Stephen Arnold took a conversation he and a few of our colleagues had and wrote more about it in his Beyond Search blog. “Thoughts about Commercial Databases: 2013” is worth a review and I’ve added a few of my own thoughts here for your consideration.

The conclusion of our discussion is summed up nicely  by Arnold in that the digital future of information companies is gloomy and his post outlines a few familiar names in the world of libraries.

  • Ebsco Electronic Publishing (everything but the kitchen sink coverage)
  • Elsevier (scientific and technical with Fast Search in its background)
  • ProQuest (everything but the kitchen sink coverage plus Dialog)
  • Thomson Reuters (multiple disciplines, including financial real time info)
  • Wolters Kluwer (mostly legal and medical and a truckload of individual brands)

During our discussion the questions was posed, how can database companies grow? The short answer is their are no obvious growth patterns beyond acquiring other information publishers. A point that caused one in the group to say, eventually the beasts will begin eating themselves because of the hunger when there is no fresh meat. Amusing and yet frightening.

Arnold quotes “Why Acquisitions Fail: The Five Main Factory by Pearson Education” to explain the key factors in why acquisitions result in problems rather than soaring success.

The fact that library budgets continue to shrink, open access continues to grow and  large database companies fail to adjust business models for these realities causes deep concern for the researcher in me. As Arnold states:

The business model for these firms has been built on selling “must have” information to markets who need the information to do their job. The reason for the stress on this group of companies is that the traditional customers are strapped for cash or have lower cost alternatives.

Other concerns abound as well. As libraries continue to limit access to physical collections thanks to the value of library real estate, strain is placed on the serendipity of browsing researchers. Digital research presents its own challenges. It often leaves one feeling as though they have retrieved a a good match but is it really the best and is it complete? When you add in that many of today’s students, even those training to be librarians,  do not successfully distinguish between source and provider in the electronic age, the concerns for access, understanding and knowledge abound.

While Arnold concentrates on the outlook of commercial databases and even suggests that an acquisition by Google to monetize the content with ads could be a shift in the future of information publishing, there are other concerns to ponder.  Curated content has a future, but what that future holds in terms of commercial versus open access is yet to be thought out in light of what Arnold suggests as the trend for 2013 commercial databases.

Those who think that public search companies are keeping the archive of all digital information are in for a rude awakening. Librarians and information professionals need to get beyond teaching people how to search. As professionals, we have a duty to understand the business pressures of our information suppliers, free or fee, and what those pressures do to the availability of yesterday’s information in today’s reality of right now access.

Information professionals must think about and prepare for the inevitability of lost information. The Way Back Machine may be expanding their database but they are not archiving the complete history of companies that are no longer in business. Think about the number of start-ups that are no longer around, who were the corporate officers, what was their credit history? The gaps in corporate information mean that there will be gaps in ongoing competitive intelligence.

This is a simple issue on the surface with unfolding complexities that warrant thought and planning and action. Just as the burning of the Timbuktu library means of loss of valuable information, so too do the cost pressures and lack of access and exposure to digital data.

Innovation on the commercial side seems nearly impossible. Curation and access on the public search side is limited by the ability for providers to drive their profit in light of their own business models. Open access is being challenged to the point where advocates such as Aaron Swartz ends his own life. The Library of Congress is archiving Twitter when they may be better serving the longevity of knowledge and information by archiving the “free” information on the world wide web.

Of course, the practical part of me that understands that daily life grinds on no matter what understands that this is a good intellectual argument. In the long run will this have a significant impact on daily life? Probably not. It is something that when I think about the history of knowledge and culture, gets my mind whirling. Business will do what businesses do, libraries will do what libraries do and maybe just maybe the digital gaps won’t cause overwhelming repetition of mistakes.

Either way, it is fun to think and share and get input from intelligent colleagues.

Constance Ard, January 30, 2013