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Carie Mathison said she and Snap Pea co-owner Michelle Gobrecht found HillSearch to be a valuable source of information for their Lakeville business, where a chef assembles fresh ingredients for cook-at-home entrees. They had difficulty finding up-to-date data, even when they paid to access reports through an industry organization.
They have used HillSearch to update their business plan and research delivery systems, Mathison said.
Kim Pearson, CEO of New Boundary Technologies in Minneapolis, said he has used HillSearch many times over the past few years. New Boundary provides software that enables medium-size and large companies to remotely manage employee personal computers.
"When there are companies who are either potential partners or competitors or could be competitors, you can find out a wealth of information that you can't find out just doing Google," Pearson said.
A proprietary HillSearch feature, OneSearch, is particularly valuable, because it searches across a number of databases, sparing users a dozen or so individual searches, Pearson said.
HillSearch and other library tools give users access to what Richter calls the "invisible Web." While a Google search turns up seemingly countless Web pages, the results represent only 20 percent of what is available.
Most trade journals, industry reports and demographic data do not appear in Google searches, because they are accessible only with paid subscriptions or memberships. HillSearch makes many of those sources available online.
While walk-in patrons make about 15,000 visits a year, Richter said, the library's online services had 987,000 unique visitors last year. He expected that to reach 2.5 million this year.
Revenue last year approached $1.4 million, up from $157,000 in 2001, Richter said. Revenue is expected to reach $2 million this year.
To finance the online expansion, he said, the library's board of directors has authorized spending a larger share of its endowment, as much as 9 percent a year, in recent years.
Richter expects spending to fall to 5 percent annually in a year or two, a point at which the programs would be self-funding. The library, which began with a $1 million endowment from Hill and his family, has $24 million in reserve.
Richter marvels at what Hill, an unflagging researcher, accomplished. Pointing out a map showing railway routes spreading across the continent, Richter said: "This was the Internet of James J. Hill's days. Before this, commerce stopped right about here, in Chicago.
"James J. Hill was like the Bill Gates of his time, expanding industry and business throughout the country and then throughout the world. ... We're just kind of following that a little bit."