H.W. Wilson reference books and indexes resided on library shelves long before people imagined an alternative universe in which reference materials were delivered in electronic format. Founded in 1898 by Halsey William Wilson, this historic company started with the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature and now creates some 80 research databases. Last week, the company was acquired by EBSCO Publishing (http://www.ebscohost.com) and will become a division of the larger company. Both Tim Collins, president of EBSCO Publishing, and Harry Regan, president and CEO of Wilson, stressed their belief that both companies believe this action will benefit customers, largely because of the quality of the databases and meticulous attention to indexing
According to Sam Brooks, EBSCO Publishing senior vice president, sales and marketing, “Wilson employees are now considered employees of EBSCO Publishing.” EBSCO did not buy the Wilson building, with its iconic lighthouse on the roof, in the Bronx. That facility will close and operations will be centralized in Ipswich, Mass. The EBSCO headquarters, said Brooks, “offers room for expansion and is the logical choice for streamlining physical operations. While not always easy, making fiscally-responsible decisions such as this will allow us [to] invest more resources into increasing the value of the products and services that we create, and keep costs in check for our mutual companies.” In line with this thinking, EBSCO will also close Wilson’s Dublin, Ireland, office as well. An article by Will Broaddus in SalemNews.com said that 30 new jobs would be added in Ipswich and “a yet-to-be determined number” of Wilson employees would relocate.
On the philanthropic side, the John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award and the Library Staff Development Grant will continue.
Co-operation and Competition
The companies are both competitors and business partners, a situation not uncommon in the information industry. Wilson databases are searchable via EBSCO Discovery Service and several of its databases are already loaded on the EBSCOhost platform. All the Wilson databases have been searchable on its own platform, WilsonWeb, an EBSCO competitor. With the acquisition, the WilsonWeb platform will disappear, probably by the end of 2011, when all the databases have fully migrated to the EBSCOhost platform. Loading of the databases onto the EBSCO product commenced immediately after the acquisition announcement
Wilson still prints books and EBSCO will continue to fill these subscriptions. Since EBSCO also owns book publisher Salem Press, that is a natural fit. However, given the increasing reluctance of libraries to purchase printed materials, titles seeing a decline in purchases could be discontinued. Amazingly, Wilson still has subscribers to its CD-ROM products. EBSCO will fulfill outstanding orders through December 2011 but will not take new or renewal orders for CD-ROMs
Databases and Super Databases
As for the databases, EBSCO and Wilson have several that cover the same subject areas. The plan is to merge these into “super databases” in the areas of art, education, humanities, applied science & technology, legal, library & information science, and biography. For example, Wilson's Art Index, Art Full Text, Art Abstracts, and Art Retrospective will combine with EBSCO’s Art & Architecture to form Art Source. Studying the chart supplied by EBSCO reveals that, for some topic areas, the source materials for the database hardly overlap at all. The Wilson art databases included 304 full text journals; EBSCO’s 381. Art Source will have 600. In other instances, however, there is more overlap. In the applied sciences, Wilson’s databases covered 222 full text journals compared to EBSCO’s 1,044. The Applied Science & Technology Source database will have 1,185 full text journals. The super database for library & information science will merge Wilson’s 184 full text journals with LISTA’s 339
The new Legal Source, according to the EBSCO chart, will contain 1,225 full text journals. It’s not clear where these are coming from, since Wilson’s database has 403 full-text journals and EBSCO has 419. Even with no overlap, that’s only 812 full text journals. Missing from the chart are business databases. EBSCO already uses a variation of the Business Source moniker for its coverage of this field and could easily incorporate Wilson’s business periodicals databases into that
Pricing for the databases will not change for existing Wilson customers. Brooks assured me that if EBSCO decided to discontinue a database, customers would be upgraded to an enhanced product at no extra charge. However, the super databases will cost more. Brooks stressed that they are upgrade options and that customers can choose whether to subscribe or not. At some future point, when full integration is achieved, I would not be surprised by price increases, particularly in light of the emphasis EBSCO management is putting on the enhancements it’s adding.
I asked Brooks about exclusivity. Will the Wilson databases be withdrawn from other hosts? He replied, “Outside of WilsonWeb, EBSCOhost has been the most common platform for H.W. Wilson databases for several years. There are only a select few vendors that provide access to a small number of Wilson databases and the number of subscribers is minimal. We will work with each vendor to determine the most appropriate relationship moving forward.”
Indexing and Metadata
The indexing talent at H.W. Wilson is exceptional and EBSCO will integrate the subject thesaurus and names authority file into EBSCO’s controlled vocabularies. “Upholding the integrity of the Wilson indexing is essential, and extending these attributes to EBSCOhost resources is a critical part of this venture,” comments Collins. On the Wilson side, Mark Gauthier, vice president of Indexing & Editorial Service, thinks this is a good decision. “EBSCO is really focusing on detailed editorial value to truly take its services to new levels,” he enthused.
Brooks is very enthusiastic about adding the WilsonWeb feature of matching keyword search queries against the existing controlled vocabulary and returning results from “use for” and “see also” terms. His example is Burma – Myanmar. Regardless of which word a searcher enters, the results will pull both free text uses of either word and the preferred controlled vocabulary term, in this case Myanmar (the official name of the country). This functionality will be added to all existing EBSCO-owned databases. It will also be applied to EBSCO Discovery Service.
Although the value of Wilson’s painstaking attitude toward indexing and database quality is beyond doubt, it never gained the market share needed to thrive in the current difficult economic climate. To many, the acquisition was a foregone conclusion—if not to EBSCO, then to another database vendor. Industry consolidation surprises no one these days.
Customers who weren’t fond of the WilsonWeb interface expressed glee that they could stop using it, while those who like it are faced with gaining proficiency on EBSCOhost. Several librarians expressed discomfort at the decrease in competition, with a concomitant fear that less competition will lead to increased prices, even while they acknowledged the inevitability of the takeover.
Both companies have been major players in the information industry for some time. It’s a significant coup for EBSCO to both buy out a competitor and add features to its existing product line with this acquisition.
Now, anybody want to buy a lighthouse in the Bronx? To accessorize a bridge in Brooklyn perhaps?