John Rothman, who in an era before Google conceived and helped develop The New York Times Information Bank, a revolutionary system that let computer users easily find journalism by The Times and dozens of other publications, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 95.
His son, Andrew, said the cause was a stroke.
Introduced in 1972, the Information Bank was an electronic retrieval system that gave subscribers computer access, through telephone lines, to long abstracts of articles from The Times and other newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, as well as from magazines like Newsweek, Time and Business Week.
Mr. Rothman was a fitting leader for the Information Bank. He had, since 1946, worked for The New York Times Index, the invaluable monthly, quarterly and annual publications that offered summaries of articles from as far back as 1913, guiding students and researchers to find the full ones on microfilm.
“Indexing is a giant guessing game,” Mr. Rothman wrote in Saturday Review magazine in 1965, when he was the index’s editor. “Indexers must assess in advance what information a user is likely to seek, where he is likely to look for it and how much detail the abstract (or entry) should include to possibly spare him a trip to the original item in the newspapers.”
Working on the index led Mr. Rothman to think about how computers could store, sort and deliver abstracts of Times content to users at the paper and other locations, like public libraries, universities and major corporations. He proposed the Information Bank — the Times Index writ large — in 1965 and began working on it with IBM the next year.
“The Times was interested in computers for typesetting and printing the newspaper,” Mr. Rothman said in 2013 in an interview with the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he was a volunteer archivist after retiring from The Times in 1990. “And of course they were blocked by the unions. They were interested in having me pursue this because they thought it would give them a chance to get their feet wet with computers.”
In 1972, Times staff members began testing the Information Bank as a research tool. It would soon augment the paper’s archives, known as the morgue, where file cabinets are packed with clippings dating to the 19th century. In Times Talk, the paper’s in-house newsletter, Mr. Rothman assured colleagues that “once the basic methods” of searching the Information Bank were mastered, “retrieving the information is quite simple.”
In late 1972, the first installation of the Information Bank outside The New York Times was made at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library. Within six months, its 14 customers included NBC, The Associated Press, the State Department, the C.I.A., the Library of Congress, Exxon and the Chase Manhattan Bank.
At its inception, the Information Bank’s retrieval capability went back three years. Users at The Times and elsewhere were able to get full articles through microfiche cards, which were part of an institution’s Information Bank subscription.
The Times was not alone in recognizing the promise of electronic data retrieval. Mead Data Central started its Lexis legal information service in 1973; its Nexis news and information service began six years later.
The Information Bank was a pioneering venture. But financially speaking, Mr. Rothman told the Graduate Center, “it wasn’t a rousing success.”
In 1983, The Times made a deal for Mead to exclusively license and distribute the Information Bank. The company shut the Information Bank’s computer facilities and let Mead handle the transmission and dissemination of the Times’s data as part of Nexis.
Hans Rothmann was born on April 21, 1924, in Berlin. He and his parents — who were Jewish and designated by the Nazis as resident aliens because his grandfather was a Polish immigrant — had their property and possessions seized and were expelled in 1939. They fled to Brooklyn, where his father, Max, sold refrigeration equipment to restaurants, and his mother, Johanna (Marcuse) Rothmann, known as Hennie, was a homemaker.
Hans learned English by working at a movie theater and attended Queens College before enlisting in the Army. (At 19, he changed his name to John Rothman, which he felt sounded more American.) While serving in military intelligence for the Fourth Armored Division in Europe, he used his native language to interrogate German prisoners of war and civilians.
After his discharge, Mr. Rothman went back to Queens College to finish his bachelor’s degree, in English and comparative literature. He then sought a job at The Times. He wanted to be a theater critic — he would earn a master’s degree in 1949 at New York University for a thesis about drama criticism at The Times — but was offered a job as an indexer. Within a few years, he was assistant editor of The Times Index.
In 1956, he earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Columbia University.
He worked for 44 years at The Times. In addition to editing the Index and serving as director of library and information services — the position he held when the Information Bank began — Mr. Rothman later oversaw the newspaper’s research and information technology and its archives.
In addition to his son, Mr. Rothman is survived by his wife, Gertrude (Ullmann) Rothman; a daughter, Vivien Tartter; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
After his retirement, he organized the archives of Cyrus Vance, the lawyer and former secretary of state; William Scranton, the former governor of Pennsylvania; and Ellmore C. Patterson, the chairman of J.P. Morgan & Company during the 1970s.
From 2000 to 2015, he was a volunteer at the Graduate Center, where he brought order to the archives of its presidents and student organizations.
“This was his retirement gig, but he came in wearing a suit and tie, and he gifted this organization his archival skill,” Polly Thistlethwaite, chief librarian of the graduate center, said by phone. “There were no sick days for him on a volunteer job.”