v23 #5 ATG Interviews Tim Babbitt and Kevin Sayar

SVP Platform Management, ProQuest and President & General Manager, ebrary

by Tom Gilson  (Associate Editor, Against the Grain)  <gilsont@cofc.edu>
and Katina Strauch  (Editor, Against the Grain)  <kstrauch@comcast.net>

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ATG:  Can you both tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you got started in the Research/information business?  What is it about the business that keeps you so interested and involved?

TB:  I’m Tim Babbitt, Senior Vice President of ProQuest Platforms.  I’m responsible for innovation in the content and tools ProQuest creates to support users across the entire lifecycle of their research.  Before joining ProQuest, I was Chief Information Officer at JSTOR/Ithaka.  That position prepared me very well for what I’m doing for ProQuest.  While I was there, I oversaw the launch of the new JSTOR delivery platform across three data centers and re-engineered the data center infrastructure for improved reliability, security, and performance.  My roots are in academics.  I’ve been on the business school faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  I also taught at the University of Pittsburgh as well as the Management of Technology Organizations program at Carnegie Mellon University.  That experience in teaching, research, and collaboration has been absolutely invaluable in my current role.

What keeps me interested is the evolving nature of research and teaching, and the way we can support and enrich both through our content and interconnections.  We’re moving into a time when the “container” the content comes in — the book, the newspaper, the journal — is no longer the focus.  It’s all the ideas in and around the “container” and the connections between those ideas that are becoming surfaced that’s the key.  My job is more interesting every day because I’m looking at how we make those connections apparent to the user.

KS:  And I’m Kevin Sayar, President and General Manager of ebrary.  I’m also its Co-founder and spent many years nurturing it from idea stage to what I can proudly say is its leading position in the industry.  Prior to ebrary, I worked with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati (WSGR), considered the U.S. leader in high technology start-up representation.  While I was there I provided legal research and analysis on corporate securities litigation, intellectual property, and technology transactions.  While I always had an interest in the information industry, my work at WSGR really developed it.

However, it was while I was attending law school at California Western School of Law that I honed my skills in start-ups.  While I was in school I acted as an independent consultant to businesses in early-stage development. I specialized in strategic market penetration, business development, and copyright issues on the Internet.

It’s an exciting time to be in the business.  The information industry is inherently interesting because it’s continually changing and evolving, with social media, mobile, new ways to share and acquire information.  For us at ebrary, we’re in the middle of a market that is still very fresh — the majority of books are still only available in print.

ATG:  Can you give us a little of the history of how ProQuest’s acquisition of ebrary came about?  What were the driving factors that persuaded both companies to pursue the deal?

TB:  Speaking from the ProQuest perspective, we wanted to add high-quality eBooks to the range of content we’re offering users.  But, to be blunt, we didn’t want just any  eBook company.  We didn’t look to see which companies were on the market, but which companies could add the most to the ProQuest family.  We wanted a partner that could add not only content, but just as importantly, a partner that would bring imagination and innovation.  Clearly, ebrary was and is leading on all these fronts — high-quality content, user-oriented delivery models, and consistently superior technology.

KS:  ebrary wasn’t looking to be acquired — when you’re achieving 30% year-over-year increases in revenue and usage, finding a buyer isn’t the number one item on your to-do list.  But, as we got to know ProQuest, the fit became more and more apparent.  There are a lot of synergies between the companies because we’re serving similar markets, but also our approaches to the business are similar:  deep respect for the role of libraries in the process of research, continually innovate and invest, keep users in the driver’s seat, make life easy for customers.

ATG:  What type research/information future does this point to for your different customer bases?

TB:  We worked very quickly to integrate ebrary content into the ProQuest research environment.  In fact, it ended up being surprisingly easy, and we were testing linking technology between the ebrary and ProQuest environments within five months of the acquisition.  It feels eerily like it was just meant to be.  Kevin mentioned similar approaches to innovation and investment — we saw a very important synergy in our technological architectures.  Both research environments are built for interoperability so that as new opportunities come on the horizon we can quickly embrace them.  Because of that, connecting ebrary and ProQuest was simple and seamless.

KS:  That’s very significant for customers: bringing ebrary and ProQuest content together will reduce the “rigidity of format,” which is more of an obstacle than it should be to researchers.  We believe patrons are less concerned about format and more concerned about finding the most relevant combination of authoritative information for their research as simply as possible.  This is our goal with the consolidation:  We will provide the best available combination of information to patrons in a single environment.

ATG:  Kevin, are you talking of the “rigidity of format” in terms of end product i.e., search results?  Or will these advances in electronic publishing and delivery recast formats so they are indistinguishable at their inception?  How far do you think the breakdown in format will go?  Tim, what do you think?

KS:  Yes, users will find many ways to arrive at the content in terms of discovery, and putting information in silos — storing book content separately from, say, journal articles — adds no real value to the research experience.  We add more value in the experience of reading and re-using the content.  The fewer obstacles we put in front of them — like making them search formats separately, the more fluid the research experience becomes.

TB:  I think it’s both. I completely agree with Kevin’s point, and at the same time see the exploding of content into its atomic parts as critical going forward.  Doing so allows a number of things, including the enhancement of the parts, or recomposing the content for various devices and experiences.  We ultimately need to make the content available when, where, and how the user wants it.

ATG:  In an early press release, former ProQuest CEO Marty Kahn said that the acquisition of ebrary would not only “enhance eBook discovery for ProQuest platform users,” but will enable “imaginative technology mash-ups that will energize users and accelerate the knowledge industry.”  What type of imaginative technology mash-ups was he referring to?

TB:  There are a couple of levels of “mash-up” we will be enabling through the combination of ProQuest and ebrary.  On one level, we continue to expand and bring together a significant corpus of primary and secondary sources.  Here, we’re making the transition from the focused discovery of “containers” of information — like books, monographs, and journal articles — to one that goes into the container and exposes the network of relationships inside and across those formats.  An example of this is that we will show the intellectual genealogy of the ideas being articulated in our corpora through deep citational analysis.  We’ll also foster the research process by associating related data and artifacts to the final scholarly works.  The bottom line is we’ll surface more and more results for the users, always relevant, but previously hidden.

KS:  On another level, we will be bringing together tools and workflows that support a new digital research environment.  Capabilities of ebrary (like Dash! and annotation), RefWorks, COS and ProQuest, when brought together can enable mash-up opportunities driven by the user.  This is truly exciting because it can change how the work of research is done in ways we never have envisioned.  Using the term “Web 2.0” is passé these days, but the concept is not — putting the users in control is as fresh and essential as ever.  Our role is to provide the tools that empower the users

ATG:  Tim, Can you clarify what you mean by “deep citational analysis”?  Is it similar to what others refer to as semantic indexing?  Kevin, what does DASH enable users to do?

TB:  Certainly!  What I mean by “deep citational analysis” are the techniques that examine the citational relationships leading to the identification of things like literature streams, identification of incremental versus seminal works, the relationships of research streams, and the identification of “schools of thought.”  Scholars can often “connect the dots” on these patterns as they go through the literature, and these techniques can efficiently get them there.

KS:  DASH! is available to librarians and is a tool that differentiates ebrary in the market.  It allows libraries to easily upload, integrate, and share their own digital content.  DASH! can be used to create highly interactive databases of special collections, government documents, reports, internal documentation, and literally any document in PDF or that can be turned into PDF.  Once created, libraries can make these hand-crafted collections openly available or limit them to their institutions.

ATG:  That same early press release also noted that “ultimately, as part of the ProQuest family, ebrary will be positioned to drive new levels of eBook discovery and usage.”  How? When will this take place?

KS:  It’s taking place right now — 70,000 ebrary eBooks from Academic Complete are now discoverable in the ProQuest environment.  This pre-release capability is available to a set of libraries that have ProQuest Central, ProQuest Research Library, or ProQuest 5000.  These are rich, cross-disciplinary products that Academic Complete’s selection of eBooks — a critical mass of the most popular eBooks in academic libraries — can significantly enhance.  The full product release will be available later this year, and it’s really just the beginning.

TB:  We know that libraries want to maximize the discovery and usage of their electronic resources by end users, so we are working to use the full range of ProQuest’s products and services to drive awareness of a library’s entire ebrary eBook collection.  Over the last part of the year and into 2012, we plan to expand eBook discovery more broadly throughout the ProQuest environment and across the family of ProQuest products, from Serials Solutions Summon service and 360 products to Bowker’s Books In Print and Syndetic Solutions.  We also plan to create a number of new products in the coming year that will offer eBooks alongside other ProQuest content to create new solutions for academic researchers.

ATG:  Can you explain the “nuts and bolts” of how ebrary will integrate into ProQuest?  Are we talking about some form of federated searching or real integration where searchers are searching one mega-database?

TB:  ProQuest acquired ebrary because of the strength of its products and its technology.  We feel that our integration approach should take advantage of the best of ebrary and the best of ProQuest.  This means real integration and one unified search: one search leads users to ebrary’s eBook content side-by-side with journals, newspapers, and other ProQuest documents.  From there, users can view the book, take notes, or make highlights using ebrary tools or take advantage of My Research and the social networking tools from ProQuest.

KS:  Over time, we’ll bring together research tools and user accounts between the two environments.  Your readers are probably already thinking about how neatly ebrary’s popular InfoTools and DASH! capabilities will fit with ProQuest content sets.  In fact, look for some upcoming announcements about the new products that will use ProQuest content together with ebrary research tools.

ATG:  How will the acquisition affect the existing corporate cultures of the two companies?  How will personnel be affected?  Will the staff of ebrary maintain a separate identity?  Overall will staff be added?  Let go?

KS:  As we mentioned earlier, we found a lot of synergies between the companies and certainly a lot of shared values.  There are some cultural differences, but we feel the cross-pollination of the two cultures will benefit everyone.

TB:  ProQuest greatly values ebrary’s entrepreneurial spirit and agile approach to its business — that’s what has allowed the company to move quickly in an exceptionally dynamic market.  We don’t want to change that.  In fact, we will look to apply some of these best practices more broadly across other parts of the ProQuest businesses.  The ebrary brand also has a very positive association with customers and end users.  It is important for us to continue to evolve and leverage this brand strength.  While associations with ProQuest will deepen, ebrary staff will continue to focus on the ebrary goal to become the predominant supplier of eBooks to libraries.

KS:  And, we’ll continue to leverage and connect the companies in ways that take advantage of the best of what each has to offer.

ATG:  Other than eBook content what strengths does ebrary bring to the table?  What about strengths from the ProQuest side of the equation?

TB:  The companies have a lot of strengths in common — talented employees, strong brands that are respected by customers, a commitment to technological innovation and investment, and that’s certainly helped the companies mesh neatly.  But, acquisition is about adding complementary strengths on both sides of the equation.  ebrary brings strong technical expertise and knowledge of the eBook business.  It offers some new and exciting business models for content such as patron-driven acquisition and its new short-term loan model.  The company also has some great tools like InfoTools and DASH!.

KS:  ProQuest brings scale, a well-established customer base, an extraordinary breadth of content, and a large international sales force (that’s now selling ebrary products, by the way).  This is a particularly strong match between companies.  And, I want to reiterate what Tim said, this is about bringing complementary strengths together; we’re in this to leverage what we know from our particular experiences and use it in new places.  We’re driving to the inevitability of true value.

ATG:  Serial Solutions is also part of ProQuest.  How does their Summon Discovery system fit into all of this?

TB:  ProQuest is committed to building a research environment that connects users with the right information — no matter where it resides — quickly and accurately.  The Summon service is our most profound expression of that commitment.  It’s absolutely content-neutral and is the digital doorway to virtually everything in the library.  Summon continues to expand with all sorts of publishing partners, and now we’re integrating ebrary content so that these 450,000 plus eBooks are discovered from the front door of the library and integrated with all the other relevant content in the library’s collection.  Our first step was to index at the metadata level, and we’re now indexing the full-text, just as Summon is doing with the HathiTrust collection.  Can you imagine how that opens eBooks to use?  The ability to search within books just as you would search a journal article, all within a sweep of the breadth of the library’s collection, is a big leap forward in responding to user needs.

ATG:  On an even broader scale, how will all of this work with Serials Solutions’ web-scale management solution, which is currently in development?

KS:  We’ve talked a bit about the extraordinary research environment that’s being built by ProQuest, and that effort is being supported with services that enable libraries to manage their resources, particularly the growing dominance of e-content.  Serials Solutions’ comprehensive knowledgebase is the core of support across the entire continuum of library services — from improving access and use of collections to easing librarian workloads, and ultimately to reducing operating costs.  The new web-scale management solution is aimed at redefining how libraries manage operations, eventually eliminating the need for the ILS as we know it today.  It will be a single, unified management solution for libraries that frees staff from low-value tasks and enables them to do the real work of librarians.  In the broadest sense, web-scale management supports the researcher because it supports the library workflow — the researcher’s key partner.

ATG:  Are there any new developments that you feel at liberty to give ATG a scoop on?

KS:  Sure, we always have some interesting next-steps up our sleeves.  We mentioned new products that will integrate ProQuest content with ebrary’s research tools.  We’re really excited to see what researchers can do when they’re armed with journal and newspaper content powered by InfoTools and DASH!.  And more, watch for a mobile app for ebrary.  Students will be able to work with eBooks right in the classroom from their smartphones.  That’s a powerful way to embed research right in the workflow.  I guess from the students perspective it’s also good cover when they want to update their Facebook status in class.

TB:  The ProQuest research environment is going to bring users in further with capabilities that allow for content creation.  We’re already exploring this with some of our vertical social networks, such as EEBO Interactions.  We have scholars submitting updates to the database that are vetted by an advisory board of other scholars.  This process allows for continual improvements and expansion that are directed by the user.

ATG:  Thank you both for taking the time to talk to us.  We appreciate your thoughtful responses to our questions.

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