Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Have Paper Due, Need E-Book

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Have Paper Due, Need E-Book

Article excerpt

Troy Williams, founder of the new online library Questia.com, is prone to sweeping statements about its potential. The claims sound a bit like the recent hype over "Ginger" - a mysterious invention- in-progress that promised to revolutionize commuting and had many dreaming of flying scooters.

A few of Mr. Williams's predictions about Questia: College undergraduates will be able to craft a paper six hours faster than it takes them now (a net gain of six episodes of "Survivor"); it will be as necessary to getting through college as word processors; it will answer the prayer of distance learners.

Questia is at least one up on Ginger - it already exists. Four months after its launch, the Houston-based company offers the full texts of 35,000 books and several thousand journal articles, with plans to expand its collection to 250,000 by 2003.

Whether students will pay for the subscription-based service - $10 a week, $20 a month, or $150 a year - is not clear. But by holding out the prospect of being able to quickly find and search academic articles and books, Questia and other companies are challenging territory long dominated by university librarians. At schools across the United States, those guardians of the printed word are anxiously waiting to see if young scholars will prefer a few clicks in their dorm rooms to tedious photocopying - eschewing in the process potential guidance from trained librarians.

Students will always choose "the path of least resistance," says Peter Graham, director of the Research Libraries Group and librarian at Syracuse University. Mr. Graham worries that with options like Questia, students not only will shun reserved materials, they'll stop browsing stacks altogether and miss the serendipity of learning - for example, getting drawn into a book about modern-art theory while scanning the shelf for a biography of Michelangelo.

That point is lost on Catherine Aikin, a senior political- science major at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Ms. Aikin lets out a sigh of exasperation, suggesting that eating cafeteria food beats an afternoon in the library scouring journals and books for one or two quotes. "I hate that," she says.

In addition to 24-hour access to texts, the Questia site includes features geared toward undergraduates, such as the ability to search and copy from e-texts, a tool that creates endnotes and bibliographies automatically, and a built-in highlighter.

When told that Questia allows keyword searches of entire books like Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" - Aikin says she'd be apt to subscribe on a per-paper basis.

University librarians are also concerned that students may not realize their tuition already buys access to many of the same digital resources. David Ferriero, vice provost of libraries at Duke University, says students there have 145,000 e-books at their disposal. …

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