31 Aug Ofer Eitan States: The Death and Life of a Scholarship Database
Gail Schlachter was a legendary librarian who built one of the earliest databases of financial aid opportunities.
Many people loved her. Many more loved her work. It began in the late 1970s, when Schlachter published a book of college scholarships for women. Then one for people of color. Then one for people with disabilities.
Schlachter transformed her research into a company, which became a life, which became a legacy. Students hungry for higher education even when few colleges cared much about them—they could go to a library, use Schlachter’s books and find money to fund their academic ambitions.
In the past four decades, college has only grown more expensive. Today’s students need scholarships more than ever. But the way they search for those opportunities has changed.
“The idea of somebody going to the library, and getting a book from a reference librarian, and writing down on paper the names of all the scholarships you might be interested in—that’s out,” says R. David Weber, Schlachter’s longtime collaborator and friend.
By 2015, the 72-year-old librarian knew she needed to make her scholarship data searchable online. She was on the verge of doing so when, suddenly, she died.
She left behind grateful friends and readers—and a meticulous database. The kind so well curated, catalogued and cross-referenced that it makes tech investors and entrepreneurs itchy with ideas.
What happened next reveals how the internet has changed the roles librarians play and the ways people find and think about information. It’s a story about what happens when that information shifts from being a public good to a private product, and about the hidden costs of data that looks free.
“The ending,” Schlachter’s son says, “is a little bit tragic.”
But only if it really is the ending.
The words people use to describe Schlachter are mystical. They say she was pixie-like. She was a whirlwind. She was radiant.
“Just bright and shining—this smile that would light up a stadium,” says Courtney Young, the university librarian at Colgate University.
And Schlachter also was savvy. In 1978, she published “The Directory of Financial Aids for Women.” In 1979, for the first time ever, women outnumbered men at U.S. colleges.
Schlachter came to the publishing industry through her research as an academic. She was the first person to earn a doctorate in library science from the University of Minnesota. That same year, 1971, she divorced her husband and moved with her two small children to Southern California, where she held librarian and professor positions at several universities. To help other doctoral students select thesis topics, she wrote an annotated bibliography of library science dissertations. When her publisher said a second edition would be too large to produce and asked her to narrow the project’s scope, she decided she was done with what she called the “intellectual compromises” of the traditional publishing process.
So Schlachter started Reference Service Press. It was a family endeavor, supported with $10,000 borrowed from her parents. Schlachter’s mom wrote invoices by hand. Her kids delivered books to the post office in red wagons.
“My brother and I were the fulfillment department,” says Sandy Hirsh, Schlachter’s daughter and associate dean for academics at the San José State University College of Professional and Global Education. “That’s what we would do at night after school. We would pack up books, fold up the flat pack boxes, putting the books in, using the tape to seal up the books, putting the labels on, putting the stamps on, putting the invoices in.”
At first, the press was a part-time project Schlachter tended on top of her university job, and, later, her role as an executive at ABC-Clio Press. But in 1985, she turned her full attention to running her company.
“Gail was an innovator,” Weber says, the kind of person he cited as an example in the economics classes he taught at Los Angeles Community College District. “I would talk about the role of a capitalist, an innovator, in an economic system. I said, ‘I know a person like that!’”
When a publishing periodical asked Schlachter to share business advice for other librarians, she offered this: “Identify a need, use your library skills to fill it, and learn how to sell it.”
The need Schlachter identified was scholarships. She was worried about reports that men received disproportionately more financial aid than women. Maybe there was an “information void” about the awards and grants that were available exclusively for women. Maybe she could tip the scales by tracking those opportunities down and sharing them.
“There was a radical shift in the population of students going to college, and all these great support programs for them, but no one place for the beneficiaries to learn about it,” says Eric Goldman, Schlachter’s son and a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. “She was really motivated by this feminist concern. How can we get more women into college? Get them better treatment?”
The great interest libraries showed in buying “The Directory of Financial Aids for Women” signaled that Reference Service Press had found its niche.
The next book in Schlachter’s series was a “Directory of Financial Aids for Minorities,” later divided into separate volumes for African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans. A book for veterans, military members and their families came in the late 1980s, as did one for people with disabilities. Then a guide for finding money to study abroad, and one for winning merit aid.
The books, often bound between white covers, became more specific, their titles sounding increasingly like phrases a student today might plug into a Google search: “Money for Graduate Students in the Health Sciences”; “Money for Christian College Students”; “How to Pay for Your Degree in Nursing.”
All of this was powered by the database of scholarships Schlachter created—which has grown to nearly 30,000 entries—each item intricately tagged to indicate which kinds of students ought to apply for which opportunities. As reader feedback relayed, this personalized approach to seeking financial aid worked.
“Coming from a low income background, with a single mother and three sisters, I did not think that I would ever have a chance to get a good university education,” wrote one former reader. “However, these books in the local library helped my sisters and I apply to and graduate from well ranked universities. I was even able to dream of law school because of my low undergraduate debt!”
Schlachter’s publishing company flourished. Her books earned awards. And all the while, she sustained her connections to the library community. She held officer roles in state and national organizations, serving as president of the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association and editor-in-chief of its journal. She was active in Reforma, an association that advocates for offering Latino and Spanish-speaking communities more library services and materials.
This kind of work, plus Schlachter’s “incredibly encouraging” welcome of newcomers to it, revealed her commitment to including others, Young says.
“Some people probably frame it and say Gail was ‘colorblind.’ That’s not it. She saw people for who they are. She had great interest in the potential in people,” Young says. “She was very interested in things that maybe would be perceived as radical from the outside but were sort of who she was on the inside.”
When Young ran for president of the American Library Association for 2014 and 2015, she asked Schlachter to serve as her campaign treasurer. Schlachter agreed, and later contributed her own money to the effort, so that Young wouldn’t worry about expenses….