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Oral Care Products and Practices case study

'Oral Care Products and Practices – A Historical Overview would have been impossible to complete without the British Library’s services and support.' 

Angela Donnelly, Unilever 

Unilever is one of the world’s leading suppliers of consumer goods in the food, home and personal care markets. Its portfolio includes some of the world’s best-known brands, 12 of which each have annual sales of over €1 billion. A programme of continuous innovation sustains this success. Last year Unilever spent €1,065 million on research and development (R&D), and registered 397 new patents. 

In common with 80 per cent of the UK’s highest spenders on R&D, Unilever has a long-standing relationship with the British Library. Over 50 per cent of the Library’s acquisitions budget is devoted to material to support the range of research needed by multinationals for their R&D. With an annual intake of 30,000 research journal titles as well as 70,000 reports, theses and otherwise unpublished scientific material, our document supply services provide direct value to research laboratories. 

‘Information drives the innovation that makes our brands successful,’ says Dr Alan McKinnon, Unilever’s Director of Laboratory at Port Sunlight, headquarters of Home and Personal Care R&D. ‘Now, digital information is an absolutely basic resource that scientists expect to access directly from their desktops.’ Angela Donnelly’s team in the Scientific Support Group, based at Port Sunlight, has contributed to the development of a Personal News Service for Unilever’s scientists that provides them with up-to the- minute resources in e-journals, abstracting services and patent databases. This is complemented by an information literacy programme that Angela runs to help researchers identify the right material. ‘If scientists can’t find the relevant information, they could initiate projects focused on the wrong questions, or generate results that are already known. That would be a huge cost to the company,’ Angela says. 

The importance of the integrity of information in the insecure web environment prompted Angela’s colleague Jill Sawdon to strengthen Unilever’s links with the British Library. Unilever has a customised document supply service at the delivery end of all their end-user databases. Jill says, ‘The British Library provides so much critical value to our research activity that we have integrated the service with our own developing systems to ensure they interface seamlessly.’ 

Angela describes Unilever’s information needs as ‘wide ranging – we’re committed to developing sustainable farming practices around our raw materials production and we take environmental responsibility for our manufacturing processes very seriously. As well as needing scientific information, we’re constantly monitoring the social sciences, including new research in consumer psychology, lifestyle and demographic changes, and the standards and legislation that control product ingredients.’ 

The British Library’s document supply operates 24 hours a day, giving Unilever’s scientists the world-class coverage they need. ‘However,’ says Angela, ‘what really gives the British Library the edge is speed and accuracy. Unilever’s scientists in the US especially benefit from the Secure Electronic Delivery service. They value the certainty of knowing that the Library has the information that’s needed. Supply is reliable and now documents can be with them in less than two hours.’ 

‘Unilever’s ethos is also about widening the benefits of research,’ Angela continues. ‘Scientists are encouraged to share their expertise so that their whole knowledge community gains. For example, Dr Paul Riley, one of our most experienced researchers in oral healthcare has, for a number of years, been lecturing on oral care technology and this led to an interest in the history of oral care and the development of the brands that we see today. He’s surveyed current understanding, set it in its historical context, and outlined major innovations in oral care. With 1,500 citations from the Library’s collections, Oral Care Products and Practices – A Historical Overview would have been impossible to complete without the British Library’s services and support.’

This extract is taken from our Annual Report 2003/04.