John Rothman, Electronic Information Pioneer, Dies

John Rothman, director of the New York Times’ corporate archives and creator of the New York Times Information Bank, an early electronic news repository, died on September 26 of a stroke at the age of 95.

John Rothman
John Rothman
Courtesy of CUNY Graduate Center

John Rothman, director of the New York Times’ (NYT) corporate archives and creator of the New York Times Information Bank, an early electronic news repository, died on September 26 of a stroke at the age of 95.

The Information Bank was a pioneering computer retrieval system that provided subscribers with access to curated data—primarily abstracts of articles from the Times and other papers, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, as well as magazines such as Newsweek, Time, and Business Week.

Born Hans Rothmann in Berlin in 1924, Rothman fled to Brooklyn with his parents in 1939, changing his name to John when he was 19. After a stint at Queens College, he served in military intelligence for the Fourth Armored Division in Europe, where he interrogated German prisoners of war and civilians. Rothman returned to Queens College after his discharge to finish his bachelor’s degree, earning a Master of Arts in 1949 from New York University and a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Columbia University in 1955.

Rothman joined the Times in 1945, and in 1946 began working for the New York Times Index, a printed reference compiling short abstracts of NYT source material for researchers, librarians, students, and journalists. Index entries, in turn, guided users to the full-length material on microfilm. He became assistant editor of the Index in 1950, and its editor in 1968.

In 1975, Rothman was named director of Research and Information Technology, advising on the company’s use of computer technology, overseeing the paper’s Reference Library and Photo Library, and developing the News Research Section. He served as director of the NYT Archives from 1981 until his retirement in 1990.

After leaving the paper, Rothman worked as an independent archival consultant for clients including former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, former Governor of Pennsylvania William Scranton, and Ellmore Patterson, chairman of J.P. Morgan in the 1970s. From 2001 to 2015, he served as an archives consultant and volunteer archivist for the City of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center Archives.

 

BANKING ON THE INFORMATION BANK

In 1965, after considering how computers might take the Index’s work a step further by storing and offering access to abstracts to NYT readers, libraries, universities, and corporations, Rothman proposed the Information Bank. The paper was interested in exploring the use of computers for typesetting and printing, Rothman told CUNY Graduate Center Chief Librarian Polly Thistlethwaite in a 2013 video interview , but was blocked at the time by the typesetters’ and printers’ unions. Rothman’s project was greenlighted, at least in part, “because they felt it would give them a chance to get their feet wet with computers,” he recalled. He began working on the project with IBM the following year.

The Information Bank was piloted internally at the paper in 1972, as a complement to the NYT morgue—file cabinets full of article clippings that dated back to the 19th century. NYT editor Punch Sulzberger was an early experimenter with the system, Rothman recalled. Later that year, access was given to the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library, through a glass-enclosed terminal on the library’s ground floor. Six months later the Information Bank was rolled out to commercial, government, and foundation subscribers.

In its earliest form, the Information Bank was able to retrieve material going back to 1979. Its electronic abstracts pointed users to the full articles available through NYT microfiche cards, also part of their subscription. The following year, Mead Data Central launched its Lexis legal information service. Mead’s Nexis news and information service was established six years later; the two would eventually merge into Lexis-Nexis. In 1983, the NYT partnered with Mead to license and distribute the three electronic libraries of the Times information retrieval service, bundling the Information Bank with the full-text New York Times On-Line and Advertising and Marketing Intelligence, which contained abstracts from specialized periodicals since September 1979, as part of Nexis.

While the Information Bank may not have been a financial triumph for the Times, it was a critical connection between the existing formats of archival storage and the next generation of electronic data retrieval. “The information bank was a pioneering venture, without which, maybe, subsequent developments would not have happened,” Rothman said. “But it wasn’t, by itself, a rousing success.”

"John and his cohort, in constructing those early computer to computer protocols, were following a vision of collectivity over commercialism," Thistlethwaite told LJ. “It's not like they made everything free right from the start, but they did have the vision to make it interoperable, so exchange practices could continue what libraries and archives had started in print."

Rothman’s life’s work shaped his sensibilities as an advocate for open, discoverable information, noted Thistlethwaite, from his early experiences taking statements from war criminals through 44 years at the Times and as a volunteer archivist at CUNY. “He was irrepressible in his efforts to excavate and make things accessible,” she said. “He understood that the New York Times as an info bank alone would not be adequate to the task of the Fifth Estate. He understood that it needed to be indexed well and cross referenced, and that there was strength in the network.”

In addition to Rothman’s far-sightedness and thoroughness, added Thistlethwaite, he had a wry sense of humor that often made its way subtly into archival descriptions. "He was such a warm colleague,” she said. “He had a great affect, a great sense of humor, and a love of his work."

Rothman is survived by his wife, Gertrude Rothman; son, Andrew; daughter, Vivien Tartter; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz

This was an apt summation of an unmatched contribution to the profession of archiving, librarianship, and reporting. I especially appreciate the attention paid to the art and science of historical correction and the reclamation narrative. Thank you, Lisa Peet and Polly Thistlethwaite for the honoring.

Posted : Oct 16, 2019 04:20


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