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ProQuest: Chronicle of Leadership.

In this digital age, it’s easy to forget that not so long ago, the vast majority of books and publications simply weren’t available to most scholars and researchers, let alone the general public. Major research collections were held by only a handful of libraries worldwide, so accessing the most important scholarly works of the day could be a lengthy and cost-prohibitive pursuit.

In the early 1930s, a young man named Eugene Power—an employee at Edwards Brothers Printing of Ann Arbor—began applying himself to these problems of access. His goal was two-fold: “To preserve information…and to release readers from the limitations of the printing press.”

Power was fascinated with the possibility of “on demand” publishing—of creating a single, affordable copy of any manuscript as needed. Power conferred with photographic pioneers from around the country and became intrigued by the potential of microphotography. Challenging himself “to make the contents of the great libraries available in America,” he packed up his microfilm camera in 1935 and set out for the British Museum, where he began the long process of filming every available book printed in English before 1550.

By June of 1938, Power had rented two rooms from a downtown Ann Arbor funeral parlor, converting one into a darkroom. Responding to growing public interest in his work, he formed his own company: University Microfilms (later to become UMI). With a full-time staff of only three, the company was spartan, to be sure. The first (and only) product that year—Early English Books—was the laborious result of Power’s previous microphotography at the British Museum. The initial customer base numbered exactly eleven. Despite this modest beginning, the fledgling enterprise made a profit that first year—and has every year since, providing a firm foundation for a business to become known as ProQuest.

Eager for any opportunity to use micrographic technology, Power proposed filming dissertations, thus providing graduate students with an economical alternative to offset printing as a means of meeting their doctoral publication requirements. Now, nearly 70 years later, virtually every institution in North America publishes its doctoral dissertations through ProQuest.

Power soon returned to Europe, with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, on a quest to film and preserve the great works in European libraries before they were destroyed. Under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, he eventually photographed 13 million pages of war-endangered manuscripts

Surely, steadily, UMI continued to diversify its product line. Early English works were just the start. As time passed, UMI added thousands of works to the holdings in its microform vault:  research collections, newspapers (most notably The New York Times), periodicals, out-of-print books, telephone directories, and tens of thousands more dissertations and theses.

With new developments in lithography, UMI began publishing and distributing some of these materials on demand, in both paper and microform editions. In the process, it proved again the viability of Power’s original concept: that it is indeed possible to free readers from the limitations of the printing press. Each subsequent advancement in the way information is preserved and disseminated has been used by the company to that end, with results that have literally changed the way the world finds and uses information.

As might be expected, UMI’s solid growth and constant innovation made it attractive to a number of Fortune 500 corporations in search of promising acquisitions. In 1962, the company was purchased by Xerox. By 1967, UMI was leading the transition from analog to digital information technology. UMI’s acquisition by Bell & Howell in 1985 prefigured the commitment to digitization as the pathway for all future growth. By 1986, UMI—as a wholly owned subsidiary of Bell & Howell—began releasing the first information databases on CD-ROM.

In 1989, UMI went back to its World War II roots by establishing a Preservation Division dedicated to capturing and preserving intellectual content being lost to material deterioration. Even with exponential advancements in digital technology, UMI understood then as it does now that microform is the only time-tested preservation medium.

UMI also saw better ways to disseminate the wealth of information it had accumulated on film. In 1995, UMI began offering online access to selected databases, and the ProQuest Online Information Service was born.

Soon after, hundreds of full-text newspapers and journals, along with thousands of dissertations, were made available on the Web. In 1996, ProQuest Online Information Service was named Best Professional Online Product by the Information Industry Association. In 1998, it was honored by the Smithsonian Institution, becoming part of its Permanent Research Collection on Information Technology Innovation at the National Museum of American History.

That same year, the Library of Congress recognized UMI as the official offsite repository for dissertations and theses in electronic format. It marked the first time the Library of Congress chose a third party to house one of its digital collections.

In 1999, UMI enhanced its global presence with the acquisition of Chadwyck-Healey. Founded in 1973 and long known for its rich and innovative scholarly reference and full-text materials, Chadwyck-Healey offers microform and digital content to the global academic community.

In 2001—in response to its name strength and high recognition—Bell & Howell changed its name to ProQuest Company (NYSE: PQE) and the UMI division became ProQuest Information and Learning.

Today, as a result of agreements with more than 9,000 publishers worldwide, ProQuest Information and Learning provides access to information from periodicals, newspapers, out-of-print books, dissertations, and scholarly collections in various formats. Its archive includes more than 5.5 billion pages of information, spanning 500 years of scholarship, in formats that range from print to microform to digital.

Known for its strength in business and economics, general reference, humanities, and scientific/technical/medical content, ProQuest Information and Learning serves academic, public, corporate, and K-12 libraries, in addition to K-12 classrooms and higher education students and faculty.

ProQuest Company’s other business unit—ProQuest Business Solutions—serves the automotive and power equipment markets by providing management, technical, and e-commerce applications. Its products help dealers improve their business operations by transforming complex technical and performance measurement data into easily accessed answers. This information, in turn, helps manufacturers, dealerships, or service networks more effectively manage their businesses.

Over the last few years, under the leadership of CEO Alan Aldworth, ProQuest Company has been seeking to strengthen its K-12 resources. With the recent acquisitions of SIRS, Reading A-Z, Culture Grams, Voyager Expanded Learning, and Explore Learning, ProQuest has become a leading provider of innovative solutions and trustworthy learning systems that help both teachers and students. Universal literacy, for instance, is Voyager’s mission – and just one example of ProQuest’s broader objectives in serving education markets.

Acquisitions have also focused on bringing new service companies under the ProQuest family umbrella. Serials Solutions, which became part of Information and Learning in 2004, uses a fresh, entrepreneurial approach to developing tools that allow libraries to manage their vast electronic collections. With a business model that excels at rapid deployment of new technologies, it has quickly become an industry leader. It’s that kind of internal energy that led Business 2.0 magazine to name ProQuest to its top 100 fastest-growing technology companies in both 2004 and 2005.

As of today, ProQuest employs more than 2,500 associates with offices in Ann Arbor, MI; Richfield, OH; Louisville, KY; Atlanta, GA, and other cities across the U.S. Internationally, ProQuest has offices in England and Germany, as well as a worldwide network of sales representatives.

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