Magazine article Online

The Cutting-Edge Library at Shell Research

Magazine article Online

The Cutting-Edge Library at Shell Research

Article excerpt

Thomas Pack ( is a freelance writer based in Peewee Valley, KY. Jeff Pemberton ( is Publisher of ONLINE magazine.

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If you see the word "explosion" in the same sentence as the phrase "information professionals," you probably expect to read about some type of disaster-especially when you learn that the facility the professionals work in belongs to a petroleum company.

But explosions are business as usual for the information professionals at the Shell Research & Technology Centre in Thornton, England. The facility was established as a research laboratory during the Second World War, when it developed fuel for Spitfire fighter planes. Since then, Shell Research has become known for its expertise in fuels, lubricants, and combustion science.

The scientists-about 500 chemists, engineers, biologists, physicists, mathematicians, computer experts and support staff-pay special attention to "developing new fuels and lubes," said Andy Cooke, manager of the laboratory's Information Centre, "but also on this site, we have a Health, Safety & Environment group dealing with the fate and effects of oil products. The HSE group is also recognised as a world expert in risk assessments and hazards research, including the consequences and mitigation of fires and explosions."

Cooke added that the laboratory has "other groups doing all the analysis work and the measurement technologies which go into having to test lots of different fuels and lubes in cars in the laboratory and on the roads."

Meeting the information needs of the scientists would be a challenging task for any corporate library. For Cooke's staff, the challenges have become even more complex because the information center is no longer a traditional library. In fact-although there hasn't been a literal explosion-the center's organizational structure has been wiped out.

"As with other companies. over the past few years. there have been growing pressures within Shell for services to improve cost effectiveness," Cooke said, "so to survive and thrive, you need to demonstrate commercial viability. The route I've chosen for this is to set up [the center] within Shell as a standalone, self-funding business. That's been achieved. We've survived, but now we have to thrive."

His strategy for success involves marketing the information center's services to customers outside of Shell. The freedom to do so is one of the primary advantages of working as a standalone unit. One of the disadvantages is that the laboratory's researchers are no longer required to use Cooke's staff; the scientists can hire any outside information firm.

To retain old clients and attract new ones, Cooke has developed a cutting-edge approach to information services-one built on the idea of a "knowledge factory." That's how Cooke describes the research laboratory because it creates and repackages information that is sold by Shell operating units worldwide. "In effect," he said, "Shell Research is a knowledge factory where both the raw materials and end-products are information."

The appellation applies equally well to the information center because it now offers not only traditional information access and retrieval, but also data production, information management, and even marketing services.


Cooke, who has a background as a research scientist and experience in IT, came to Thornton about four years ago. As recently as 1997, the library sat within a traditional organisational structure. "We were an entirely local, in-house information center," Cooke said, "with all costs simply recovered through overheads which bore no relation to actual use or real market prices."

During 1998, Shell began to turn the Thornton facility into a commercial science and technology park with both Shell and third-party companies paying the going rate for services. …

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