For online libraries and electronic books to be truly useful, their developers have to recognize the practical needs of both general readers and professional scholars. Research is under way to make the most of these powerful new forms of information

Will online books have a role in our lives?

Mary Summerfield

What does it really mean to use a book? The vision that probably comes to mind is a person sitting in an easy chair, reading a novel or non-fiction book, cover to cover. But the real-world uses of books depend on the particular book and the task at hand. A reader who wants to know more about a single word can check its meanings in a pocket dictionary or analyze its history in the Oxford English Dictionary. If she is preparing a talk on a topic, she can browse a monograph (or perhaps only its title page) at a library or bookstore and reject it, or she can purchase it, read it carefully, take notes on it, and photocopy key passages or graphics for ready reference. She can browse one chapter of a library copy of a textbook for background, or purchase and read an entire textbook for a course. Whether electronic media will improve on all these functions, however--or complicate them beyond the patience of most readers--is an open question.

Recognizing the economic and cultural importance of digital information, national and international agencies have made it a substantial R&D priority. The research issues are complex, including development of search engines that will deliver finely tuned responses from massive databases, along with presentation systems that will help readers handle electronic material at least as easily as paper. Most electronic-text projects have focused on journals and databases, not books--the British research endeavor E-LIB went as far as to exclude books explicitly--but the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has been an exception to this trend. Mellon-funded projects in this field include three major efforts involving Columbia: the Online Books Evaluation Project, Columbia International Affairs Online, and the Digital Scriptorium. The first of these initiatives looks at full-text books delivered over the Web, the second at resources in international affairs, and the third at medieval manuscripts.

OBEP and its sister projects all address certain common questions:

  • Would the online format complement or replace the print format?

  • Would the use of the online format increase readers' efficiency or effectiveness?

  • What would be the financial impact of the online format for authors, publishers, libraries, and users?

  • Would the online format provide expanded access to materials?

  • Will the marketplace sustain the online format?

  • These projects employ many of the same evaluation techniques, including analysis of how readers use the traditional and online formats--the latter via study of Web server data, surveys, and interviews about reactions of readers to the online format.

    The potential for online books may depend on the use characteristics of the books.

    Reference books are collections of information and analysis presented in short entries; they are essentially databases. Many are updated regularly, requiring publishers to issue (and libraries or scholars to purchase) new editions; an online format, in contrast, offers the advantage of continual updating. Readers have adopted online reference books with alacrity. They value access to these books from any location at any time (as long as a Web-linked computer is at hand) and the ability to use search tools to locate relevant information, whether whole or partial entries, rapidly. They read pertinent entries on the screen, save them to a file, or print them out.

    Monographs are designed to be read cover to cover. However, research shows that many scholarly uses involve reading a relatively small portion of a book or article. A reader may skim a book and read closely only the introduction and conclusion, the few pages addressing a topic of interest, or the chapters assigned in a course. Many readers envision benefits in access to an extensive online collection of current and older non-reference books, including monographs, essay collections, and textbooks. They appreciate the potential efficiency of full-text searching for coverage of a topic across a collection; such searching is nearly impossible with traditional books, since an accessible print collection is unlikely to contain all pertinent books, those it has may not all be shelved together, and the relevant concept may not even be an index term. Readers also like the certainty that an online book will be available when they want it--a library copy of a popular print book is likely to be checked out and unavailable for hours or weeks--and the ability to browse a book online (or review it, if they have already read it) and print out pages for future reference.

    While online books offer many advantages, their prospects are far from clear. Creating the comprehensive collection that serious readers seek will take substantial resources and many years, as electronic files of even recently published books typically are not available for use in creating an online book. William Mischo, co-principal investigator of the University of Illinois Digital Library Initiative, noted that a collection needs great breadth (number of titles) and depth (number of years of coverage)--as well as strong links to catalogs and abstracting/indexing services--to attract and retain readers' interest. Readers seek one-stop shopping; if they need to go to the library to do some of their research with paper books and journals, the advantages online materials offer are modest.

    A simpler but more resilient objection will be familiar to anyone who reads in the subway, at the breakfast table, or anywhere else a screen is not available. With current computers and browsers, few people are willing to read more than a short passage online; instead, they print out relevant sections or seek the print book. Will they be willing to do so if new delivery technology better emulates the ergonomics of hard copy? How would they react to an inexpensive, lightweight device that holds many books, can be comfortably held on one's lap in an easy chair or an airplane seat, and allows searching, highlighting, and annotation of text? (Such a device is about to enter the test market.)

    Publishers might use the online format to expand the market for books, providing long-term, low-cost access to readers whose libraries do not now purchase them. In such situations, would a reader want to use an online copy, even at a charge, or to pay for a printed copy produced on demand? The micro- and macroeconomics of the Web remain topics of great debate and lively speculation but little hard knowledge.

    At this point, early in the history of online books, far more questions than answers exist about their potential to benefit both the scholarly community and the general public. The related technology will evolve radically over the next few years. Continuing research into the critical factors affecting access, comfort, and the full range of reader behavior will help libraries and publishers develop systems that people find truly useful.

    Related links:

  • Columbia Digital Library

  • Columbia LibraryWeb Electronic Text Service

  • Butler Library Electronic Journals

  • Karen W. Arenson, "Columbia Adapts Books to the Screen (Online)," New York Times

  • Carol Mandel and Mary Summerfield, "Scholarly Monographs Online: Potentialities And Realities," for Association of Research Libraries conference, "The Specialized Scholarly Monograph in Crisis, or How Can I Get Tenure If You Won't Publish My Book? Experiments in Monographic Publishing"

  • Carol Mandel, Mary Summerfield, and Paul Kantor, "Online Books at Columbia: Measurement and Early Results on Use, Satisfaction, and Effect," Scholarly Communication and Technology Project, Association of Research Libraries

  • Prof. Judith Klavans, Computer Science Dept. and Center for Research on Information Access, Columbia

  • Center for Research on Information Access

  • The Online Books Page, Carnegie-Mellon

  • British Library (with Digital Library option)

  • Electronic Style, guide created by George Hoemann, School of Information Sciences, U. of Tennessee, Knoxville

  • D-Lib: Research in Digital Libraries

  • William Y. Arms, "Relaxing Assumptions about the Future of Digital Libraries: the Hare and the Tortoise," D-Lib, April 1997

  • "NSF Awards Digital Libraries Research," Stanford Digital Libraries Project

  • WWW Virtual Library, Stanford

  • e-Print archive, Los Alamos National Laboratory

  • Electronic access to medieval manuscripts, St. John's and St. Louis Universities

  • Religion e-texts & reference sources, Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee

  • Macmillan Computer Publishing Personal Bookshelf (e-books on computer topics, access free with registration)

  • Online Electronic Publishing Corporation: Computer and Internet Related Online Books

  • James Poniewozik, "Weep and Read It" (on book collections as commercially sentimentalized cultural signifiers), Salon

  • MARY SUMMERFIELD is coordinator of the Online Books Evaluation Project conducted by the Columbia University Libraries and Academic Information Systems.