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November 28, 2006

Reflections of a Law Librarian on the Death of H. Donald Wilson, First President of Mead Data Central

H. Donald Wilson died of a heart attack Nov. 12. He was the first president of Mead Data Central and was instrumental in commercializing what we now know as LexisNexis. In the late 1960s, he developed a business plan for an engineer's invention of a search engine for a database based on addressing words and phrases of fully inverted files. According to the New York Times, "[a] turning point for the acceptance of Lexis came in the early 1970s, when Mr. Wilson arranged for a skeptical audience at the Supreme Court to use the new system. The Lexis system found more cases than the court clerks found by using manual research methods."

Fifty-somethings like me remember the arrival of the first Lexis terminals. As a graduate student working at the University of Chicago Law Library, we had one terminal for the entire school and, because of its size, it was located in the Law Library's Rare Book Room. Like the rare books, access to the terminal was restricted.

Those huge machines with an array of function keys (which some of us still miss or fondly remember their "dot commands" replacements) and an acoustic coupler for telecommunication were a marvel. We all learned and taught our patrons full text searching using Venn diagrams while reformulating legal research principles around access points and routes in a format neutral frame of reference.

It wasn't long before the legal profession became dependent on "computer-assisted legal research." Later iterations of Lexis equipment did away with the manual acoustic coupler but I will never forget needing one of the older machines once. While working for a large law firm, we had to cite check a brief quickly but we could not establish a connection to Lexis using our newer automatic dialer-based terminal. All the lines were busy because Pope John Paul II had been shot that day. My Lexis rep came to my aid by giving me a telephone number and I rushed off to IIT Chicago-Kent Law Library because that library still had the older acoustic coupler terminal. The brief was checked and filed on time.

I never met Mr. Wilson, who according to the Washington Post died at his computer at home, but I can think of no one who had a greater impact on how we conduct legal research today. Those of us in our 50's experienced something unique in law librarianship. We are the bridge generation. We stand with one foot firmly planted in print materials and the other in online resources. We have Mr. Wilson to thank for that.

Joe Hodnicki
Associate Director for Library Operations
University of Cincinnati College of Law Library
Co-founder, Law Professor Blogs Network
Editor, Law Librarian Blog (where this post first appeared).

November 28, 2006 in Technology -- in general | Permalink

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