What’s behind Gale’s partnerships with the Smithsonian, Associated Press, & National Geographic? NSR interviews Jim Draper for insight

gale digital collections

Library vendors bringing e-content to libraries have in recent years taken different routes to draw attention to their long-term business strategies. Some have aggressively pursued new publishing initiatives — releasing more original content and adding it to their e-offerings; others have focused on perfecting the functionalities of the digital products already available to libraries. Gale’s mission has been distinct its own right and deserves a closer look, namely owing to the series of announcements in the last year pointing to the company’s newly formed alliances with some of the world’s most reputable organizations, including  The National Geographic, the Smithsonian, and, as of April 2013, the Associated Press.

Just what is the ultimate long-term goal behind these partnerships for a library vendor already known for a robust list of library-oriented products and services? Is Gale’s main mission moving forward to cement its role as the preeminent distributor of the world’s journalistic and historical content? Can we expect more partnerships in the future? NSR reached out to Jim Draper, VP and General Manager for Gale (part of Cengage Learning), to shed light on what these partnerships mean for the future of Gale, its partners, and the wider research community.

Note: This interview does not include any discussion of the recent “restructuring news,” as Gale is currently not providing information beyond what’s already been released to the public last week. Per CEO Michael Hansen’s prepared remarks, we can “expect to see a real shift to a user-and sales-led culture [at Gale] that is focused on delivering innovative customer solutions. We have placed an emphasis on coordinated speed across the organization to accelerate innovation.”–MR

Growing momentum

Gale’s recent partnerships have brought, and promise to bring, to libraries and researchers a line of new products in the coming months and years, including the already-released The National Geographic Virtual Library (NGVL), which includes the complete archive of the National Geographic magazine going back to 1888, plus a host of other National Geographic books, videos, images, and maps.  NGVL now consists of these four components:

National Geographic Magazine Archive, 1888-1994

National Geographic Magazine Archive, 1995-Current

National Geographic: People, Animals, and the World

National Geographic Kids

The partnership with the Smithsonian, announced this past February, will result in a suite of searchable databases, including the complete archive of the Smithsonian and Air & Space magazines (expected to launch in a few days) and an assortment of other Smithsonian topical collections, including archives on American history, science, and world cultures. More information will eventually be available on the Gale Digital collections web site.

Still in the “discovery and planning” phase, the partnership with the Associated Press will involve a large-scale, multi-year initiative to digitize millions of pages of AP’s news copy, going back to 1846. According to Gale’s April 2013 announcement, the AP collection will also feature never-before-published content, including notes and observations of AP journalists, “potentially giving widely reported events a new perspective.”

These are, no doubt, major undertakings for all involved parties. Although Gale is no stranger to partnering with prestigious institutions, these recent announcements point to a growing momentum. Jim Draper fills in some blanks below.

NSR: This is a “dream” list of alliances for any library vendor wanting to help these institutions digitize their treasures.

Jim Draper: Gale has been partnering with leading institutions for decades–in fact our longest relationship has been with the British Library (for approximately the past 30 years, beginning as a microfilm supplier), and we have other longstanding relationships with The National Archives (UK), The U.S. National Archives, The Library of Congress, and others. Altogether, we have about 400 institutions currently supplying content to our Gale Digital Collections products. Aligning ourselves with leading cultural institutions ensures we’re able to deliver the most sought-after content for our customers. Our strategy is to transform the library and research business by unlocking access to rare artifacts and providing a source of content never before available, while also clearly distinguishing ourselves from our competitors.

NSR: Why is Gale the ideal digitization and distribution partner for these institutions?

Jim Draper: There are many reasons why Gale is seen as an ideal partner.  We’ve been doing digital publishing for more than 25 years, longer than almost any other publishing company, and we’ve become adept at curating, organizing, digitizing, and highlighting rare and sensitive historical material within our products. Further, we bring metadata capabilities and know-how to the table. This adds tremendous value since metadata enables search and discovery.

Lately—by which I mean during the past two or three years—Gale has distinguished itself for its software. We are investing heavily in tools and services to support researchers. We have met with enormous success in this arena, and I believe that partner-institutions are highly supportive of these efforts since they desire to see their content operating in powerful software environments.

Being part of Cengage Learning, one of the largest higher education publishers, we have access to academic channels and expertise that none of our competitors has. We are one of the only organizations that can build resources that truly bridge from the library to the classroom. We also have extraordinary “contacts” within the scholarly world, so we can draw on experts to help us shape products and to define their content strategy.

Librarians can find more information on our partnerships via a series of videos that give a “Behind the Screens” look at how Gale is digitizing history: http://gdc.gale.com/videos/.

NSR: What will the Smithsonian and AP collections look like when completed? Should we take clues from The National Geographic Virtual Library (already available) and expect similar features?

Jim Draper: Yes, products resulting from the Smithsonian and Associated Press partnerships will be built on the same state-of-the-art platform that we’ve implemented for Nineteenth Century Collections Online and National Geographic Virtual Library.  Some of the highlights of this platform include:

  • Textual analysis tools (graphing and term clusters tools) that help researchers identify and visualize patterns, trends and relationships among content.
  • Comprehensive subject indexing that makes the content accessible and exposes key elements within the data and reveals important topics, people, places, and dates, identifying relationships among documents.
  • Advanced image viewer that enables users to zoom, highlight, rotate, reverse (negative image), and view individual pages in full screen mode, with the ability to adjust brightness and contrast making it easier to read weathered and varied types of documents.

Timelines & Challenges

NSR: Given these organizations’ distinct cultures and missions, each of these partnerships must bring unique challenges for Gale. Have some projects been more testing than others?

Jim Draper: Our publishing decisions are largely dictated by the types of content different institutions possess. We work with our partners very closely to help them achieve their long-term missions. For example, the Smithsonian’s four grand challenges include: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe, Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, Valuing World Cultures, and Understanding the American Experience. As a result, we will focus our efforts in these areas as well.

Since its founding, the National Geographic Society has been dedicated to inspiring people to care about the planet, and has focused on geography, archaeology, and natural science, and the promotion of environmental and historical conservation. These are all considerations we take into account as we build products.

One challenge, however, is ever-present as we build out large digital collections, and it creates an “unknown” that requires constant management. I am referring to the conservation of historic documents.  Sometimes, a collection is in excellent physical shape and therefore requires careful but not “special” handling by Gale. At other times, the collection needs extensive, professionally managed conservation before we can even begin to capture images of the documents. In such cases, the timeline MUST adjust to suit the needs of the conservators, since Gale is committed to leaving the materials in equal—or better—condition than when we first encountered them.

NRS: Gale has stated it will take a number of months — and in some cases years — to bring the complete collections from these institutions to libraries. Can you give us more insight into what we can expect in the near future?

Jim Draper: After announcing our partnership with the Smithsonian in February, we are excited to be bringing the first product – the Air & Space and Smithsonian Magazine Archive – to market in just a few a short days. We are also exploring other archives on the topics of American history, science, and world cultures.

As the Associated Press agreement was just announced, we are still very much in the discovery and planning phase. We’ve also begun conducting market research to better understand what information our customers are most anticipating, including specific bureau information, and we expect to launch at least two products in the next 12-16 months.

At Gale, we take a well thought-out approach to developing these resources that involves advisory boards, curators, and a host of other experts. This is a process that takes time, but on the other hand,  the way our development team is structured enables us to bring better products to market more quickly. We employ the agile software development methodology (typically used by small startups), which means a constant loop of user-testing and feedback helps our development team create advanced tools and features that fit into the workflows of our customers. Our staff is structured in more or less self-contained teams, all working side-by-side, with a common vision and a shared understanding. Gone are cubicles, gone is the “waterfall” development approach, gone is a series of hand-offs that eventually lead to a product. The result is a faster development cycle that centers on the specific and evolving needs and goals of our user personae.

Incentives for libraries

NSR: Since libraries continue to operate and acquire resources on tight budgets, can they expect discounts for institutions interested in obtaining content from multiple partners or will these strictly be sold on a product-by-product basis?

Jim Draper: It’s important to note that the products resulting from these partnerships are, at this point, sold on a product-by-product basis, not as a bundle.

We offer a variety of purchase or subscription models based on the type of library and size of user population. We realize that funding can be unpredictable and depending on the specific situation ownership or subscription may be more attractive.

For customers interested in National Geographic Virtual Library, we offer discounts for the subscription of two resources and deeper discounts for the purchase of three or all four.

We do not have specific information on discounts for both Smithsonian and Associated Press as the product lines are still in development.

Long-term vision & strategy

NSR: It seems that Gale is positioning itself as a leading distributor of journalistic and historical content from the world’s top institutions. Does this indicate that the company has less interest at this point in revitalizing its publishing initiatives?

Jim Draper: Through our Gale Digital Collections imprint we’re broadening the types of content we publish—for example, we are very active in the areas of manuscripts, photography, and ephemera—and not limiting ourselves to books, journals, and newspapers.  We’re also beginning to explore the role of three-dimensional objects in the research experience, as well as the role of sound (music, voice and similar).

While Gale Digital Collections is an important part of the Gale portfolio, we also manage an extensive reference and research program for K-12 schools, universities, and public libraries. We continue to publish leading databases on topics like biography, science, and literature, and we maintain the largest online reference library: Gale Virtual Reference Library (GVRL).

In addition, we’re continuing to publish new reference titles under our venerable imprints – Charles Scribner’s Sons, Macmillan Reference USA, and St. James Press – on topics such as the intersection of literature and war, a new title from our “Literature of Society” series.

We listen closely to the needs of our customers and our end users, and we’ll continue to find ways to bring the unique content and rare artifacts they need and want into the research space.  Our goal is to provide for our customers the largest academic humanities research experience.


Mirela Roncevic is an independent content developer and consultant. She contributes articles and stories to NSR on digital publishing, ebooks, and content development. Publishers and library vendors may send all PR materials directly to Mirela at mirela@mirelaroncevic.com. She may be followed on Twitter at @MirelaRoncevic.