Deconstructing Questia: The Usability of a Subscription Digital Library

Article excerpt

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, watching television can be educational. The other evening I viewed a commercial that proved quite provocative, at least from a librarian's perspective. The ad consisted of quick cuts from one computer monitor to another. The instant message on each screen said something to the effect of "I need to write a research paper." The series of shots culminated with the frantic message: "I need to write a research paper in 4 hours!" The commercial advertised the services of Questia which, as any information specialist knows by now, touts itself as a digital library of "tens of thousands" of books and journal articles designed to help students write, as the service mark states, "Better Papers. Faster." This television advertisement is a slight variation on one that features a profusely perspiring young man trying to accomplish what some students apparently perceive as a near impossibility -- the creation of a research paper (see Figure 1 on page 34). In the older commercial the swea ty, benighted scholar's room is piled high with books, none of which have helped him at all.

This article discusses the Questia service in terms of its marketing, usability, and the experiences of a small sample of college students. As a searcher and instruction librarian, I take an abiding interest in all end-user-oriented database products. I do not have any philosophical biases concerning Questia. This article incorporates general information on the service drawn from news stories, FAQs, and press releases. It includes students' impressions of the service generated by their experiences with Questia. I have tried to keep editorializing to a minimum. The students who contributed their reactions used free trial passwords to access Questia.


In April 2001 Questia had 35-40,000 full-text books in its online collection. It also offers around 50 full-text periodicals, with more to come, most apparently in the fields of psychology, history, and literature. Anyone may search Questia without charge, and in this way it falls into the free bibliographic database category To view items or to use the service's valueadded components (e.g., Notepad, automated bibliography builder, etc.), one must subscribe. Subscriptions are available for periods of 7 days, 1 month, or a full year at $9.95, $19.95, and $149.95 respectively. Unlike netLibrary, which concentrates its marketing to educational institutions for the electronic augmenting of on-site library collections, Questia generally markets directly to individuals. (netLibrary had a consumer/individual subscription option about a year ago, but dropped it, according to a company representative.)

In one of its FAQs, Questia portrays itself, in some tangential or perhaps political way, as a partner to the library community:

We believe that physical libraries, and their librarians, will continue to play a key role in the future of research and education. We expect that Questia will enhance the library experience for students by giving them another tool to help perform their research. The Questia search function alone -- to be offered at no charge to any user -- allows allbrarian to find the exact volumes and pages that can answer a student's question, thus saving deadend trips to the stacks [].

Although Troy Williams, company founder and CEO, stated at the Electronic Book 2000 Conference, "We have no plans to do institutional sales today," [1] the Questia FAQ accessed on May 1 included this statement: "Questia is currenfly partnering with select institutions to offer a volume subscription program to students. The volume subscription program will allow institutions to purchase a large number of individual subscriptions for its student body. Programs can be tailored to the institution's needs, allowing for flexibility to maximize student benefit."

Marketing and the Marquis: An Interested Bystander's View

According to another FAQ, Questia determined that "research conducted to date has shown a strong desire for our service among the target market. …