A Brief History of Information Brokering

by Marilyn M. Levine

Information brokering, the business of buying and selling information as a commodity, has been around for a long time. A business historian can make a good case that it started with Gutenberg in the middle 1400s, when what had been a closely held church and government prerogative involving the distribution of "original works of art" gave way to mass production and the business of book publishing.

By the 1700s, faster, time-sensitive techniques for information distribution took hold. First the newspaper and then the magazine made smaller, but timelier, chunks of information available to the public, and venture capital investment opportunities were available for those who wished to back entrepreneurial publishers.

Information brokering as we now think of it as a business opportunity for the individual information professional was begun by the French in 1935. (This history is documented in the 1987 book Passion SVP: Femme et P.-D.G., by Brigitte de Gastines in collaboration with d'Alice Hubel.)

Brigitte de Gastines is President-Director General of SVP France and the daughter of the company's savior, Maurice de Turckheim. In her book, she describes the birth of SVP as a profit-making or fee-charging entity.

The concept came from the Societe Francaise de Radiophonie, an organization of professionals who created the notion of supplying information over the phone for a fee. In 1935, members of the society convinced the French governmental postal, telephone and telegraph agency (PTT) to reserve the letters SVP (for s'il vous plait, "if you please") on the telephone dial for dial-up question-answering service for Parisians. Though the service got off to an enthusiastic start, the financial situation deteriorated rapidly, going from bad to worse to catastrophic. With significant debt piling up, the struggling business attracted the attention of Maurice de Turckheim.

Joining the group in 1937, he set out to strengthen SVP with his considerable promotion and marketing skills. His big break came several years later.

After World War II, France, like much of the world, had to pull itself together, and SVP, guided by Maurice de Turckheim, was resurrected. Turckheim's strategy was to play on the belief of the average person that the upper classes were privy to all sorts of secret information. Using this knowledge, he would invite people to join his "exclusive club," which let them in on all the information secrets they wanted for the yearly price of admission, a hefty subscription fee.

The strategy worked and by 1950 the operation was in full swing. Over the next 30 years, SVP became a worldwide operation with franchises in 23 countries on five continents.

In the meantime, several entrepreneurs in the United States found ways to enter the not-yet burgeoning information business. Among them were Matthew Lesko, who turned a home-based newsletter on how to get free information from federal government agencies into a $750,000 a year business, now called Washington Researchers, and Roger Summit, who began his ground-breaking work that spawned the online industry.

In spite of the entrepreneurial activity, however, librarians were slow to realize that they could leave the confines of the buildings which named their profession to perform fee-based services on a free-lance basis.

Darlene Waterstreet of Badger Infosearch in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, may have been the first to point out the building-restrictive warning message implicit in the library/librarian naming convention: The person and the building were socially perceived to be joined like Siamese twins. The more daring librarians, like Susan Klement and Alice Sizer Warner of Warner-Eddison, and Kelly Warnken, separated themselves from the building, then went around telling others how it was done. What they were doing was diffusing an innovation, as described in Everett M. Rogers' 1962 communication theory classic, Diffusion of Innovations.

Moving Librarians Out of the Library

The American Society for Information Science (ASIS) was itself a major force in the drive to divorce information from the library. To ASIS members, information was not only recorded items of knowledge, it was also the digitized bits of information that could be moved through computers and telephone lines to where it was needed, rather than requiring users to come to the place where knowledge or information was stored. In this approach, people stayed where they were; information moved to them.

By the late 1960s, there were sufficient private, for-profit information companies in the United States to encourage a group of database producers, managers and operators to launch a trade organization to serve their interests. In 1969, the Information Industry Association (IIA) was formed and held its first meeting, which merited coverage by the trade in Publisher's Weekly (April 14, 1969).

In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution in 1976, when people throughout the country were encouraged to look at revolutionary concepts of the 20th century, ASIS turned the spotlight on information-on-demand services and gave them full-issue treatment in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science (February 1976). (See Alice Warner's article, "Looking Back, Looking Ahead," on page 10 of this issue.)

Also in 1976, Susan Klement created the first outline of a course on being an information specialist outside of a library building: "Draft Proposal for a Graduate Course on Alternatives in Librarianship" (Canadian Library Journal, April 1977). She included, in a separate article in the same journal, a 41-item "Selected Annotated Bibliography of Articles Relevant to Alternatives in Librarianship." Though faculty members in schools of library science at leading universities claimed to have taken note of these new career possibilities, the concepts were rarely incorporated in their classes. But entrepreneurial librarians and publishers had seen the wisdom in alternative careers.

In 1980, Betty-Carol Sellen convinced Gaylord Professional Publishers to publish What Else You Can Do With a Library Degree. Although many people remember Betty-Carol's book as asking the question, "What else can you do with a library degree?" this collection of first-person accounts outlined the wide range of alternatives available to a library school graduate who wanted to be independent of the library building.

One of the alternatives already documented by that time was free-lance information brokering. By 1977, enough people had gone that route to justify Kelly Warnken's first self-published Directory of Fee-Based Information Services. With 87 entries on 74 pages, including both academic-based and free-lance information service providers, the book took a well-known technique of information organizing, the traditional directory format, and applied it to this new field. (Helen Burwell of Burwell Enterprises, Houston, Texas, now publishes the international edition of this directory, still a self-published product.)

In 1981, R.R. Bowker entered the field to publish Warnken's The Information Brokers: How to Start and Operate Your Own Fee-Based Service, indicating how far the field had come.

Expanding the Field with PCs

By the early 1980s, librarians and many others had begun to sense the potential of the free-lance information brokering business. With the increasing availability of personal computers, many people believed that the combination of PC, modem and commercial databases was a natural; librarians added their library skills to the mix and expected to turn a spare room in their homes into money-making business ventures. Articles in a variety of consumer magazines, such as Working Woman, created a tantalizing image of sitting at home and making millions.

Unfortunately, those who tried it were made cruelly aware of how hard it really is to make a dollar in the real world of competition, money and power. But help came soon for those who had the combination of skills, capital and fortitude necessary to start an entrepreneurial business.

In 1987, 26 people came together in Milwaukee to form the first U.S. organization devoted solely to the information brokering profession. With their sights set firmly on building a network among themselves and their colleagues and on aiding struggling entrepreneurs, the group created the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP).


Marilyn M. Levine is an information broker with the Information Express in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.