Cengage Learning: Digitizing the World’s Libraries from SE Michigan

How many of us in Detroit are aware that one of the world’s biggest players in the digitization of school and library resources is located right in our backyard? Cengage Learning has spent almost 60 years growing its publishing business, first in Detroit and now in Farmington Hills.

“It’s not well-known that such a large global operation exists in Southeast Michigan,” admits Frank Menchaca, executive vice president for research solutions at Cengage Learning. “But Cengage Learning is a $2 billion company creating research experiences on steroids out of library resources. We’re in every kind of library, from high schools to Harvard to the CIA.”

This week, Gale, a division of Cengage Learning, announced a deal with the Associated Press (AP) to digitize the media giant’s corporate archives, including millions of pages of news copy, personal papers belonging to reporters, bureau records, and correspondence. The deal with the AP comes on the heels of another large, recently announced partnership between Gale and the Smithsonian Institution.

Cengage Learning was founded in downtown Detroit in 1954, and once had an office in the historic Penobscot Building. Through the years, Cengage built up a business converting books, magazines, and newspapers to microfilm. In the 1990s, Cengage moved out to the suburbs, and when the world started to pivot away from microfilm and towards digitization, Cengage again adapted. Now, Cengage oversees seven different brands, of which Gale is one, handling different verticals of its digitization empire.

“We’ve been doing digital publishing for more than 25 years, decades before Google and most other publishing companies,” Menchaca notes. Worldwide, Cengage Learning employs 5,500 people, including about 800 in Michigan. “Anyone [locally] with an English or History degree has probably worked for us at one point.”

Menchaca says the value Cengage and its various divisons add to digital publishing is all about metadata. “We don’t just turn our digitization machine on,” he points out. “There’s lots of data around, but what’s important is how its used, defined, and measured. We want to provide a qualitatively better research experience.”

The Smithsonia project typifies what Cengage Learning does. Gale will take back copies of Air and Space magazine and Smithsonian Magazine and create a digital archive. The project will include content aggregation, putting layers of metadata over the copy, incorporating tools for data mining, and adding it all to the Cengage platform. Under the agreement, Cengage Learning will have access to the complete archives of Smithsonian Magazine and Air and Space magazine, in addition to collections covering American history, world cultures, science, and more. Menchaca estimates that Gale will digitize between 8 and 12 million pages per collection.

Cengage also takes pride in its agile software shop, which Menchaca considers to be unusually forward-thinking in the way it operates. At Cengage, the employees in charge of content, marketing, and software development all sit together and freely collaborate. “A lot of companies come here to look at our process,” Menchaca adds. “We had GM here not too long ago.”

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