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Magazines > Online > Sep/Oct 2004
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Online Magazine
Vol. 28 No. 5 — Sep/Oct 2004
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 president—Gordon 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 All."

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.


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 content—and 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 emerges—moving 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 stool—periodical aggregation, primary research, and proprietary information—the 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 information professionals.

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 appropriate.


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 deal—xreferplus 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 Google—it'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."


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 is—perhaps 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 []. 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 MeL—the 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 NYUOnline—what 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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