she knew just what she was doing, and worked really hard. Pretty much every woman who was hired in those early days had a strong personality. There was no wimp in the group. We would meet on-site once a month and put all our stuff together. Laura was in Washington — there was an office in Alexandria at that time, a small office. Jane was in Washington. Kay and I were in Philadelphia. Liz was in Connecticut, I think, or she might have been in Scotia at the time. We really did all the sales, marketing, and training, and the people in Scotia (or Latham, after they moved), did all the technical work, software development, and customer support. Later, I got involved in private database development, in which BRS developed databases for companies.

Ardito: When did the private database business begin?

I would say 1981 or 1982. Companies like Dupont, whom I had been training, wanted us to do a private database; Xerox … they were mostly for corporate customers. They came to us because they liked the software

Bjørner: Was this still the STAIRS software?

It was at that point, yes. We actually put up quite a few private databases over a 2-year period. We didn’t make a lot of money on them. We didn’t know how to give instructions to structure data well, so we did a lot of custom programming. We are doing it today at Ovid, in a totally different way, and I think we can make money on it. I think I learned, from that experience, how to make money.

Bjørner: There was a May 1981 article in ONLINE that said Ron Quake was appointed the new president of Indian Head, Inc.’s Information Technology Group, an international information company with subsidiaries that included Information Handling, BRS, and Predicasts.

We were bought. It was mostly through our dealings with Information Handling Services. Jay Jordan and Mike Timbers at IHS had gotten to know Ron and Jan well, and IHS bought us and Predicasts in very short order. What was supposed to happen, but never happened, was that Predicasts would come down off Dialog, go onto BRS, and that Thyssen or IHS would start their own real challenge to the Dialog system. With BRS and Predicasts, one of the key databases, Thyssen could build from there. That never happened. Predicasts did go on to BRS, of course, but it never came down from Dialog.

Competition

I don’t remember the exact years, but there was a time in the early 1980s, at some point, that we decided that we had been competing with Dialog and that they were our only real competitor. We always competed with them.

Ardito: Dialog was your only competitor?

That was the only one we ever focused on.

Bjørner: You didn’t consider SDC a competitor? Even though they did scientific?

No. We were not competing for the same customers. I wish I could remember the sales strategy, but I’m not so sure it was well elucidated. Jan was heavy into the ARL (Association of Research Libraries), the big university communities. We sold on two things. We were selling on features, of course, and better software. In certain areas, BRS was better, but in other areas, we didn’t have a lot of the features Dialog had. We would sell on features, but mainly we sold on price and service — that we would give much better service.

User Groups

Bjørner: BRS was very visible with its user meetings …

Absolutely. One of the things Ron and Jan did, when they started the company before I was there, was that they went out and got a certain number of customers to sign up. They needed each of them to agree to a flat amount. I don’t remember what that was. Jan promised them that they would have some say in how the company grew, and what it was going to do. So those user groups — there was one on software and one on databases — were created very early on and met very regularly and were taken extremely seriously. It was not just a gratuitous gesture. It came out of the culture.

Ann Van Camp, who wrote a lot in the industry press, was a member of those groups. The librarians felt like they had a lot of say in what happened. In the early years, we listened very carefully. If somebody said, “I want this feature,” we would put that feature in. It wasn’t just talk. People felt a real ownership if they were there in the early days, because they had committed to certain things. Ron and Jan delivered on lower prices and a package that customers could budget for, and then we had these committees to give direction.

Pricing and Competitive Strategy

Ardito: What about the royalty pricing structure?

We presented our prices differently. This is what Dialog didn’t like. We showed what the royalty was to the producer and then we said, on top of that, you pay, like $16 an hour. So you knew what you were paying to BRS, you knew what the producer was getting. Dialog presented it as, say, $50 an hour and so much a hit. We were out in the open with what was being charged. We could say, “This is what the producer charges. All we’re charging is $16 on top.” And, I forget, if you committed to so many hours with BRS, it went down. So it was like $20 an hour and it was ratcheted down to maybe $12 an hour if you committed to, maybe, 200 hours a year, or whatever. Something like that.

Bjørner: It was much more of a subscription plan, which many services use now, but didn’t then.

Yes. I know Dialog didn’t like it, but Jan preached this, and we all believed it. The other thing that made us more competitive with Dialog than with SDC was that we didn’t have as much overlap in databases with SDC, but almost every database we put up was already on Dialog, so we were going one on one.

Ardito: News accounts of the later purchase of BRS by Maxwell, which also purchased Orbit from SDC, indicated that there was very little overlap between Orbit and BRS.

That’s right. That’s why we didn’t see SDC as a big competitor. One of the reasons the producers signed up with us was because we agreed to give more user information than Dialog did. We would give them the name of the institution; Dialog never gave out the name of the customer.

Bjørner: That didn’t bother the BRS customers?

No, because BRS would reveal the customers just to database producers, not to anybody else. The producers were not allowed to use customer names for any other purpose than for royalties. And it was institutional-level information, not individuals. The producers really liked that; they hated doing business with Dialog. Our approach was totally different — again, very open about
what we were doing. We had publisher meetings, where we would wine and dine them. It was a much more personal approach. Now, maybe BRS had to do it because we were second, for sure, and that was a way of getting in.

Bjørner: But it strikes me as being a very natural model for an academic market, which came out of what had been happening at BCN. That was, of course, a very different model from where Dialog and SDC came from.

Exactly. When Thyssen bought us, the roots of those early years, with the user committees and the approach to the customer and the good software, didn’t change that much, because Thyssen really ran their companies as holding companies. But I don’t think they ever understood that Predicasts just wouldn’t give up their Dialog revenue. It was too risky for them, and it wasn’t going to work, even though that was the vision. At least I was told that was the vision. We were run as a separate entity. Thyssen came and checked our strategy once a year, and if we made our numbers, they pretty much left us alone. So being bought was not revolutionary. What happened, of course, over time, is that Ron and Jan become less involved and less interested, which is wont to happen when you sell a company and you make some money.

Jan Egeland on BRS Pricing

Even after all this time, it rankled to read your earlier interview with Carlos Cuadra (SDC Orbit) and Roger Summit (Lockheed Dialog) [Searcher, July/August 2003, http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/jul03/ardito_bjorner.shtml], in which they suggested that we misled users by publishing low hourly fees for access to BRS, but then added on the database royalties and communications and not making these clear to the user. I think all of our early BRS subscribers would, to a person, tell you that we were totally honest in all of our dealings with them.... We wanted there to be a clear understanding of exactly who was getting paid for what. That's why we separated out the hourly charges to the user — so they would know how much the database producers were being paid in royalties, how much their telecommunication charges were, etc. I think it was this "unbundling" that "undid" Carlos and Roger. The rates on both their systems were inclusive of these costs, so they appeared much higher and noncompetitive. I could never understand why they, too, did not see the obvious advantage to the service provider in having their users realize that they were not retaining the total hourly charge ... it just made common sense to me.

–Jan Egeland (e-mail communication, August 4, 2004)

Roles and Culture

Ardito: Jan was so young to retire. To get out at just 40 years old — that’s quite young. But there were three founders: Jan Egeland, Ron Quake, and Lloyd Palmer. Can you tell us more about the relationship among the three?

Well, Lloyd Palmer had left by the time I came. He was out of there very early and then came back during my 10 years there. I had no early knowledge of Lloyd, although I did work with him in the later years. It was interesting with Ron and Jan, because they’re both very strong people. Ron really ran everything technical and Jan everything external. Ron didn’t want to ever see a
customer, didn’t want any external role at all.

Ardito: But yet, Roger Summit, Carlos Cuadra, and Dick Kollin all remember Quake quite well. He was out there —

Yes, he was a business manager with a technical background.

Ardito: He would have been talking then with the database producers, right?

He did to some degree. I don’t actually remember who did that. I think Jan did a lot of it; Kay Durkin did some. Again, nothing was cut and dried. There weren’t that many of us. Everybody did everything. That was one of the wonderful things. I got exposed to everything. “Here, they want a private database, go sell a private database.” “We need some marketing materials.” So, I wrote them. “Go talk to this publisher. Go train here or there.” It was very unstructured in the early days.

We all worked hard and played hard. Everybody liked to have fun together and party on occasion, but we also worked extremely hard. The office in Philadelphia grew, and when I left in 1988, we probably had 15 people there.

[See Key Dates in the Genealogy of BRS for subsequent events at BRS.]

Advisory Boards at BCN and BRS

From the founding of the SUNY Biomedical Communication Network in October 1967, there was an appointed User Board of library directors from various libraries in the Network. There was also a Subcommittee on Library Operations, made up of searchers, which advised on technical matters.

When BRS was founded in 1976, they appointed a User Advisory Board, comprised of library directors from the various library consortia that had group contracts with BRS. The User Board appointed members of the Technical Committee and the Database Committee. I felt privileged to serve on the Technical Committees for both organizations and on the User Board for BRS in the early 1980s. Through this committee work, I met a lot of smart, creative people who are still friends.

Interaction between searchers and programmers on these committees was really cooperative.

Programmers learned about the kind of refinements that made databases easier and more effective to use from the searchers who actually sat at the terminal. Searchers learned a lot about the inner workings of the software and how time-consuming and expensive it was to make the refinements they desired. Together, they set priorities for implementation. The Database Committee set priorities for the "wish list" of databases to be acquired by BRS and also made suggestions for searchable features of the databases.

The various user boards were always interested in keeping the best databases available at affordable prices and with the best features. To BRS, these committees were an integral part of their management.

–Ann Van Camp

 

Key Conventions

The 1976 SLA conference, held June 6–10 in Denver, was the first opportunity of the library convention season for BRS to promote its new company. Since I was planning to visit my sister in Colorado, I volunteered to help Jan Egeland and Linda Palmer staff their exhibit booth. I worked the booth when they needed to conduct business elsewhere. I had the good fortune to meet Jeff Pemberton, who was introducing his new magazine, ONLINE. He wanted Jan to write an article, but she declined. Instead, he invited Gertrude Foreman and me to write an article for the first issue. It appeared as “BIOSIS Previews & MEDLARS: A Biomedical Team,” ONLINE, vol. 1, no. 1 (1977), pp. 24–31,40–42.

By the time of the 1976 MLA convention in Minneapolis (June 14–17), there was a lot of “buzz” in the medical library community about BRS. BRS and BCN co-hosted a hospitality suite at the hotel, where there were many inquiries about the new service. One evening, an informational dinner meeting was held at the Spaghetti Emporium restaurant, which seated 100 people. It was a crowded room, as every seat was filled. By this time, there were about 75 libraries that belonged to BCN, and it seemed that many of those people were in attendance. This was the first BRS formal presentation about its new company. Jan Egeland, Ron Quake, and others gave specific facts and details about databases, pricing, and services they planned to offer. Obviously, librarians were pleased with what they heard, since many became subscribers and started using the service when it became available in January 1977.

As they say, the rest is history. I continued to write many articles and eventually became the cocolumnist of the Caduceus column for ONLINE and DATABASE from October 1989 to May 1994.

–Ann Van Camp

 

Who’s Who: Key People Mentioned in This Installment

Brunelle, Bette S. — Currently Executive Vice President, Products and Services, Ovid.

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, a Thomson business). 1977: Vice President, Marketing, BRS. 1989: Founded Phoenix Partners, a recruiting firm.

Foreman, Gertrude — At the time of the article in the first issue of ONLINE, Search Analyst, University of Minnesota Bio-Medical Library.

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.

Harris, Richard — 1970–1980: Vice President, Marketing, ISI. 1981–1993: President, Predicasts. 1994: Founder and President, Responsive Database Services, Inc. (RDS), producer of the Business & Industry, TableBase, Business & Management Practices, and Contemporary Women’s Issues databases. In 2001, RDS was sold to The Dialog Corporation.

Hogan, Thomas H. — 1980–date: Co-founder and President, Information Today, Inc.

Jordan, Robert L. (“Jay”) — 1974–1998: Various positions, Information Handling Services (IHS) Group. 1998–date: President, OCLC (Online Computer Library Center).

Keil, Carl O. — Formerly President and CEO, New York Times Information Services division, and President and CEO, Document Automation, a division of BaronData. 2003–date: President and CEO, Daticon.

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 MEDLARS III.

Marovitz, William F. — 1982–1987: President, BRS Information Technologies. Currently Executive Vice President and Chief Scientific and Technology Innovation Officer, Corbett Accel Healthcare Group.

Maxwell, Robert — 1951: Purchased Pergamon Press; publisher, 1951–1969, 1974–1991. 1981–1991: Chairman and Chief Executive, Maxwell Communications Corporation. 1984–1991: Chairman, Mirror Group Newspapers. 1988–1991: Chairman and Chief Executive, Macmillan. 1991: Sold Pergamon and Maxwell Directories to Elsevier. Died under mysterious circumstances in November 1991.

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.

Pemberton, Jeffery K. — 1970–1975: Marketing Manager, New York Times Information Bank. 1976–2002: Co-founder (with his wife Jenny) and President of Online, Inc., original publisher of ONLINE and DATABASE (now Econtent) magazines. Organized first ONLINE conference (1979) held in U.S., held subsequently in the autumn each year through 2000.

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 Illinois.

Quake, Ron — 1976: With partners Jan Egeland and Lloyd Palmer, commercialized the SUNY Biomedical Communication Network (SUNY BCN) into Bibliographic Retrieval Services (BRS).

Smith, Marshall F. — 1967–1984: Thyssen-Bornemisza (Chief Executive, 1977–1984). 1984–1986: CEO, Commodore International Ltd. Died in February 2004.

Trubkin, Loene — 1973–1983: President, Data Courier, publisher of the business database ABI/INFORM. Data Courier was acquired by UMI in 1986. UMI changed its name to Bell & Howell Information and Learning in 1999 and to ProQuest in 2001.

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.

Wanger, Judy — 1972–1978: Creator and Manager, SDC Search Service. Since 1978: Cuadra Associates (currently Executive Vice President).

Wolpert, Sam — 1960: Founder and developer of the Predicasts system of indexing and the PROMT database, which went online with Dialog in 1972.

Wyszkowski, Andrew H. — 1970s–1998: various positions at Brief Reporter LLC, The Michie Company, Incon Associates, Inc., and BRS. 1999–2000: Various positions, West Group. 2001–2002: Chief Technology Officer, ProQuest Business Solutions. 2002–2003: Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, ProQuest Business Solutions and Senior Vice President and
General Manager, ProQuest Media Solutions. 2003–date: President, ProQuest Business Solutions.

 

What’s What: Names, Acronyms, and Abbreviations Mentioned in This Installment

ARL — Association of Research Libraries (http://www.arl.org). One hundred twenty-three leading research libraries located in North America currently make up membership in the nonprofit organization.

BCN — Biomedical Communication Network. See SUNY Biomedical Communication Network.

BCR — Bibliographic Center for Research (http://www.bcr.org). Nonprofit, multistate library cooperative, founded in 1935.

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.

BRS After Dark — Introduced in 1983 as an abbreviated version of BRS, offered at discount rates during evenings and weekends.

BRS/Colleague — Menu-driven, end-user version of BRS, introduced in 1984.

CA SEARCH: Chemical Abstracts — Chemical database, variously known as CA Condensates and Chem Abs; produced by the American Chemical Society.

Dumb terminal — Consists of a display screen and keyboard used to enter and transmit data from remote servers, minicomputers, or mainframes, but with hardly any processing ability. Dumb terminals have largely been replaced by personal computers.

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 — Educational Resources Information Center. 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).

FEDLINK — Federal Library and Information Network (http://www.loc.gov/flicc/fedlink.html). Consortium of federal libraries and information centers.

INCOLSA — Indiana Cooperative Library Services Authority (http://www.incolsa.net). Statewide network of libraries.

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.

New York Times Information Bank — Developed by John Rothman, Editor of the New York Times Index and Director of the Times Library and Information Services, in 1969. Commercialized as an online system in 1973.

Ovid — Founded in 1988. Primarily an online medical research database, Ovid is a wholly owned subsidiary of Wolters Kluwer Health.

Predicasts — Using Sam Wolpert’s detailed Predicasts indexing system, the PROMT (Predicasts Overview of Markets and Technology) database and F&S Index became two of the earliest sources of business information online. Ownership of PROMT has gone from Predicasts (Cleveland) to Information Access Company and now resides with Thomson Gale.

Psych Abstracts — Database produced by the American Psychological Association; now known as PsycINFO.

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).

Key Dates in the Genealogy of BRS

1966: Jan Egeland indexing monographic literature for BCN (Biomedical Communication Network), a project of SUNY and the National Library of Medicine.

1968: BCN goes online; Egeland later becomes Director of SUNY BCN.

1976, May: 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, June 6–10: BRS exhibits at the SLA Conference in Denver.

1976, June 14–17: BRS hosts an informal “spaghetti factory” meeting of medical librarians at the MLA Conference in Minneapolis.

1976, December: First BRS User Meeting in Syracuse, N.Y.

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, September: BRS sold by Egeland and Quake to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Group.

1981: Jan Egeland becomes President of BRS and Ron Quake moves to Thyssen-Bornemisza Information Technology Group.

1982: Jan Egeland retires and William Marovitz becomes President of BRS.

1982: 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.

1987: Martin Kahn, formerly President of BRS/Saunders, becomes President of BRS.

1989: BRS Information Technologies, serving the medical and academic library marketplace with more than 150 databases, acquired by Robert Maxwell and Macmillan Inc. from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Group. Jim Terragno becomes President of Maxwell Online, a division of Macmillan. Maxwell Online, Inc. announces planned incorporation of the ORBIT Search Service and BRS Information Technologies. BRS moves from Latham, N.Y. to McLean, Va.

1989: BRS/LINK (hypertext connection of databases; first application delivering full text) announced.

1991, October–November: Andrew Gregory becomes President of Maxwell Online. Robert Maxwell dies, empire descends into bankruptcy.

1992, October: Maxwell Online becomes InfoPro Technologies.

1994, March: BRS Online Products sold by InfoPro Technologies, a subsidiary of MHC Inc. (holding company for Macmillan Inc.), to CD Plus Technologies.

1995: CD Plus Technologies becomes Ovid.

1998: Ovid sold to Wolters Kluwer.

2001: SilverPlatter is purchased by Wolters Kluwer and is merged with Ovid.

 

BRS User Committees

From the founding of the SUNY Biomedical Communication Network in October 1967, there was an appointed User Board of library directors from various libraries in the Network. There was also a Subcommittee on Library Operations, made up of searchers, which advised on technical matters.

When BRS was founded in 1976, they appointed a User Advisory Board, comprised of library directors from the various library consortia that had group contracts with BRS. The User Board appointed members of the Technical Committee and the Database Committee. I felt privileged to serve on the Technical Committees for both organizations and on the User Board for BRS in the early 1980s. Through this committee work, I met a lot of smart, creative people who are still friends.

Interaction between searchers and programmers on these committees was really cooperative.

Programmers learned about the kind of refinements that made databases easier and more effective to use from the searchers who actually sat at the terminal. Searchers learned a lot about the inner workings of the software and how time-consuming and expensive it was to make the refinements they desired. Together, they set priorities for implementation. The Database Committee set priorities for the "wish list" of databases to be acquired by BRS and also made suggestions for searchable features of the databases.

The various user boards were always interested in keeping the best databases available at affordable prices and with the best features. To BRS, these committees were an integral part of their management.

–Ann Van Camp

 

Unabridged Pioneers

"What a wonderful mentoring group it was, when I was new and young, to be around all these dynamic women who said, 'We're going for it!' You know, we never thought we could fail. It never occurred to Jan Egeland that she might not succeed.... I have taken everything I learned at BRS and we do it here at Ovid."

Debbie Hull, BRS' 25th employee and later president and CEO of Ovid Technologies, Inc.

 

Further Reading

“About OCLC Management” (including a biography of Robert L. “Jay” Jordan), http://www.oclc.org/about/management/default.htm.

“About Ovid: Company History,” http://www.ovid.com/site/about/history.jsp?top=42&mid=43.

“About Ovid: Executives” (including a biography of Bette S. Brunelle), http://www.ovid.com/site/about/executives.jsp?top=42&mid=44.

“Andrew Wyszkowski appointed President of ProQuest Business Solutions, Bruce Rhoades named Senior Vice President, Strategy & Technology for ProQuest Company,” April 22, 2003, http://www.corporate-ir.net/ireye/ir_site.zhtml?ticker=PQE&script=461&layout=-6&item_id=403657.

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, 366.

Bourne, Charles P. and Trudi Bellardo Hahn, “New York Times Information Bank,” In A History of Online Information Services, 1963–1976, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 322–329.

“BRS Picture Story,” ONLINE, vol. 3, no. 2, March 1979, pp. 58–61.

Brunelle, Bette, “BRS Responds to Link ‘Tricks,’” ONLINE, vol. 14, no. 3, May 1990, p. 36.

Clancy, Stephen, “BRS/Saunders Colleague: An Information Service for Medical Professionals,” DATABASE, vol. 8, no. 3, June 1985, pp. 108–121.

“Executive Team [Daticon],” (including a biography of Carl O. Keil), http://www.daticon.com/about/execs/ceo.asp.

Gordon, Helen A., “The Inverted File, ONLINE Magazine 1977–1987: An Interview with ONLINE’s Creators, Jeff and Jenny Pemberton,” ONLINE, vol. 11, no. 1, January 1987, pp. 8–16.

“History and Milestones” (ProQuest), http://www.il.proquest.com/division/pub-history.shtml.

“InfoPro Technologies Sold and Divided; BRS to CD Plus, BRS Software to Dataware, ORBIT to Questel,” Searcher, vol. 2, no. 2, March 1994, pp. 12–14.

Kneale, Dennis, “Smith is Named to Commodore International,” The Wall Street Journal, January 18, 1984.

Marovitz, William and Jean-Paul Emard, “Future Online Systems: An Interview with BRS’ William Marovitz,” ONLINE, vol. 7, no. 3, May 1983, pp. 15–19.

“Marshall F. Smith, Company president, 74,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 11, 2004, p. B11.

Naito, Marilyn, “The 1990 BRS User Meeting,” Computers in Libraries, vol. 10, no. 6, June 1990, pp. 38–40.

Nesbit, Kathryn, “BRS/LINKs to the Future: Online Hypertext is Born,” ONLINE, vol. 14, no. 3, May 1990, pp 34–36.

O’Leary, Mick, “Maxwell Online at the Crossroads,” ONLINE, vol. 16, no. 3, May 1992, pp. 29–33.

Pemberton, Jeffery K., “ONLINE Interviews Marty Kahn, President, BRS,” ONLINE, vol. 12, no. 1, January 1988, pp. 13–19.

“The Printout—ONLINE News from a Decade Ago … January 1977,” ONLINE, vol. 11, no. 1, January 1987, pp. 21–22.

Provenzano, Dominic, “Where Are They Now?” [short profiles of Janet Egeland, Lloyd G. Palmer, Ron Quake, Loene Trubkin, Sam Wolpert, and others], ONLINE, vol. 11, no. 1, January 1987, pp. 25–42.

Van Camp, Ann J., “CD Plus: A New Home for BRS,” ONLINE, vol. 18, no. 5, September 1994, pp. 61–68 (includes sidebars “In Memoriam: Reflections on the BRS Era, 1976–1994” and “BRS Timeline”).

Van Camp, Ann J., “Memories of an Online Pioneer,” DATABASE, vol. 11, no. 5, October 1988, pp. 38–41.

Van Camp, Ann J. and Gertrude Foreman, “BIOSIS Previews & MEDLARS: A Biomedical Team,” ONLINE, vol. 1, no. 1, January 1977, pp. 24–31,40–42.

 


Susanne Bjørner is an independent consultant to publishers, authors, and librarians and writes about the information professions and industry. Contact her at Bjørner@earthlink.net.

Stephanie C. Ardito is the principal of Ardito Information & Research, Inc., a full-service information firm based in Wilmington, Delaware. Her e-mail address is sardito@ardito.com.


 

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