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Delores Meglio and the Information Generations

Interviewed by Marydee Ojala in ONLINE: Exploring
Technology & Resources for Information Professionals

Delores Meglio is a survivor, an online information industry survivor. She was profiled on the pages of ONLINE two decades ago (“ONLINE Interviews Delores Meglio of Information Access Company,” by Jeffery K. Pemberton, July 1987, pp. 17-24). Characterized then as an online pioneer, she hasn’t ceased her pioneering activities in the intervening years. Given all the twists and turns in the information industry, she’s seen a lot of changes. “I’ve been through generations in the development of the information industry,” she told me in May 2009, when we sat down to reminisce and look forward during the Enterprise Search Summit East conference.

Meglio is now Vice President, Publisher Relations for Knovel. But she can trace her career back to 1963, when she was hired as a serials assistant in Bell Labs’ technical library, checking in physical copies of magazines. She then moved to a records management position at the New York Port Authority, subject classifying corporate documents. From there it was records management at NBC.

Where Meglio really got in on the ground floor of then nascent “computerized information business” (as she phrased it in 1987), was when she joined the New York Times company as an abstractor in 1969. Progressing through the ranks, she became managing editor of the New York Times Information Bank—which still exists in the LexisNexis NEWS Library as the INFOBK File. That was before full text was widely available; the Information Bank held abstracts of articles that appeared in The New York Times.

Queen of Full Text

In 1983, Meglio moved to California to join Information Access Company (IAC), where its president, Morris (Morry) Goldstein, dubbed her “the queen of full text.” It was the early 1980s when the move from abstracted and indexed electronic sources to full text intensified. That was a technological generation shift. Bandwidth continued to expand, allowing for greater storage capability. Hence, information industry companies added more and more full text.

Authority control was on the radar for Meglio at that time. IAC’s proprietary system enabled automated corrections. If an indexer entered an incorrect subject descriptor, the system would either automatically replace it with the correct descriptor or toss it back to the indexer if there was no obvious thesaurus term. Come to think of it, many of today’s systems use similar automated systems, although on more modern computers. In fact, during Meglio’s tenure in California, she migrated the production system from proprietary systems to client server technology.

IAC was acquired by Ziff Davis in 1980, and then sold to Thomson in 1994. In 1998, Thomson merged IAC, Gale Research, and Primary Media to form Gale Group, headquartered in Ann Arbor. That entity is now owned by Cengage.

Mobile Culture

Meglio decided to head back East in the late 1990s, leaving IAC with the title Senior Vice President, Content Development Division. She devoted her time après IAC to smaller, privately-held companies that were creating technologically advanced electronic products aimed, not at the library market, but a more general audience. One, for a health website, resulted in a joint venture with Henry Schein, the largest distributor of medical products in the U.S.

She still delights in a cultural database she built that covered all forms of the arts—museums, dance, opera, symphonies, theatre—as events that could be put on travelers’ mobile devices and sold into hotels to inform people as to what they could do when they weren’t in business meetings. Not only did Meglio license data, create a web-based production system, arrange for museum updates and cultural feeds, and identify data extraction software, she negotiated with National Geographic to put thumbnails of its photos with the database. It was an example of an early adoption of mobile technology and the marriage of traditional databases with new markets. Yet another generation of the evolving information industry.

Next Generation Full Text

In 2003, a former IAC executive approached Meglio on behalf of Knovel, a producer of full text technical reference materials for applied science and engineering. Knovel needed someone who understood electronic information, databases, and licensing. Hired by CEO Chris Forbes, Meglio quickly moved into a new area for her—science and technology—and another generation of full text information, one that enabled searching across both textual and numeric information. Numbers are critical to the research done by engineers, scientists, and others with a technical bent.

The data Meglio licenses is both from major publishers of reference books and from associations. At the moment, Knovel provides access to almost 2,000 reference works from over 40 international publishers. “We look for publishers with specialty content, some of whom have never before licensed their content for electronic distribution. It takes time to explain the benefits to them.”

Upon joining Knovel, Meglio found it a challenge to explain what the company did, particularly to the publishers whose data she wanted to license. Knovel isn’t a static publisher. Subscribers can not only search for scientific and technical data, they can manipulate that data, change property values, perform calculations, display it the way they want to see it, and alter their suppositions. Knovel isn’t a typical ebook publisher. It’s a different model. It has interactive tables where searchers can show or hide rows and columns, move them around, and download to an Excel spreadsheet. Knovel’s equation plotter lets searchers pick the values that interest them and export that to Excel as well. The interactive nature of Knovel “makes data come alive,” explained Meglio.

Knovel Novelty

Early on, the novelty of Knovel became a selling point. Meglio recalls visiting an association publisher for her first licensing assignment. Settling down to demonstrate the system, she admitted she was no expert in engineering, the association’s major focus, but did understand information. As she showed the interactive tools, the publisher became very intrigued. “Can I sit there?” he asked and took over the keyboard from Meglio. Completely engaged, he was delighted to find answers to his questions. “The system just sold itself,” grinned Meglio. “It’s the right data coupled with the right software tools.”

She also found that Knovel’s customers are very detail oriented. They need precision and they don’t want to be sent to an answer; they don’t want to be referred to a source. They want the answer delivered to them. That’s a very different setting from what she experienced at the Information Bank or IAC. “Abstract and index databases indicate where to find information,” she said. “With Knovel, we give you the information you need.” Harking back to her “A&I” days, Meglio acknowledges that abstracts are an excellent avenue to an overview, particularly when the topic is a new area for the researcher. It’s also geared towards executives who lack the time for an in-depth review. Generally speaking, that’s not Knovel’s core audience.

Meglio is struck by how professionals in different scientific disciplines and companies have diverse approaches to research. Knovel’s customers come mainly from the corporate world—chemical, oil and gas, aerospace, pharmaceutical, civil engineering, construction, manufacturing, and food science companies. However, about 20% are academic and 10% government. Knovel spans some 20 different scientific subject areas, leading to some interesting cross-disciplinary discoveries. She cites the example of a mechanical engineer who found the answer to his problem in a food science text, not the first place he would think to look. Although open access has received much attention, she’s finding no pushback to Knovel’s information, probably because open access concentrates on journal articles while Knovel supplies reference data from handbooks, encyclopedia, manuals, and other reference books, as well as databases.

Full Text Czarina

If Meglio was considered the queen of full text in the 1980s, I think she must now be a czarina. As the information industry shifted to web delivery, the possibilities of full text expanded. No longer limited by bandwidth or storage constraints, full text not only expanded in quantity but in definition. Full text is no longer merely text. It’s numbers, images, maps, charts, graphs, tables, even formulae, equations, and computer source code.

Some things remain the same. Meglio says, “It’s no joke what happens behind the scenes.” The data she licenses does not simply appear on the screen the day after the contract is signed. It must be massaged to fit the Knovel software and be searchable in aggregations with the other sources Knovel offers. And then there’s people. “Creating products, whatever generation we’re talking about, still requires people. Knovel has a robust taxonomy, but human beings are needed to oversee it.”

Meglio also reminds me that some questions regarding full text haven’t changed. “What is the real cost? Who are you trying to reach with your data? Who are you reaching?” When talking with publishers, she needs to reinforce the value of aggregation, that they benefit from being associated with other publishers.

Still at the Infancy Stage

With four decades in the information industry and more than four generations of information products, Delores Meglio has seen business models come and go. She’s watched technology improvements and seen some technologies that never gained traction. Innovation, in her opinion, isn’t ending. The information industry is still in its infancy.

The two trends she’s looking at? “I’m really excited about the integration of technology and content. It’s no longer about mounting a source; it’s embedding that information with software that allows searchers to perform interactive activities.” Looking further ahead, it’s the new technologies, particularly 3-dimensional ones that let searchers visualize answers in 3D and create things that couldn’t have been done in the past. Having survived the information industry’s first infancy, Meglio is looking forward to many more generations of information.

About the Author

Marydee Ojala (Marydee@xmission.com) edits ONLINE, a journal that spans almost as many information generations as Delores Meglio (dmeglio@knovel.com).

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