THE LIBRARY ON LINE ALL THE TIME--- FOR A FEE
A Harvard student facing a research project recently said that getting abook out of the library is the last thing on her mind. Instead she sits in her dormitory room and logs onto the Web, starting with Harvard's online system for searching and retrieving journal articles. "I hate the library, so I try to avoid it," she said. "It's such a big facility that you have to search through."
Students and librarians alike acknowledge that the use of books for research is becoming an archaic concept. The problem is, if scholarly books are not on the Web, they are invisible to anyone using the Internet as a substitute for in-depth investigation.
But new efforts are afoot to change that. Several companies are racing to put the full texts of hundreds of thousands of copyrighted books, old and new, on the Web. NetLibrary started the contest, with technology that lets people view books online for short periods of time, the digital equivalent of borrowing them from the library.
Two other companies, Ebrary.com and Questia Media, are taking on the same challenge but using a new strategy. They want to give people the opportunity to search through reams of pages at no charge, then will charge people a few cents a page fo rusing that information. (Questia users will be asked to pay for viewing,copying and printing the online pages.)
These electronic library projects are not attempts to compete with the budding electronic book industry,which offers books for downloading. In fact, the new effort to build an electronic library is not about reading at all. It is about the power of electronic searching. With digital scanning, texts of works that may be decades old can be mined for those few morsels of insight that may enhance a research paper or help prove an argument. It could be a way,some publishers say, to move books into the Web's fold and make them more visible to students, researchers and librarians.
"In an ideal world, a person would find a book in the card catalog, pull it off the shelf and use it," said Kate
Douglas Torrey, director of the University of North Carolina Press. "But that is just not the world we live in today." The University of North Carolina Press is among more than 80 publishers working with Questia to turn many of their titles into searchable documents available on the Web.
Laziness is not always the excuse for avoiding the traditional library. Evenp eople who do go hunting inthe stacks are sometimes thwarted. The books they want might be checked out or misplaced, lost forever among call numbers that have no relation to the sticker on their spines. Or the books might be at other libraries and available only to those researchers who are willing to wait weeks for interlibrary loans.
Such situations can be avoided on the Internet, proponents of digital libraries say. "This will take some of the tedium out of research," Ms. Torrey said, "and make it easy to use an extensive collection of scholarly work."
Questia, backed by $45 million in venture capital, plans to offer access to 50,000 volumes when it opens next spring and is working toward a goal of 250,000 books in three years.
These numbers are possible, the founders say, because they have appealed to publishers' pocketbooks.When a book is sold to an actual library, the publisher makes a one-time profit. That book might b eretrieved and read by hundreds of people, but the publisher never sees another dime. In the models used by Questia and Ebrary.com, however, that book could continue to make the publisher money as more people see it.
Methods of payment and of collections vary but the companies are confident that most people will have no problem paying a few cents since they already use quarters to use photocopy machines. These payments, the founders say, can add up to big money when millions of people are spending a few cents at a time. And many publishers are willing to license their copyrighted material in exchange for some of that cash.
If the sites succeed, they will be mixing the qualities of libraries and bookstores. Most people think of the bookstore as a place to buy and the library as a place to borrow or browse at no charge. But on the Internet, where full texts can be searched in seconds and information can be retrieved with a few clicks, convenience is part of the package as well. The companies are betting that people will pay for it.
Some librarians are concerned about the concept. One wonders what that will mean to traditional research libraries, which have always been motivated by public interest, not private profits. Making sure that low-income people have access to expansive new online libraries is one area of concern. Another concerns the selections made by digital libraries. Will databases include only the most popular books, asks a librarian "or the stuff that gets the highest return economically?"
New York Times, June 15, 2000
Contact F. David Peat