Questia's Take on the Digital Library

Article excerpt

This service aims to be an alternative to the conventional college library

Questia is finally here. The new online research service has had a long and well-publicized gestation, with ads, conference appearances, and press releases promoting its launch. It has created great expectations for its claims to revolutionize research, and for its extraordinary accumulation of venture capital. Now that Questia has appeared (http://www.questia.com), does it fulfill its promises? It depends.

If you expect Questia to be a true digital library, comparable to its brick-and-mortar counterparts, you'll be disappointed and perhaps put off by its subtly exaggerated claims. However, if you expect Questia to be an electronic research tool that may appeal strongly to college undergraduates, you'll be much closer to the reality of the product.

The Questia idea first occurred to founder Troy Williams during his law school days, when he was dismayed to discover that he couldn't search scholarly information as readily as legal information. He envisioned a large, full-text collection of academic literature, with the same full-text search features as the online legal services. He started Questia Media America, Inc. in 1998 and has been remarkably successful in obtaining $135 million in funding. The intervening time has been spent building Questia's digital collection and software tools.

Opening-Day Collection

Questia's opening-day collection contains approximately 50,000 digitized books in the liberal arts, chosen for subject and level to meet the research needs of college undergraduates. The collection is strong in the classical liberal arts disciplines: history, literature, art, music, philosophy, economics, political science, psychology, sociology, and education. It has lesser representation from newer disciplines like gender, ethnic, and area studies. There's nothing in business, engineering, technology, the hard sciences, or, with a few exceptions, the biological sciences. Books come from 170 reputable trade publishers and university presses.

In each discipline there's a wide-ranging selection of academic books, but here the comparison to a college library ends, to Questia's disfavor. The subject of business is noticeable for its absence. True, it's not one of the classic liberal arts, but it's a popular college major and the subject of legions of research papers. Questia is missing a big market by excluding it. On the other hand, the absence of science and engineering books is understandable, because of their differing patterns of research.

Questia's collection is markedly deficient in primary sources, particularly in literature. This isn't a deliberate collection-development decision. Questia does have novels, plays, and poetry, but the selection is erratic and dramatically incomplete. There is Hamlet and King John, but not Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, or The Tempest. There is Summer and Smoke, but not The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire. There is The Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol, but not A Tale of Two Cities. The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men are absent. There are no books by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.

This pattern continues in nonfiction. You can't read Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice or Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand. The past 20 years' Pulitzer Prize-winning titles in general nonfiction are almost completely lacking.

Too Many 'Classics'?

The age of the Questia collection is perhaps even more troubling. A large portion of the books are recent, having been published in the last 5 years, and with many 2000 and 2001 titles. After this, however, the collection ages very quickly. There are numerous obsolete items from as far back as the 1890s, and many books, including those in fast-changing disciplines like psychology and ecology, are at least 20 years old. Questia notes that its collection contains classic as well as new books, but this claim is disingenuous. …