Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Alice Sizer Warner

Nineteen years ago, in February 1976, the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science ran an editorial entitled "The Answer is Yes: Information Brokers Can Succeed" and a 10-page article titled "Information Brokers: Who, What, Why, How," both by then-editor, Lois F. Lunin. In the article, nine information brokers (see accompanying story) from seven organizations answered questions about their businesses and themselves. I was one of them.

Lunin's research began at the 1974 ASIS Annual Meeting in Atlanta, which was the first professional meeting I'd ever attended. Just the year before, I had received my Masters of Library Science degree from Simmons College and started an information service. At ASIS '74 I was on a panel that focused on information brokering, I was interviewed by Lois (which made me feel incredibly important) and I prowled the ASIS exhibits.

The article that you are reading now is the result of serendipity of human memory. When I read about plans for this special issue of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, I remembered Lois Lunin's earlier article and her questions, and I even found a carbon (remember carbons?) of my written answers. I telephoned Simmons, where current students consulted 1970's paper indexes for bibliographic clues. ASIS headquarters used these clues to unearth the February 1976 Bulletin ("a green cover," I remembered). ASIS FAXed the 1976 material to Janet Gotkin, editor of this special section on information brokers, and Janet re-FAXed the material to me.

Looking Back

In Lois' 1976 article, an information broker was defined as "an individual or organization who - on demand - seeks to answer questions using all sources available and who is in business for a profit." (We early brokers disliked that term on demand, saying that no one "demanded" that we do anything - we had to beat the bushes for customers.)

Rereading Lois' article, I was struck by how most of us then were trying to be everything to everyone. An industry leader in 1976 called his firm an "information clearinghouse;" we provided "a variety of services," "information in any form" to "anyone who needs us." I myself was guilty of saying "We'll do anything with information except to falsify it." We "did bibliographies," we provided "back-dated clipping services," we "counted citations."

Today's information brokers are infinitely more focused than we were in early days. Today's brokers know exactly what they are selling and to whom. They've segmented the market, they specialize.

We charged for our services then, as now, with difficulty: by the hour, by the job, by retainer, by subscription. Charges in 1976 ranged every bit as widely as they range today. We still agonize over slow-pays, no-pays and seekers of free advice.

We found customers then as we do now: any way that works. Most still agree that repeats, referrals and word-of-mouth are best. Radio advertising was tried in the 1970's, brochures got and continue to get mixed reviews. Articles by us and about us in all manner of publications still draw inquiries and clients.

Size of firm? Answers ranged from "no employees except myself" to 25 full-timers. Many spoke of "banks" of part-timers, runners, consultants. Today's information companies, which literally come in all sizes, speak more formally of "sub-contractors."

When asked about information resources, many queried by the ASIS Bulletin in the 1970's were developing voluminous in-house information files. We also depended heavily on access to libraries - and we and the libraries that we used worried a lot about how to keep peace with each other. Today's information brokers confess that they "sometimes forget" to check print sources (both in their own offices as well as in libraries), as "we are so used to being online."

Although the word copyright does not appear in the 1976 article, there is discussion of "who owns" the information obtained for a client and agreement that what the client is really buying is a broker's skills, not information itself.

How did information brokers get started, where did we get start-up money? Answers varied, of course. Most start-ups were self-financed and self-designed: we essentially invented our businesses from scratch. Little had been written about what we were doing, we had few guidelines.

We were asked, finally, what advice we would give to someone interested in becoming an information broker. Obviously, the advice then (as does today's advice) ran the full gamut: work hard, it takes money to make money, be able to weather a slow start, fewer big jobs are better than more little ones, keep overhead low, be well trained and experienced, treat your customers well, run your business like a business.

Looking Ahead

The reminiscence in the February 1976 ASIS Bulletin tells about how we were 19 years ago. The articles in this issue look at us today and help us begin to look ahead.

What will our information world be like 19 years from now, in the year 2014? I don't know; I can only guess.

At information exhibits in the early 1970's one "counted terminals" and there were, as I remember, four terminals at ASIS '74 in Atlanta. One exhibitor with a terminal, who represented a newspaper databank, got into fisticuffs with an information broker over the issue of the broker's proposal to install a newspaper databank terminal at his own office, to "broker" searches, and "sell results to customers." "Never!" said the exhibitor, "It's the future!" said our information broker.

What will exhibits look like in 2014? Will there actually be exhibits? Will we physically transport our bodies to annual meetings? Who knows.

I suspect in the year 2014 magazines like the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science will not be printed on paper and sent to ASIS members via U.S. mail. Access to back issues, such as this one, will be, presumably, almost fully electronic.

Whatever we information professionals are up to in 2014 - including and in spite of human memory and serendipity - I trust we'll know what we're doing. And I hope I'll be around to see it all.

Alice Sizer Warner is with The Information Guild, Lexington, Massachusetts.

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