75 years of connected and accessible knowledge

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This morning I received an invitation from ProQuest – suppliers of a number of our electronic resources including ProQuest Central – inviting me to join them to celebrate their 75th anniversary. I’d love to have gone but it’s in Germany. Still, the fact that ProQuest is 75 years old has got me thinking: in 1938, the idea of using electronic devices was a world away, surely. Or was it?

ProQuest started life as University Microfilms International (UMI). Founded by Eugene Power (1905-1993) in 1938, UMI proved to be an important organisation that under the direction of Power, during the Second World War microfilmed rare books and other printed material from British libraries to be sent to the United States. Not only was this a sound business activity – Power’s expenditure was minimal and the results of his microfilming were sold to academics – it was a way for American scholars to obtain research. Such was the importance of the work of UMI that in 1951, it was recognised as the official record for all American dissertations.

The history of ProQuest is fascinating, and from looking at a timeline of their history, it’s easy to see how the early days of microfilmed research and dissertations have transformed into the easily accessible, wide-ranging databases with which we are now familiar. A books on demand service was launched in 1958, which must have been state-of-the-art at the time. Smaller data/information providing companies were swallowed up by UMI (which was bought by Xerox in 1968 for a staggering $8 million), and by the 1980s, some familiar products were appearing in the development schedules. For example, in 1988, ABI/INFORM, which we now access online via ProQuest Central, appeared on CD-ROM. Indeed, UMI brought the world the very first abstracting and indexing database on CD-ROM at around the same time. Crucially, UMI created a Preservation Division, the aim of which was to ensure that intellectual output would not be lost to the material itself either being lost or degraded. To me, it is this function of UMI that we can see as one of the most relevant in today’s information landscape.

The 1990s saw a tremendous increase in the range and availability of online information – remember that the early 1990s saw the invention of the Internet as we know it – and perhaps not surprisingly represents a time of significant development for UMI, or Bell Howell as the company came to be known by the end of the decade. More and more databases were acquired, and electronic delivery of the material was dramatically improved. In 1996, the first web-based database became available, and in that same year, hundreds of digitised newspapers became available. The company finally came to be known as ProQuest in 2001, and the time between then and now has seen yet more development, both in terms of the variety of coverage in the databases and products available but also the ease of which that material can be accessed. The full history timeline of the last 75 years of ProQuest is available here.

It seems incredible that the enterprising activities of one man in 1938 has led to the development of online information that is connected, available and that aims to address many problems of digital preservation. Quite aside from this contribution to scholarly communication, he helped to buy the site of the Battle of Hastings to ensure that it would not be used for development. I wonder what he would make of electronic resources that are available today. We’ll never know. But what we do know, however, is that the 75 years from the foundation of UMI to the current ProQuest databases has been time of incredible development. Long may the development of connected knowledge continue.

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