My Imaginative Memory
At The Zoo

Public Private

When I first went to work at the National Library of Medicine you couldn't get a password to search Medline until you'd been trained.  They'd gotten it down to a basic three days, plus a couple of days for the specialized databases -- a week altogether.   A decade or so earlier, it took three months.  No, I am not making this up.

You had options.  Although no private company would've built Medline, there were several that were eager to provide access.  BRS had been formed by some of the people who'd been involved in the original MEDLARS project.  When I was in library school, DIALOG was the big dog in the bibliographic database market, with a portfolio of more than a dozen databases.   But Medline was the first -- when it came up in 1972 1971, it was the first publicly available bibliographic database in the world.  But "publicly available" didn't mean you could just come in.  NLM licensed the database to independent companies, but with plenty of restrictions -- required training being one of them.

Searching Medline (MEDLARS On Line -- the original project had been MEDical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System) was cheapest if you went directly to NLM.  By law, they couldn't charge more than the actual cost of providing access.  You paid by the minute, so a librarian spent a good bit of


time before dialing up working out the search strategy so as to be as efficient as possible.  The companies had to make money, so they had to charge more, so they had to build fancier search engines, had to offer additional services to draw customers.  And they were very successful.  They hated the fact that they had to compete with "the government".  But if the government hadn't built the database in the first place, they wouldn't have existed.

This was all pre-internet.  (Remind me to tell you sometime about my experience with the first IBM XT personal computer purchased by NLM's Bibliographic Services Division).  So you dialed into a commercial telecommunications company (NLM had contracts with two), and linked into the database.  Lots of people made money off of that government investment. 

I was there when access was opened up to physicians.  Without training.   Highly controversial within the organization.  At the time, I was the assistant editor of the NLM Technical Bulletin, the newsletter that was sent monthly to everyone with an access code.  In the course of a year, the number that we sent out increased by a factor of ten.

One of my projects at the end of my Associate year was to investigate whether or not videodiscs (twelve inch platters encoded in an analog format) would be a good vehicle for distributing information in the event of toxic waste spills.  They weren't, but in the course of my investigations I became aware of the five inch "compact optical discs" that Phillips & Sony had recently developed and were trying to find a commercial use for.   I calculated the number of discs that would be required to hold the entire MEDLINE database and suggested, in the formal presentation that capped the year, that they could be used as a distribution medium.  It seemed pretty far-fetched, but I thought it was a fun idea.

The commercial outfits always complained about competition from NLM.  One of the ironies of capitalism is that while competition is the essential engine, every capitalist hates competitors.  And having the government as a competitor is worst of all.  But NLM never put anybody out of business, and the investments that were made in MEDLARS and MEDLINE were the foundation of the search industry. 

It was a government agency that developed the internet in the first place.  The Defense Department wanted a communications network that could survive a nuclear attack.  Tim Berners-Lee worked for a government funded organization when he invented the world wide web.

So it's hard for me to get too freaked out about government intrusions into the marketplace.  Public health insurance option putting private companies out of business?  I don't think so.  Public access to federally funded research destroying the STM industry?  Probably not.



I've got a vague, unformed theory that it has to do with how much money people think they might be able to make off of the product - if they think it's a lot (health care), the government shouldn't be involved. If it's not much (bibliographic databases), they don't care.... Like I said - still vague and unformed...

And I constantly tell people about how we used to formulate strategies, look up MeSH terms in books (remember the "annotated"?), and actually write them down before we went online at an astounding 1200 baud and spent money by the minute!


oh boy, did you bring back memories for me! I remember going to our RML for MEDLINE training. My recollection is that it was for 2 or 3 weeks. The first bit of training was about how journal articles were indexed. No keyword searching at that time. Amazing how much things have changed. But, the thought processes I learned in that training have stuck with me all these years.

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