A Tribute to H. W. Wilson

June 3, 2011

In the summer of 1973, I attended my first conference of the International Federation of Library Associations (held in Grenoble, France) after becoming executive director of the American Library Association. The conference buzz was speculation about me (“Who is this Bob Wedgeworth?”), since I had just succeeded David Clift. Leo M. Weins, president of the H. W. Wilson Company, took the lead in introducing me to Sir Frank Francis, director of the British Museum Library, and other leading European librarians. Thus began my long association with the H. W. Wilson Company, a relationship that lasted until June 2, 2011, when the company announced it had merged with EBSCO Publishing and became a wholly owned subsidiary.

One of the unique characteristics of librarianship in the United States and Canada is the number of specialized firms that have grown alongside libraries. They have provided us with books, journals, furniture, book stacks, supplies, reference services, and more recent offerings of online databases and library operating systems. During much of the 20th century, in addition to major publishers, companies like Gaylord Bros., DEMCO, Estey, and, of course, Wilson, were familiar to most librarians. Much of the success of our institutions can be credited, in part, to the commitment and dedication of the leaders and staff of these companies.

Halsey W. Wilson founded the company that bore his name throughout its history in Minnesota in 1898. In 1911 he moved it east to White Plains, New York, in order to be closer to its clients. In 1917 he moved the firm again, to the Bronx, where it remained, and later built an addition topped with a lighthouse tower that became its iconic logo. Wilson’s first product was the Cumulative Book Index, which documented new books published in the U.S. with entries added into a single alphabet throughout the year. Later the company expanded to offer general and specialized periodical indexes such as the famous Reader’s Gude to Periodical Literature, collection development catalogs, an index to biographies, as well as abstracts to accompany the indexing tools.

Leo M. Weins became president of the company in 1967 after serving as its vice president. (Weins retired in 1995.) He was previously comptroller and chief of administrative services at ALA. Under his leadership, and continued by his successor Harold Regan, H. W. Wilson increased its sales and expanded into online information services, coming to offer around 80 general and specialized databases delivered via a user-friendly web-based platform. Wilson information service products are well known for authority control, controlled subject vocabularies, and high-quality bibliographic integrity.

Continuing policies established by Halsey Wilson, Weins also served as president of the H. W. Wilson Foundation, which has been a stalwart supporter of library and information science education, and library public relations and marketing. Hundreds of librarians have received scholarship support from the foundation toward their professional degrees. For many years one of the “hottest” tickets at an ALA Annual Conference has been an invitation to the Wilson Tea, where the winners of the John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Awards are announced. Long before the establishment of ALA’s influential Public Information Office, the H. W. Wilson Foundation used the John Cotton Dana Award competition to encourage improvements in library marketing and public relations.

In announcing the merger, H. W. Wilson and EBSCO Publishing emphasized their long-standing partnership that makes for a “good fit” in continuing the delivery of high-quality reference and information services. The firms also gave assurances that their financial support and active involvement in the international library community will continue. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to pause and pay tribute to the legacy of Wilson and its leaders and staff: They have contributed mightily to the growth and development of libraries in North America and many other parts of the world.

ROBERT WEDGEWORTH, executive director of the American Library Association from 1972 to 1985, was president of ProLiteracy Worldwide from 2002 to 2007.



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