Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why ProQuest Bought ebrary

The New York Times
Take a look at the New York Times homepage. Then take a look at or MSNBC. How do you tell which website belongs to a newspaper and which ones belong to a television network? All of them have video. All of them have text. All of them have blogs and forums. As media moves onto the internet, the boundaries between old media genres begin to blur, and new forms emerge, optimized for the purposes they're being used for.

Just as delivery of news is being transformed by the Internet, the needs of students, researchers, and scholars are driving a similar boundary-blurring transformation in libraries. It's also driving a transformation in the companies that serve the library industry.

Marty Kahn, President of ProQuest, used the Times-CNN analogy to explain to me why his company had acquired ebrary, a leader in providing ebooks to academic, corporate, and other libraries. It no longer makes sense for a company to specialize in only journal articles, databases, or eBooks if it wants to be able to provide coherent and evolving solutions.

A look at ProQuest's existing product suite bears that out. With full-text journal databases, newspapers, dissertations, historical archives and government documents (including the CIS division recently acquired from LexisNexis) ProQuest was already able to integrate an impressive array of content. The Summon service from ProQuest's SerialsSolutions unit, which centrally indexes a library's content, has experienced rapid growth, with sales at 200 institutions already. Still, the most common questions that Summon staff were fielding at ALA Midwinter surrounded the integration of ebooks into Summon. With the acquisition of ebrary, ProQuest can now answer that question authoritatively for at least one ebook vendor. (See my previous article focusing on Overdrive.)

Somehow, the topic of EBSCO and their recent acquisition of NetLibrary hardly came up in my talk with Kahn.  We spent a lot more time discussing Google. Between Google Search, Google Scholar and Google Books, Google also has the potential to present a comprehensive information solution for libraries. I often hear librarians expressing the sentiment that they need help from companies like ProQuest to present credible alternatives to Google and free sources available on the internet.

One thing Summon and other library search solutions have lacked is the ability to search the full text of the books in a library's collection. Put next to Google Books' full text plus metadata search, the metadata based search offered by a traditional library catalog can seem rather limited to most users. ebrary will bring with it a huge library of full-text book content for search within Summon.

ebrary was founded by high school friends Christopher Warnock and Kevin Sayar. Libraries were the focus from the very start. Warnock had left a job at Adobe Systems and was working on a project for Stanford University when Stanford University Librarian Mike Keller told him that in order to get paid, he had to incorporate. Warnock called up his friend Sayar, then an attorney at the legendary Silicon Valley law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and asked if he wanted to act on their high school dreams of starting a company together. The project at Stanford led to the conception of ebrary's initial service for libraries. (I've often heard the misconception that ebrary is somehow an Adobe funded spin-off, because of Warnock's father's role as a Founder of Adobe. In fact, Adobe and the elder Warnock had no role in starting ebrary.)

Warnock has always been passionate about ebrary's mission. "If every library acquired information digitally, all the worlds information would be free to everybody", he told me. He is genuinely excited about what ebrary will be able to do as part of ProQuest. "Being part of ProQuest will allow us to realize our dreams".

Those dreams include the creation of a vast digital library with all kinds of content. ProQuest has "billions" of PDF documents, according to Warnock; ebrary's PDF indexing and search technologies are considered to be unsurpassed anywhere. Although ProQuest is not known for ebook distribution, there's not much difference between a book and a dissertation, if you think about it. ProQuest distributes 70,000 of those every year.

ebrary has also been an innovator in business models as well as in technology. ebrary's initial model was to make ebooks available for free viewing; rights-holders were compensated using a micro-transaction model where subscribers were charged every time they did things such as print pages. Based on customer feedback, they shifted to a model where most content is available for use with on flat subscription. Fee. This year, they've begun to implement a patron-driven acquisition model.

Looking forward, Sayar will be running the ebrary business unit; Warnock will move to ProQuest to work on strategy. Given the ambitious vision outlined by Kahn, he has his work cut out for him.

The ebrary content platform has definitely gained some ardent advocates in libraries. I heard one librarian say "not only do we love ebrary, but our students love ebrary. They really do." At the end of the day, when we ask ourselves how libraries will respond to the dizzying changes in both information and economic landscapes and worry about what will happen, isn't love all we really need?

1 comment:

  1. Nicely done, Eric. Good to see you again in San Diego.