The Future of Online Reference -I

By SAM VAKNIN, Special to UPI   |   Nov. 10, 2003 at 12:16 PM

SKOPJE, Macedonia, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- These are momentous times in the digital content industry. Within the past 60 days, Barnes and Noble withdrew from the e-books business, peddling its electronic publishing house to iUniverse and terminating the sale of digital titles from its barnesandnoble.com Web site. It then proceeded to take private its publicly listed online arm.

To the consternation of many authors, Amazon, its chief Internet competitor, introduced a "search inside the book" feature with an initial database of 120,000 titles. It was preceded by eBooks.com's less comprehensive but otherwise similar search engine.

Project Gutenberg -- the pioneering and largest depository of free, mostly "plain-vanilla" (text only) e-books -- added the 10,000th title to its unsurpassed collection. In the meantime, e-book aggregators, such as blackmask.com, now proffer tens of thousands of free titles for download in up to 8 file formats. Even Microsoft has spent the last few months offering a free weekly selection of 3 commercial titles each, exclusively readable on its MS-Reader application.

Buffeted by these winds of e-commerce, vendors of online reference -- textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias -- are eyeing the market warily and wearily.

Patrick Spain is Chairman and CEO of Alacritude, publisher of eLibrary and Encyclopedia.com. eLibrary is a digital archive of more than 13 million documents culled from over 2000 publications. It includes newswires, newspapers, magazines, journals, transcripts, photographs, maps and books -- major works of literature, art, and reference.

Troy Williams founded Questia in 1998 and has served as its President & CEO ever since. Questia is a massive online library of over 400,000 books, journals, and articles organized into more than 4,000 research topics. It caters mainly to students and offers cool features such as online annotation, page printing for free, and bibliography generator.

Tom Panelas is the Director of Corporate Communications of the Encyclopaedia Britannica -- the Rolls Royce of reference works. It has been available online for a few years now -- the 32 volumes, an interactive atlas, a student's version, a links directory, and a topical compilation of thousands of magazine articles and multimedia. The Britannica has alternated between revenue models: subscriptions only, then free access with advertising, and back to subscriptions.

First I asked these pivotal industry players how they saw the future of paid access to online reference works, textbooks, and scholarly material?

-- Spain: Online reference is being consumerized or "Wal-Marted." That which used to be delivered to a limited audience of thousands (librarians and large companies) is now available to a huge audience in the tens, maybe hundreds, of millions. This affects prices, business models, and the very structure of the industry. Many generic reference materials (encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauri, etc.) are available for free and will remain so for the indefinite future. They serve either to market print and other electronic products or they generate advertising. Good models do both. Some very specialized titles with limited audiences may continue to be able to charge. But most cannot. This means that people won't pay or won't pay much for "content" -- but they will pay small amounts for services that help them find, organize and publish answers to their questions especially when those relate to wealth (finance and career), health, and certain types of entertainment.

-- Panelas: We've seen in the past three years a reaction to the meme of the middle- and late-1990s, that all information on the Internet has to be free and that people won't pay for it. For a few years it held somewhat true, but as the Internet population became more experienced, their interests and preferences inevitably changed.

People who were using free information on the Web eventually became fed up. Many of the sites they used disappeared because they had no self-sustaining economic model. Much of the information online was worthless. It became difficult to tell whether information on the Web was reliable.

As a result we've seen a growing realization among Internet users that not all types of information are equal, that authoritative information is valuable, somewhat rare, costs money to create, and for these reasons it's worth paying for. Many more people are willing to pay for high-quality information on the Internet than four years ago, especially since the price of online reference is at a nadir. We see online as the area that will grow the fastest, as far as the vending of reference goes. Many people will subscribe through third-party organizations such as Internet service providers with whom we have established relationships. Subscribers to SBC Yahoo! DSL service, for example, can choose a subscription to Britannica.com along with their service. In the future, publishers will probably provide one kind of service to such third-party distributors and create others, with better, premium offerings, for customers who pay them directly, since there's more revenue in such subscriptions.

Increasingly, information Web sites will "aggregate" content -- that is, incorporate sources that go well together but could not be integrated before the Internet. Britannica.com, for example, includes three encyclopedias, magazines and journals, a guide to the best Web sites on various subjects, and other information. Thus sources that were previously spread throughout the library stacks, requiring the wearing out of much shoe leather to bring them together, now come to rest in one place, on the screen of your computer. This trend will no doubt continue.

-- Williams: Online reference resources, i.e., e-Libraries, will become an indispensable part of education over the next 20 years. There are a number of discernible trends: first, electronic access will be the primary method of accessing scholarly information within a decade or two. It removes the need to be near a physical copy of the title one needs to access, it resolves multiple-user issues, and greatly increases the ability of a researcher to find what he or she is looking for.

Second, online access to scholarly information is an integral part of the trend towards online and distance education. The undergraduate population is diversifying and now includes students enrolled in distance learning programs, rural students without physical access to an adequate library, and older, community college students who work or have family obligations that prevent them from spending time in their campus library.

Third, the Internet has engendered a powerful trend toward personalization.

E-libraries such as Questia enable their users to personalize their library. Notes and highlights in various colors in each book and article can be saved for future reference. Documents, "virtual bookshelves" and even previous term papers and bibliographies can be saved online and organized in various folders.

Fourth, people increasingly expect complete mobility. ELibraries such as Questia enables researchers to access their personalized copies of books and journals as well as old term papers and current work-in-progress from anywhere.

Q: Who are Alacritude's main competitors?

-- Spain: Alacritude competes with Google on the low end and Nexis on the high end. Google is in the throes of creating a marketplace and, only incidentally, allows its users to find knowledge. Nexis provides very specialized (and expensive) information services to enterprises. Alacritude's eLibrary helps our users to locate pretty good answers inexpensively. We are different in that we are evolving our service to tightly integrate tools and content and to let our customers search anywhere, even other services, from a single easy-to-use online research interface.

Part 2 of this symposium will run Tuesday. Your comments to svaknin@upi.com

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