Because of an editing error and the miracle of computer information storage, the list of temperatures and weather conditions in foreign cities that was printed Saturday, Aug. 31, was incorrect. It reflected data from a day last December, which had been retained for reference.
Paul Chapin had a client who wanted scrap metal. Lots of scrap metal. And portable -- "something they could tow or ship overseas easily."
So the Spokane, Wash., market researcher called Information on Demand in Berkeley, Calif. In less than eight hours, the company found for him a decommissioned 8,700-ton diesel troop carrier in the nearby port of Alameda.
"It was a lot cheaper than having a full-time staffer do the search," Chapin says of IOD's $175 cost. "They covered everything."
Steve Stricker, a 28-year-old Southern Californian, had a different aim: a job with a robotics firm.
Seeking fast information on both the mobile robotics field and on the company itself, Stricker called Information on Demand.
"I got a whole slew of articles," he says. "I probably could have looked it up myself, but I needed it quicker." His cost: $330, a sum he says was "definitely" worth it.
There used to be only one way to find a 20-year-old newspaper article, to look up the leading exports of Italy or investigate the causes of bulimia: Go to the library.
Now, companies are eager to go to the library for you. More than 200 information brokers across the country -- ranging from solo researchers to corporations with 50 employes -- have become professional searchers after knowledge.
"This is a business of the '80s," says Daniel Starer, an independent New York researcher. "With the information explosion, it's no longer possible to walk into your local library and find what you need. You need access to computers, and information brokers have that access."
"The information we provide is going to let people make important judgments about their life or their business," says Christine Maxwell, chief executive officer of Information on Demand. "It's becoming very costly today not to know. Ignorance isn't bliss anymore."
Knowledge, however, also can be costly. The typical IOD research project, for example, costs the client around $300 -- a price that restricts more than 80 percent of its business to law firms, entrepreneurs or corporations such as International Resource Development, where Chapin is a vice president. But individuals such as Steve Stricker are also finding it can be better to pay than wait.
Some individuals who now use information specialists:
* Authors successful enough to spend their time writing rather than researching.
* Hobbyists and inventors who want to know more about their particular interest, or who need patent or technology searches done.
* People suffering from an illness or disease that they want as much information on as possible.
* Foundation grant seekers looking for a list of funding sources organized in a particular way -- by type of grant, for example, or size.
* Individuals who feel they have been unfairly treated in the workplace. Before contacting a lawyer they hire a research firm for general background on the area in which they feel they have a case.
"Sure, you could go to the library, but this is one-stop shopping," says Reva Basch, IOD director of research. "It's worth the money to people to get the information they wanted, and this way they don't have to spend any time looking, photocopying, cutting and pasting, or standing in line."
IOD, a privately owned firm, was started in 1972 by an ex-librarian and now gathers information from more than 350 data bases. With 35 people in Berkeley and 15 "runners" scattered around the country near major libraries, it is one of the largest companies in the information services business. The Office for Open Network, headquartered in Denver, has only two employes: Pat Wagner and her partner, Leif Smith.
There's a difference in approach, too. IOD researches and delivers documents on an assigned subject. The Office for Open Network, which charges a flat fee of $40 a year, specializes in simply putting you in touch with the person who has the answer to your question.
"If you want to know the import-export ratio in the fishing industry between the U.S. and Brazil, you'd call an information professional" -- someone who would deliver documents, says Wagner. "But if you wanted to talk to someone who's been on a fishing boat in South America, you'd call us."
Starer, who has two part-time employes at his Research for Writers, falls midway between IOD and the Office for Open Network. He has the clearest links to the old-time researcher, who simply went down to the library and accumulated information.
"I started out wanting to be a novelist, but I liked doing research much more than staring at a blank piece of paper," says Starer, who uses his personal computer to tap into hundreds of data bases. In the last six years, he says, he has contributed to 20 books on The New York Times bestseller list.
"Most of the writers who hire me are reasonably successful, because I'm reasonably pricey," he admits. He charges writers $40 an hour, companies $50, plus expenses.
The 10-year-old Office for Open Network has 620 active accounts, and gets 50 to 100 questions a day. The usual practice is to refer a question to another client, who may know the answer. If this second person can't help directly, he will forward the original client on to a third party. The system is like a series of rings: at the center is the Office, in the next ring are the network's clients, and in the third ring are all the people the clients know.
"Our job is not to know the information, it's to know the person who knows the information," says Wagner. "We're like little skitterbugs on top of the water; we don't have to actually go in."
Some recent Office for Open Network queries:
* A New York author wanted a pen pal who could help her learn Latin. She was put in touch with a Denver network user who was training to become a high school teacher in classic studies.
* A Montana accountant needed to find a special IBM financial package to run on his IBM personal computer. He was put in touch with a Maryland management consultant who had developed a state-of-the art financial management package.
* A Denver woman who had purchased a piano wanted someone to give lessons to her son in exchange for using the piano. The company found a willing local jazz musician.
* A new computer company needed $250,000 in start-up funds, for which it had been turned down by several banks. The Office for Open Network arranged for the entrepreneurs to meet with the former head of commercial credit for one of the largest banks in the Rockies, a network user who now worked in the computer field himself. He spent three hours showing them how to improve their application and explaining why they had been turned down.
"Ninety-five percent of the time, we can immediately supply a caller with a name or a strategy that will help them find the information they need," says Wagner. "And part of the time we'll just be reminding you of a resource you already use but may have forgotten about -- libraries, universities, even the phone book."
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the growth potential of information brokers, particularly their use by individuals. One who turns a harsher light on the business is Paul G. Zurkowski, president of the Information Industry Association, a trade group representing generators, distributors and users of information.
"I can't see that there are enough people, when they can't write it off on their taxes, paying much over minimum wage to find out information," he says. "The general public has too many other ways of getting help if they're resourceful -- trade organizations, the government, libraries."
That sort of thinking will soon change, argues Maxwell of IOD.
"If you want information now, there's a lot more accessible than there ever was, because of the data bases," she says. "But people have to realize that getting the information they want is a skill, one for which most people don't have the time or the ability."
Everyone in the field agrees the basic store of information will continue to grow explosively. Cuadra Associates in Santa Monica, Calif., a leading guide to data bases, has 2,764 in its current catalogue. In its first catalogue, in 1979, it listed only 400. For the next five years, it estimates growth will continue in the 25-30 percent range each year. And with that increase will come more individuals who will do their own accessing.
"Ten years from now, there will be many more 'end users' -- people knowledgeable enough to do this research themselves -- but there will always be room for us," says Maxwell. "Professionals don't have the time, and 10 years from now they'll have even less."
Another factor holding down direct access by individuals will be the cost, says Starer.
"It's like knowing a foreign language," he says. "If you're rusty in a language, you'll get a bad meal for dinner. But if you don't know these computer languages, and you're paying $300 an hour, you're in trouble."
So where does all this leave libraries, the traditional -- and free -- source of information?
"These companies are a stop-gap. They're setting up what amounts to a public library," says Theodor Schuchat, author of The Library Book, an examination of the present and future of the institution. "They'll find a niche as surrogate librarians or surrogate researchers for those who are in a hurry and can afford them. But in 10 years many more libraries will be functioning like information brokers, and they'll be cheaper for the individual user."
One library on the cutting edge of the information business is the Pikes Peak Library District, which serves the Colorado Springs, Colo., region.
"In the area of using electronic information systems, we're the library most involved and providing the most service electronically," says library director Kenneth Dowlin. "Traditionally the library has concerned itself with material it owns. We use our system to link into any publicly available data base."
Currently, that linking must be done through a librarian. Within a year, however, the home user will be able to access the data bases directly. The charge will be whatever the data base bills for the connect time.
With regard to for-profit brokers, Dowlin says, "The analogy is like us and bookstores. We've never put any bookstore out of business. We refer people to them." Similarly, he says, "Brokers have their niche, we have ours. They can be more specific, prepare fancy reports, visit you in your office, focus their product on you. We don't have the time for that."
As the store of knowledge increases, so will ability to acquire that information, whether it's reached through public or private sources.
"The democratization of knowledge is desirable," says author Schuchat. "These new techniques make it easier to access the growing volumes of information. Our society is based on rational responses, on information. When we need rain, we don't do a rain dance. We irrigate. The knowledge explosion and the improved access to it can only be helpful."