InFocus: A Profile of ProQuest

Article ImageWhen taking the ProQuest CEO job 2 years ago, Marty Kahn knew his main task would be forging one company out of two. Going in, he knew he had two aging technology platforms to modernize. He didn’t expect he’d be integrating yet a third important business into the mix, as he had to when ProQuest made the bold move of buying Dialog. "Two years ago? I didn’t expect we’d be buying Dialog 6 months ago!" he exclaimed as he finished up a meeting with Dialog’s advisory board.

Librarians consider several company names to be iconic: UMI (University Microfilms), CSA (Cambridge Scientific Abstracts), and Dialog are among them. In England, the name Chadwyck-Healey resonates, while Canadians recognize Micromedia as part of their econtent heritage. Then there are product names, such as ABI/INFORM, SIRS, and Ulrich’s. What do these have in common? They are all part of ProQuest.

While ProQuest is a familiar name in the information industry, the company has changed dramatically in the past 2 years, spurred by Cambridge Information Group’s purchase of ProQuest Information and Learning and the merging of CSA with ProQuest to form a new company with an old name. How old is ProQuest? That depends on how you count. UMI, which began as University Microfilms, started in 1938. You can trace today’s Digital Dissertations, Historical Newspapers, and full-text article databases in part to those early microfilm efforts. Acquisitions, such as Heritage Quest, Softline Information, and CultureGrams, have added significantly to the product mix. This year it bought RefWorks, a web-based research management company that nicely complements Community of Scholars (COS), and WebFeat, a federated search engine that ProQuest added to its Serials Solutions subsidiary.

Cambridge Scientific Abstracts launched in 1958, yet it is no stranger to acquisitions, which include Materials Information, Sociological Abstracts, and Papers Invited. In 2006, its investigations into deep indexing of nontextual materials in scientific articles resulted in a new product called Illustrata. With Illustrata, searchers can effectively find information previously hidden in graphs, charts, and other illustrations.

Dialog began as a project within Lockheed Missiles and Space in 1967 and took on paying customers outside Lockheed in 1972. Following a spate of other owners, ProQuest bought Dialog from Thomson Reuters in 2008 and now faces the challenge of bringing it into the 21st century.

ProQuest has long focused on serving academic and public libraries: Its extensive econtent archives—more than 125 billion digital pages—encompasses scholarly literature in all disciplines as well as newspapers, business magazines, and dissertations. Now it has the opportunity to reach out to corporate libraries with the addition of Dialog. In addition to revamping legacy systems, ProQuest will need to look at integrating serials analysis, collaborative workflows, and resource management with its content, as well as examine its content for potential overlaps and synchronicities.

Looking at the changes in ProQuest, the phrase "everything old is new again" seems apropos. The company sits on a vast amount of digital information, but the other side of that coin is the challenge of fully integrating it, rather than leaving it in silos. Another challenge is distributing it more widely. Certainly, the announcement that ProQuest will cooperate with Google to digitize newspapers and make them available on the web is a sign of forward thinking at ProQuest.

Kahn has been surprised by the attitudes of younger people, the K–12 crowd, toward information. "They live digitally; they don’t make the distinction between electronic and print that we do. They don’t even see a difference between video and text." he says. This will have important ramifications throughout the information industry as they mature, enter university, and join the work force. Permanence of data is not one of their beliefs.

"This is not a zero sum game," comments Kahn. "We will embrace how users behave, which means connecting more to the open web and to our competitors." Kahn is also committed to making the company more global and expects to add more non-English content.

As for the technology challenge, "We’re going to surprise people. We’ll get out there on the far edge—we want to be innovative in search, giving our customers everything they need to do their work."

Kahn is also quick to point out that industry stalwart ProQuest’s financial situation is healthy. "We’ve met all our financial targets," he says with pride. Being out of the public company sphere means the company can dispense with a quarterly mind-set and focus on long-term goals, a situation that obviously sits well with the present management.


Fun Fact: Although ProQuest is in the business of selling information, it’s not afraid to give some away. Started as a favor for a state consortium, the company’s free marketing toolkits have been created for public, academic, special, and even military libraries. 


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