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History Lesson: ABI/Inform
by Marydee Ojala

EDITOR'S NOTE: This History Lesson is the first of a series on the background of some of the longest-lived and most prominent online products that shaped the information professionals' world. Many readers of ONLINE doubtless feel themselves perfectly conversant with online history, but newer practitioners may not be aware of the rich history behind their present searching activities. We're starting with ABI/INFORM, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2001, making it even older than ONLINE magazine.
It was the early 1970s when three graduate students—Dennis Auld, Greg Payne, and Jerry Dick—were working on an MBA project at Portland State University in Oregon. It sounded simple: find an innovative way to keep the management team at a local bank up to speed on their professional reading. Today we'd head straight to the Internet and one of the free current awareness sites, but that wasn't an option in 1971. Paper clipping services were the then state of the art.

Portland State's business librarian, Ann McMahon, steered the students to a group of Russian engineers at the Bonneville Power Administration who were running an information service for other engineers. In a 1988 interview by Nancy Garman ("An Inside Look at an Online Database: DATABASE Interviews ABI/INFORM's Dennis Auld," DATABASE, April 1988, pp. 50-56), Auld noted that the Bonneville service consisted of a computerized, weighted keyword system that matched abstracts of articles with user profiles. It ran on an IBM 1401, which was an 8K machine, and the program took up 7,999 bits.

The three discovered from the engineers that there was a database building project going on at the University of Wisconsin. However, when they contacted the students there, they discovered that the experiment, named Inform, had died. They did manage to obtain the Inform software, materials, and customer list. 


Setting up in business after they graduated from Portland State in June 1971, they named the company ABI/INFORM. The ABI stood for Abstracted Business Information and the INFORM recognized the Wisconsin project. The database, also named ABI/INFORM, consisted of abstracts of articles from a core list of business and management publications. Since these were business students, not library science students, they didn't start out with a controlled thesaurus. The abstracts were there, Greg Payne once told me, because he was so frustrated with Business Periodicals Index and its citation only format.

Helped by a bank loan, they sent out a direct mail piece expecting people to flock to their offer of a targeted weekly current awareness service. The response, to put in mildly, was dismal. In fact, it verged on the non-existent. One person who did find the idea interesting was Barry Bingham Jr., who had just become editor and publisher of the Louisville, Kentucky daily newspaper, The Courier-Journal.The Bingham family had established a media dynasty in Kentucky, beginning with the purchase of the flagship newspaper by Barry Jr.'s grandfather in 1918. His father took over in 1937 and expanded the family holdings into radio and television. Barry Jr. saw a future in digital information and decided to acquire ABI/INFORM. The Board of Directors voted 7-1 against the idea, but since the one affirmative vote was Barry Jr.'s, ABI/ INFORM became a Bingham company. ABI/INFORM was retained as the product name; the company was named Data Courier.


In September 1973, ABI/INFORM went live on the SDC ORBIT system. Three weeks later, it was added to Dialog as File 15, pioneering the nonexclusivity of sources in the online world. The exclusivity-nonexclusivity issue is not yet totally resolved, with businesspeople citing advantages on both sides. In fact, the arrival of the Internet has added fuel to the fire, as some publishers opt out of third-party distribution in favor of putting their material exclusively on their own Web sites.

Data Courier implemented controlled vocabulary terms in 1977, usinga terms list created by Warner-Eddison Associates. A complete revision of the terms, using automatic matching technology, happened in 1982. (For details, see Leone Trubkin's article, "Auto-Indexing of the 1971-77 ABI/INFORM Database," DATABASE, June 1979, pp. 60-64.) Stylistically, you can identify the earlier articles by the fact that the titles are completely in capital letters. The switch to upper and lower case happened in mid-1977. Full-text records began to be added in 1991, although three from December 1990 are also full text.

ABI/INFORM needed document delivery to back up its online presence. In a move still unprecedented in the online world, Data Courier made a deal with Bellarmine College. That academic institution agreed to house the journal collection in return for providing photocopies as needed by ABI/INFORM customers. Remember, this pre-dated full-text availability of journal articles online.

The Bingham family experienced major internal dissension in 1986, with Sallie Bingham, Barry Jr.'s sister, threatening to sell her shares to the New York Times. The familial squabbling, detailed in four books and numerous magazine articles, resulted in the entire media empire being put on the block. Among the first to be sold was Data Courier. It went to UMI,which is now known as ProQuest Information & Learning. 


Today ABI/INFORM contains close to 2 million documents, almost half of which are in full-text form. Document type has been added, allowing users to know that there are some unexpected elements to the database. Would you expect recipes in a business database? There are 34 records coded that way, but few of them contain the actual recipe, even though ABI/INFORM claims that 32 of the 34 are full text. Two records are coded for the Poetry document type (neither contain the actual poem), 36 for Performance Review (these are subdivided into Comparative, Favorable, Mixed, and No Opinion—don't reviewers ever dislike a show?), and 38 for Movie Reviews (five of these are Unfavorable). Although ABI/INFORM's editorial policy used to exclude Letters to the Editor, there are now nine documents coded as Letter.

Abstracts in ABI/INFORM have changed. Originally, it was a matter of principle to have informative abstracts that were about 150 words in length. Many times the abstract could effectively act as a stand-in for the full article. This was a great deal more important in the 1970s and early 1980s before the full text of articles could be easily obtained electronically. Today you will find abstracts that actually don't tell you very much. Take those two poetry records: the abstract simply tells you the article is a poem. One is about Microsoft and spam; the other is about Korean reunification. The recipe ones state that, "Recipes for xxx are presented." The abstract for Fortune's "The Global Power 50," (October 15, 2001) says, "The 50 most powerful women in international business are ranked." 

Part of the reason for the partial switch from informative to indicative abstracts is the length of the article. Shorter articles are being added to the database. How can you possibly justify writing a 150 abstract for an article that contains 164 words? It's particularly ridiculous if the record also includes the full text of the 164 words. The article I'm thinking of, "Rotary Aims for Younger Market with L1m Review," (Marketing, September 20, 2001), is representative of the shorter entries in ABI/INFORM. Its abstract reads, "Luxury watchmaker Rotary Watches is reviewing its UK advertising, worth around L1m, in a bid to target a younger age group.

From its origins as a graduate student project, ABI/INFORM has grown into a major business database. Its presence not only on traditional third-party distributors such as Dialog, DataStar, Ovid, and OCLC, but on the ProQuest system itself, guarantees wide access to its abstracts and journal articles. Although there have been mild directional changes over the past 30 years, ABI/INFORM has the stability and longevity that gives hope to information professionals in these times of failing dot com companies.

Marydee OjalaMarydee Ojala ( is editor of ONLINE and has been searching ABI/INFORM since 1976. 

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