The H.W. Wilson Company History

950 University Avenue
Bronx. New York 10452

Telephone: (718) 588-8400
Toll Free: 800-367-6770
Fax: (800) 590-1617

Private Company
Sales:$39 million (2002 est.)
NAIC:511140 Database and Directory Publishers

Company Perspectives:

The company's mission is to give guidance to those seeking their way through the maze of books and periodicals, without which they would be lost.

Key Dates:

Halsey Wilson and Henry Morris start a Minnesota bookstore.
Wilson buys out Morris and begins publishing the Cumulative Book Index.
Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature is first published.
H.W. Wilson is incorporated.
Wilson sells the bookstore and moves to White Plains, New York.
The company is relocated to The Bronx.
Halsey Wilson dies.
The company's first electronic product, a version of the Reader's Guide, debuts.
The WilsonWeb web site is launched.

Company History:

The H.W. Wilson Company is a leading reference publisher specializing in indexes and abstracts, primarily selling to libraries. The headquarters of the privately-owned company is located on the Harlem River in the Bronx borough of New York City, and another facility is maintained in Dublin, Ireland, where 120 professional abstracters are employed. Wilson is best known for its Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. Other major titles include Famous First Facts, Current Biography, and Book Review Digest. All told, the company publishes 15 full-text periodicals databases, seven biography databases, 18 index and eight abstracts databases, five collection development catalogs, an art image database, and a large number of reference monographs. In recent years, Wilson has placed increasing emphasis on electronic distribution of its databases, eventually switching from tape formats to the Internet through the introduction of WilsonWeb.

Origins in an 1800s Bookstore

Wilson's founder, Halsey William Wilson, was born in Wilmington, Vermont, in 1868. Orphaned at the age of two, he was raised by his maternal grandparents in Massachusetts and later, at the age of 12, went to live with relatives in Iowa. After studying at the Beloit Academy in Wisconsin, Wilson began attending college at the University of Minnesota in 1885. Money was a concern for the young man, who was only able to take classes intermittently while holding down a series of part-time jobs, including janitor, job printer, newspaper delivery, and bookseller. In December 1889 Wilson and his roommate, Henry S. Morris, pooled $400 to establish a bookstore, Morris & Wilson, that initially operated out of their dormitory room and served the university community. The business proved so successful that it was able to soon relocate to a room in the school's "Old Main" building.

Wilson became more devoted to growing the bookstore than pursuing his studies. When his partner graduated two years later and moved away, Wilson continued to run the bookstore alone. Wilson never completed his degree at Minnesota and likely ceased taking classes in 1892. He married Justina Leavitt, a teacher and school administrator, in 1895, and she helped Wilson run the business before becoming highly active in the women's suffrage movement. In 1898 Wilson bought out Morris, becoming the sole proprietor.

As a bookseller, Wilson had to constantly search through publishers' catalogs in order to keep track of currently published books that his customers might want. It was tedious and time-consuming work that prompted him to long for a comprehensive, up-to-date index of published works. He eventually decided to create such an index himself. What made the concept work economically was Wilson's idea to keep the publication current by placing each entry on a printer's "slug," which could then be later sorted with slugs from new entries. It may have been an obvious solution to someone who had experience as a job printer, but it was a revolutionary concept in bibliographical publishing. In February 1898 Wilson first published Cumulative Book Index, a comprehensive alphabetic list of currently published books in English, featuring the key elements of future Wilson indexes: the listing of author, title, and subject. The work sold for $1 to 300 subscribers, who would then receive periodically updated versions.

Introducing the Reader's Guide in 1901

Wilson continued to run his bookstore even as he expanded his bibliographical publishing. He soon hired his first editor, Marion E. Potter, who would work for the company for the next 55 years. In 1899 Wilson brought out a list of books in print, called United States Catalog. Two years later he turned his attention to the indexing of magazine articles, hoping to apply the techniques he developed with books. While Cumulative Book Index and United States Catalog attracted both booksellers and libraries as customers, a magazine index would be dependent almost entirely on the library trade. After studying existing services and consulting with librarians, Wilson developed his second revolutionary contribution to reference publishing, one that made a magazine article index economically viable: a sliding scale for charging subscribers, based on the amount of usage. Thus, larger libraries, based on holdings, paid a higher rate than smaller ones. In 1901 he published the first issue of the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, which proved an instant success and helped to firmly establish Wilson as the worldwide leader in his field.

In 1903 Wilson incorporated his business as The H.W. Wilson Company, which still included the original bookstore, the profits of which were used to subsidize his increasing focus on index publishing. Wilson continued his practice of consulting with library personnel in the development of new products, as he expanded his efforts into specialized fields. In 1905 he brought out Book Review Digest, edited by his wife, followed in 1907 with the launch of the Debater's Handbook series (which later became the Wilson Reference Shelf series), Index to Legal Periodicals in 1908, and a year later Children's Catalog, the first of many lists of books recommended to public and school libraries. Wilson recognized that his Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature had stimulated an interest in older magazines, and so in 1910 he started the Periodicals Clearing House to sell back issues.

Because the publishing industry was centered in New York City, Wilson found that operating out of Minnesota was not in the best interest of his publishing operation, which mostly served customers in the eastern part of the country. In 1913 he finally sold his bookstore and relocated his company, taking with him several key employees to White Plains, New York, located 25 miles north of New York City. The demand for his indexes was so great that Wilson soon outgrew this space, and in 1917 he bought a five-story building in The Bronx, which became the foundation of the company's current headquarters. This new facility was large enough to handle the full range of the company's activities, including editing, printing, and distribution. In 1929 even this plant proved too small for Wilson's expanding business and an adjoining eight-story building was added. A 30-foot lighthouse was constructed on top, which became a landmark along the Harlem River and also served as the company's logo.

From the time Wilson moved his operation to The Bronx until he stepped down as chief executive in 1952, the company introduced a number of significant bibliographical works. In 1929 it first published Education Index and Art Index. The Vertical File Service Catalog, a list of pamphlets and similar material indexed by subject and including descriptive notes and prices, was launched in 1932. To serve libraries with smaller holdings, Wilson published The Abridged Readers' Guide in 1935. A year later the company brought out an index of books, periodicals, and pamphlets concerning the library profession called Library Literature. In 1938 Wilson published Bibliographic Index and in 1940 introduced Current Biography, a monthly publication that provided biographical sketches of people in the news. Biography Index was then introduced in 1946.

Wilson was able to take full advantage of several trends: the proliferation of published works, resulting both from mainstream publishers and scientific and scholarly research, and the increase in the establishment of public and school libraries. Recognizing the importance of librarians to his business, Wilson joined library associations, named librarians to his board of directors, and sponsored library awards. He also continued to work closely with librarians on the products his company turned out, including some that were useful although unprofitable. The business, in general, was never highly profitable but it always paid a dividend, due in large part to the company's unique niche. Because it was in essence a monopoly--Wilson himself considered his bibliographical products a public utility--the company was saved the expense of a sales force. Moreover, because Wilson had such a head start in the field, it was cost prohibitive for another company to enter the market.

Wilson was well into his 80s when his health began to fail. He turned over the responsibility of day-to-day affairs in 1952 and became chairman of the board. In many ways he was a paradox. On the one hand, he proved to be an innovative entrepreneur, a supporter of women's rights, and one of the first employers to offer stock sharing and pensions. He had no children and gave most of the company's stock to employees. After his death, most of the profits were paid to the employee-owners. (When they died, shareholders were required to sell back their stock to the company.) On the other hand, Wilson paid low salaries, was often petty in his frugality, and very much paternalistic and puritanical. Behind his back, he was called Pop or Papa. He fought against the unionization of his employees, ultimately failing, and was known to rail against federal income tax and the New Deal social legislation of the 1930s. He did not drink or smoke, and banned alcohol at all company picnics and parties. Nevertheless, he promoted women to key positions in the company and was one of the first employers to hire physically handicapped workers. He was also unassuming, working at a rolltop desk in a corner of the editorial offices without a private secretary. After he died in 1954, his will established a charitable foundation that benefited the library profession and former employees in need.

Replacing Wilson as CEO and president in 1953 was Howard Haycraft, who went to work for the company after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1929. He is best remembered today for his scholarly book about mystery fiction, Murder for Pleasure, published in 1941 and still in print a half-century later. He also edited a number of anthologies of detective fiction. As an editor at Wilson he worked on such titles as The Junior Book of Authors, British Authors of the 19th Century, America Authors, and 20th-Century Authors. He headed Wilson until 1967, then served as chairman until retiring in 1970.

Challenges in the 1970s-90s

Haycraft was succeeded by Leo M. Weins, who came to Wilson in 1957 from the American Library Association, where he served as Comptroller. He was responsible for a number of advancements at Wilson, including the expansion to Dublin, Ireland, and leading the company into the electronic age. It was also during his tenure that the company became complacent and lost its competitive edge. In the early 1970s, an ex-librarian named Anthony DeStephen recognized a chink in Wilson's armor; the company had failed to copyright its books. He took 70 years worth of Reader's Guides, had the material set overseas, and then reorganized the material alphabetically. He then sold the material to Information Access Co. (IAC) to produce competing products. Wilson could have easily done the same thing as DeStephen, and it even passed up the chance to acquire IAC at an early stage, but failed on both counts. IAC was acquired by Ziff-Davis, which grew the enterprise, and sold it to Thomson Corporation in 1994 for $465 million. Wilson was also slow to embrace the computer age, clinging to print technology.

In 1985 the company offered its first electronic product, Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, but its WILSEARCH proprietary set of search commands proved cumbersome. Not only did Wilson fall behind the competition in delivering data electronically, it also lost some of its edge with librarians.

In 1992 the company became involved in a censorship flap. A regular columnist for Wilson Library Bulletin wrote a satirical questionnaire that inquired about the sexual habits of its librarian readers. Although the magazine was mailed to its subscribers, 80-year-old CEO Weins was so incensed about the piece that he insisted the editor fire the columnist. The editor refused, and even resigned in protest, as did several other columnists for the magazine. Weins had overrun copies of the magazine destroyed and refused to make copies available at the upcoming annual conference of the American Library Association. Normally the sample copies of the latest issue of Wilson Library Bulletin would be prominently displayed at the Wilson booth and given out to visitors. This time, however, conference goers were offered a memo written by Weins explaining why he took the actions he had. At a membership meeting at ALA a resolution was passed condemning the company for its "flagrant act of censorship." Other journals were also quick to condemn Weins' actions.

The Future of Wilson

Wilson saw its revenues steadily decline during the early 1990s. In January 1995 Wein announced his retirement. He was replaced as president and CEO by Harold Regan. After graduating from St. John's University and completing his military duty in Vietnam, Regan earned an M.B.A. in Labor Relations Law from Long Island University. He then became director of personnel and labor relations at Rheingold Breweries, Inc. He joined Wilson in 1974, in charge of human resources and corporate administration. He became a vice-president of the company in 1984 and two years later was elected to the company's board of directors.

Regan faced a difficult challenge in turning Wilson around and almost did not receive a chance to try. Thomson offered a bid of approximately $80 million to acquire the company in 1995, but the board turned it down. Regan began to bring in new people to help revitalize the company, established joint ventures with technology partners, and joined the competition in becoming more involved in full-text licensing. The company also launched a Web site, WilsonWeb, to make many of its products available through the Internet. As the company moved into the new century, it steadily improved its Web capabilities, adding PDF page images to its full text articles and refining its Web search capabilities and offering other enhancements. The days of operating as a virtual monopoly were long past. Whether Wilson would be able to successfully reinvent itself and find a way to compete against much larger and better financed rivals and still remain privately owned, was very much an open question.

Principal Divisions: WilsonWeb.

Principal Competitors: The Thomson Corporation; Reed Elsevier Group plc; ProQuest Company.

Further Reading:

  • Barrett, William P., "Mousetrapped," Forbes, December 29, 1997, p. 58.
  • Lawler, John, The H.W. Wilson Company: Half a Century of Bibliographic Publishing, Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1950.
  • Nelson, Milo, "QE2 and WLB Run Aground," Information Today, September 1992, p. 30.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 66. St. James Press, 2004.