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Magazines > Searcher > July/August 2004
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Vol. 12 No. 7 — July/August 2004
Online Before The Internet, Part 7:
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

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.

Susanne Bjørner met with Jan Egeland in August 2000, in Saratoga Springs, New York, for an in-depth interview.

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 now.

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 services world."

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 tight group.

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 by users.

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'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.

Librarians' Response

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 we?"

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 in Syracuse.

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 something?

Silent 700s?

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 marketing.

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 done it.

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 market.

You knew who they were because you knew that field really well.

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 their organizations.

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 anybody."

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.

Advisory Committees

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 from?

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 many years.

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.

Software Technology

Now, you changed the BRS software somewhere along the line.

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?

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 together.

That was your intention? That's all you wanted to do?

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 Medicine.

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, 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, 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 bankruptcy.

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 Installment

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 firm.

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 Ohio
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 MEDLARS III.

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 Illinois.

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 started.

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 in 1974.

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 in 1898.

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 Questel-Orbit.

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).

Further Reading

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 2000 [

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 Association, vol. 67, no. 1, January 1979, pp. 15-24.

Egeland, Janet, “The Importance of User Education and Training in a Multi-Data Base Online
Information Network,” in Zunde, Pranas, ed., Information Utilities. Proceedings of the
American Society for Information Science, Washington, DC: ASIS, 1974, pp. 137-140.

Egeland, Janet, “In-Depth Indexing of Monography Literature for an On-Line Retrieval System,”
Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, vol. 60, no. 3, July 1972, pp. 432-438.

Egeland, Janet, “Negotiating for On-Line Data Base Services: The Vendor’s Viewpoint,” in Proceedings of the 1977 Clinic on Library Applications of Data Processing: Negotiating for Computer Services (James L. Divilbiss, ed.), Urbana-Champaign, IL: Graduate School of Library Science, University of Illinois, 1978, pp. 104-111.

Egeland, Janet, “The SUNY Biomedical Communication Network: Six Years of Progress in On-Line Bibliographic Retrieval,” Bulletin of the Medical Library Association, vol. 63, no. 2, April 1975, pp. 189-194.

Egeland, Janet, “User-Interaction in the State University of New York (SUNY) Biomedical
Communication Network,” in Interactive Bibliographic Search: The
User/Computer Interface (Donald E. Walker, ed.), Montvale, NJ: AFIPS Press, 1971, pp. 105-120.

“History of Innovation: Texas Instruments Announces New ‘Silent 700’ Portable Terminal” [

“History of the [SUNY] Health Sciences Library” [

“Index Medicus to Cease as Print Publication,” NLM Technical Bulletin, vol. 338, May-June 2004 [

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 [

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, 2002 [
(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 [

“Timeline History of SUNY Upstate Medical University” [].

Van Camp, Ann J., “Memories of an Online Pioneer,” Database, vol. 11, no. 5, October 1988, p. 38.


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

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


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