Wilson, Halsey William (1868-1954)

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H. W. Wilson, founder of one of the first commercially successful bibliographic and indexing enterprises, contributed to the spread of bibliographic citation as a research practice, promoted the genre of reference publishing, and helped standardize library collections, especially in North American public and school libraries. Based first in Minneapolis, then in White Plains, New York, and later in New York City, by the time Wilson died the H. W. Wilson Company published more than twenty major indexing and reference services, including the Cumulative Book Index and the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. Wilson's business success resulted from a combination of factors: close attention to quality, efficient production methods, a unique pricing system, collaboration with his chief customers and his chief competitor, and the long-term dedication of talented key employees—many of them women. By 1998, one hundred years after its founding, the H. W. Wilson Company fully espoused digital technology, producing fifteen full-text databases, nineteen indexes, a website (http://www.hwwilson.com/) and many additional library-related publications.

Born in Wilmington, Vermont, on May 12, 1868, Wilson was the son of stonecutter John Thompson Wilson and Althea Dunnell Wilson, both of whom died of tuberculosis when Wilson was only three years old. The boy went to live with relatives on a farm near Waterloo, Iowa, and later studied at the University of Minnesota. In 1889, to help finance their studies, Wilson and his roommate started a business to provide textbooks to faculty and fellow students. The bookstore, which was located first in their bedroom and later in a university basement, prospered, and commerce overtook education. Wilson never graduated from the university, and after three years he bought his partner out of the bookstore.

In 1895, Wilson married university student Justina Leavitt, and together the couple expanded the business venture. Wilson began a current awareness service for customers, which helped them keep abreast of rapidly increasing numbers of new books. However, the lack of a single trade catalog made this task difficult. What he needed, Wilson decided, was a monthly cumulative list of new publications. Others (including Frederick Leypoldt of Publishers' Weekly) had attempted to provide a comprehensive trade catalog, but costs had always proved overwhelming. Wilson's new catalog—the Cumulative Book Index (CBI)—combined new entries with the old in each monthly issue throughout the year, culminating in a single cumulated volume. However, instead of discarding the Linotype slugs created for the initial entries, he cut costs by interfiling them for reuse in the cumulated numbers. Organized by author, title, and subject, the CBI eventually became the standard record of books published in English. In 1901, with the launching of his general periodical index—the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature (RG)—Wilson created a similar publication for the fast-expanding magazine industry. By making accessible the articles that had hitherto been buried in journal back numbers, RG stimulated research practices that in turn demanded more specialized indexes. In response, Wilson went on to found the Industrial Arts Index (1913) and the Agricultural Index (1916) and to manage the Index to Legal Periodicals and the Public Affairs Information Service. Subsequent indexes included Education Index (1929), Art Index (1929), Bibliographic Index (1938), Biography Index (1946), Play Index (1949), and Short Story Index (1953).

Aware that his principal market consisted of libraries, Wilson consciously cultivated the goodwill and collaboration of librarians. He included periodicals in RG, for instance, only after carrying out regular opinion surveys among practicing librarians. The publications from Wilson also aided library collection development with the 1905 introduction of the Book Review Digest, followed by Children's Catalog (1909), Standard Catalog for Public Libraries (1918; later titled PublicLibrary Catalog), Standard Catalog for High School Libraries (1926), and Fiction Catalog (1942). Other publications for librarians included the journal Wilson Library Bulletin (1914), the Sears List of Subject Headings (first edited by employee Minnie Earl Sears in 1923), and the periodical index Library Literature (1936). These products contributed to a rationalization and standardization that helped shape library collecting, reference, and cataloging practices for decades.

Initially, Wilson's indexing ventures required subsidy from the old bookstore. Recognizing the need for self-sustainability, Wilson devised a pricing system intended to make his indexes affordable to large and small libraries and booksellers alike, while still achieving commercial viability. He called this system the "service basis," basing it on use rather than ownership. Instead of paying a flat fee for the number of volumes received, libraries paid a variable fee depending on the number of periodicals in their collection, a principle that foreshadowed pricing systems later adopted for digital databases. Wilson made another move to achieve sustainability when, in 1911, he reached agreement with his main competitor, Richard Rogers Bowker (by then publisher of Publishers' Weekly, Library Journal, and several indexes), to divide up the market and reduce overlap. Wilson undertook more frequent cumulations of CBI, added new journals to RG, and transferred to Bowker his directories of librarians and booksellers, while Bowker dropped some rival publications, including a periodical index.

Throughout his long career (which ended with his death on March 1, 1954), Wilson realized his visions with the help of several dedicated and ingenious women, including Justina Leavitt Wilson and employees Marion E. Potter, Edith Phelps, and Anna L. Guthrie. Firmly antiunion, Wilson ran his company as a "family," with himself the ever-present paterfamilias. Employees appreciated his unremitting hard work, austere lifestyle, and dedication to quality, and they rewarded him with their loyalty. Two symbols—a thirty-foot lighthouse atop a bronze book mounted on the roof of the company's building and a dime-store mousetrap on Wilson's desk— represented his striving for bibliographic enlightenment and his continual search for product improvement.

See also:Bibliography; Cataloging and Knowledge Organization.


"Halsey William Wilson." (1954). Wilson Library Bulletin 28(8):665-668.

Lawler, John. (1950). The H. W. Wilson Company: Half a Century of Bibliographic Publishing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Peet, Creighton. (1938). "A Mousetrap in the Bronx." New Yorker 14(37):25-28.

Plotnik, Arthur. (1973). "H. W. Wilson." In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Vol. 10, eds. Allen Kent, Harold Lancour, and Jay E. Daily. New York: Marcel Dekker.

Plotnik, Arthur. (1978). "Wilson, Halsey William." In Encyclopedia of Library History Biography, ed. Bohdan S. Wynar. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Wilson, Halsey William. (1925). The Bookman's Reading and Tools. New York: H. W. Wilson Company.

Wilson, Halsey William. (1948). "Random Reminiscences." Wilson Library Bulletin 22(10):770-783.

Christine Pawley

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Wilson, Halsey William (1868-1954)

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