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O'leary Online

Magazine article Online

O'leary Online

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New Academic Information Model Bypasses Libraries

The "New Economy" looks a little like vaporware as the dot coms and their newfangled ways come crashing down. There is one market, how ever, where new, Internet-mediated ways of selling are just emerging: academic information. Several ambitious, well-funded information distributors are bidding to replace the old library-vendor partnership with new channels that cut the library out of the loop.

In the "old" academic information economy, the library occupied a central intermediary role. It licensed data from information producers and distributed it to students and teachers, at all levels, from schools to large universities. It's been a win-win-win situation for everyone. The vendors had large, dependable markets and, in the libraries themselves, superb distribution agents. The users had a remarkable cornucopia of information, at no cost to them. And the libraries fulfilled and enhanced their missions. In the New Economy model, the vendors are going directly to the customers. It's disintermediation, and the library is the odd man out.

The New Economy leaders are XanEdu, Questia, and the forthcoming ebrary. In some respects, they look familiar. XanEdu is a division of Bell & Howell Information and Learning, a longtime academic library partner. Questia and ebrary are building digital book collections that imitate those in undergraduate libraries. There the resemblance stops, because their business models are entirely different. All three companies have products that are designed, priced, and marketed directly for students and faculty. They are an implicit threat to academic libraries, and it may not be a small one. Their products have genuine value, are cheap, and do things that libraries do not.


This occurs against a backdrop of remarkable, library-intermediated delivery of "anytime, anywhere" content. For years, academic libraries have been expanding the types of digital information they provide, both onsite and remotely. The trend began with OPACs and periodical indexes. Soon, full-text periodicals appeared, and now there are thousands covering every imaginable subject, provided by the smallest libraries. The movement has been fueled by stiff competition among numerous vendors, leading to more content, better software, and low prices.

Other types of full-text material have continued to appear, from reference works to large document collections such as those in the LEXIS-NEXIS Universe product suite. Most recently, ebooks have arrived. The leading vendor for this content is netLibrary, which has 4,000 library customers and over 30,000 ebooks available for purchase. netLibrary is squarely in the tradition of the library/vendor partnership, since the library is both its customer and distributor. (netLibrary had an individual subscription plan, but discontinued it.)

These remarkable accomplishments have revolutionized academic libraries, but in the Web age, you can never rest. The New Economy distributors are betting that their content, value-added software, and clever marketing can establish them as competitors to libraries, and can entice people to pay for things that they may now get for free.


XanEdu ( was released in summer 2000. It takes familiar content--ProQuest databases--and surrounds it with two new course-related interfaces: a ReSearch Engine and CoursePacks. The ReSearch engine is the familiar ProQuest interface, accompanied by an elaborate subject classification designed to reflect college and university curricula. The general ReSearch Engine searches the ProQuest Academic Edition, a large, full-text, multidisciplinary periodical database. For business students, the MBA ReSearch Engine searches a subset of ABI/INFORM, a leading comprehensive business database, and Britannica. Results are limited to 50 items.

The ReSearch Engines are nothing new, but the CoursePacks are more innovative. …

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