Library Issues
Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
Vol. 21, No. 5 May 2001


Questia, XanEdu and Friends:
What Campuses and Libraries Can Learn from Them

by Mignon Adams

Questia! XanEdu! Ebrary! Since last fall, extensive advertising campaigns have caused these company names to enter the common campus vocabulary. All three of these are based on the premise that the users (students) will pay a fee directly to the company in order to access their information resources. In addition, two other companies—Blackboard and Jones E-Global Library—also have products that can bypass the academic library completely.

Libraries are expensive operations. Those in the academy may well think that these products may be a way to provide resources to students while cutting back on the costs of operating an on-campus library. If the costs can be passed on directly to students, then perhaps colleges and universities could get out of the library business, just as many of them are no longer in the food service business.

Can such products obviate the need for an institution’s own library? Or are libraries more than just their collections? Not long ago, many were predicting the demise of libraries and librarians because soon everything would be “available for free on the Internet.” Since then, the Internet has enriched and expanded libraries, but the information certainly isn’t free, not always objective, or evaluated for quality. While none of these commercial ventures can totally replace a library, there are perhaps important lessons we can learn from them.

The Products

Anyone who watched the Final Four basketball coverage heard about a new product, Questia, a collection of digitized books and journal articles. Questia markets only to students; XanEdu also markets to students, but depends on faculty to make most sales by requiring students to purchase the product; Ebrary, not yet launched, hopes to market to users with the help of libraries; Blackboard provides free articles to users of their course management software; and Jones E-Global Library sells a distance library, designed to be set up in conjunction with the institution’s library.

Questia: Questia is the brainchild of Troy Williams, a 1998 Harvard Law School graduate, who wondered as a student why books were not yet online. He raised venture capital and approached academic and scholarly presses, offering to digitize their publications, including their backlists. His goal was to provide an on-line library of 50,000 volumes (not yet reached) in the social sciences and humanities. Early on he decided to market the collection directly to students, rather than to libraries or to institutions. Questia was launched in late January of 2001.

With its $135 million start-up fund, Questia has mounted a huge marketing campaign. In addition to advertising on national television, Questia has hired students on the campuses of many liberal arts colleges to post flyers, set up booths, hand out t-shirts (one college newspaper ran a cartoon showing a student being approached by a young woman wearing a “Pestia” t-shirt). Employees of the marketing firm were asked to draw up lists of the college students they knew who could be contacted. Even people with no association whatsoever with academia appear to have heard of Questia.

Glitzy though its advertising may be, Questia has some problems. Its initial release had half the content promised, the software worked poorly with Netscape and not at all with Macintoshes, and technical glitches were irritating. In January, Williams stated the company had “no current plans to pursue institutional sales.” In March, the company announced a volume discount plan for schools.

There is no question that Questia contains excellent content. And through their efforts, recent publications and the backlists of 170 highly respected publishers have been digitized. This feat might not otherwise have occurred for many years, if at all, for lack of a financial incentive to do so. Their April release fixed some of their technical problems, and also added articles from 40 scholarly journals to their database. In addition to their content, Questia’s search engine is superior to that found in other collections of electronic books.

Good though the content and search engine may be, many may find the cost excessive: a year’s account is $149.95, a month’s $19.95, and the one-week special "for those of us who start our papers late" is $9.95. Were institutions to purchase accounts for all their students, the undiscounted annual rate would be just under $150,000 per thousand students, or $1.5 million for 10,000, or $42/book/year. And what the institution would be receiving at this point would be a collection of 35,000 online books and 40 journals from only the social sciences and humanities, and from only 170 publishers, not a collection that represents the breadth of most curricula. Most academic libraries have a far larger electronic journal collection, and are adding electronic reference books at a steady clip. As e-books become more generally available, libraries can add them at a lower cost than Questia’s.

Ebrary. Like Questia, Ebrary was dreamed up by someone as a student, in this case, Christopher Warnock while at the University of Utah. Again like Questia, Ebrary is a collection of online books supported by user purchase. Its goals, however, and its method of payment and distribution are much different. Warnock’s intention, he says, is to represent on the Internet everything that’s ever been published and make it available while still protecting intellectual property.

Ebrary will allow anyone to view the content for free, but when a reader downloads or prints, there will be a small charge—15 cents/page to print, 25 cents/page to download. As of now, Ebrary plans to market primarily through libraries, with libraries themselves selling the copy cards (and they may choose to partially or completely subsidize the user).

Many academicians are uncomfortable with Questia’s model, which allows access only to those willing and able to pay. Ebrary dodges this issue by allowing the viewing of articles at no cost, charging only when the content is downloaded or printed. Libraries might consider this to be similar to students being able to read the journal for free, but paying for photocopying the article.

Ebrary hopes to be launched late second quarter of this year. As of April, there were no announcements of the total number of expected titles at launch, although there have been press releases on arrangements with Cambridge University Press, Palgrave, the University of Amsterdam Press, and Taylor and Francis.

XanEdu. Like Questia, XanEdu was launched with a great deal of fanfare, and like Questia, its direct marketing to students sent a chill of fear down the backs of many librarians. Last fall, XanEdu brochures appeared on the stadium seats of attendees at Big 10 football games; ads were ubiquitous on the Internet.

XanEdu consists of two ventures, both of which draw upon the huge array of fulltext journals provided by ProQuest, a major vendor of fulltext databases. The one most in competition with libraries is its “ReSearch Engine,” a search engine and the fulltext of periodicals sold directly to students for $9.95/quarter.

According to representatives from XanEdu, the ReSearch Engine was designed to replicate the same kind of searching that students appear to like in Yahoo: hierarchical browsing and limited, relevant results. The articles included cover a wide variety of subjects, including business and education. A search is likely to yield the same kind of results that a student might receive from using ProQuest, EbscoHost, Infotrac, or WilsonSelect, all fulltext databases common on college campuses. Were students required to purchase access to ReSearch Engine, for say 3 quarters, or just under $30 a year, the cost per thousand students would be about $30,000, or $300,000 for ten thousand students. This cost would not include the expensive science journals that are typically sold in other venues.

In fact, most academic libraries subscribe to one or more of this group of four, at a much lower cost. Adding a business fulltext database would still be a total cost lower than $30,000.

The CoursePack portion of XanEdu uses a third-party model. Faculty receive access at no cost. Available to them are the fulltext of articles, preselected by academics to fit standard coursework, from which they may choose articles to be available as a package to their students. They may also choose other articles from the ProQuest database. Students then go online to purchase the entire package, at a typical cost of about $10 per article (depending on the copyright payment to the publisher). While the model is very easy for the faculty, the cost to the student may be considered fairly high (although students might figure out ways to share the articles). Also, course packs may well include articles from journals that the institution already has paid to access electronically and that the students could download at no additional cost.

Blackboard. Blackboard is one of the leading vendors of course management software. Originally designed to support distance courses, Blackboard or similar software (such as Web CT) is now used by many on-campus course instructors as an easy alternative to course web pages. An addition to Blackboard last fall was its “academic resource center, which provides selected fulltext periodical articles, as well as news items and information for students on careers, financial aid, and other pertinent topics. Its representatives emphasize their intent to work with academic libraries, “not against them.

Libraries have always been better at providing services than at marketing them. For some reason librarians have been hesitant in promoting what they provide...even though many academic libraries already have electronic collections as large as thosenow being offered.

Included within its resource center is the fulltext of 56,000 articles, drawn from Ebscohost, another vendor of fulltext databases. The articles are organized under “hot topics” for each discipline, with links to the fulltext of 5 to 30 articles on each topic. While the topics are rather general, the articles are highly specific, and are sometimes only tangentially related to the topic. However, a recent addition to the topic page is a link to Ebsco’s fulltext databases, accessible for anyone whose institution subscribes to any of the Ebsco databases.

A “lite” form of Blackboard is available free for any instructor anywhere to set up a course page. Thus, the fulltext articles described above are available to anyone with Internet access (and are available through Blackboard’s home page without going to a course page). It is not surprising then that the journals represented are heavy on articles from inexpensive general audience periodicals and social science and humanities journals, and light on those from more expensive business and science journals.

The instructor setting up a course page is not limited to the resource center or to Ebsco databases. It is fairly easy to customize the page to include links to databases of fulltext articles already provided by the institution. Libraries at institutions using Blackboard would do well to educate their faculty that it is both possible and easy to provide access to the library’s fulltext from their Blackboard pages.

Blackboard is an example of a product that can be set up to completely bypass an academic library, or be used to make the library’s materials more widely available (and in the process enrich the educational experience). Institutions purchasing Blackboard should involve the library in the implementation stage, so that from the beginning faculty understand how a wide range of materials can be incorporated.

Other course management software may allow the same kind of customization and ease in creating links to library materials. Library staff need to be aware of what’s being used and how they can help faculty add valuable resources to their pages.

Jones E-Global Library. Jones E-Global Library is the online library developed by Jones International University to, as one representative stated, “get accredited. Having developed the library, Jones is now marketing it to other institutions that want to support distance programs with online resources.

Unlike the products discussed above, the Jones library emphasizes services. The basic package includes research guides, written by librarians; online tutorials; resources for student concerns, such as careers or financial aid; 24/7 technical support; and links to databases and collections of fulltext that have already been purchased by the host library. In addition to services, a collection is also available. Institutions can choose to add on access to Jones’ fulltext databases. Other add-on choices include an interlibrary loan module and access to a reference librarian 13 hours a day. Both services and collections are designed to be integrated into those of the host library.

Institutions with small library staffs, or insufficient library staffing to support a distance program, can provide their remote users with a fully operating library. The basic price for providing the library for one semester is, at this writing, $1000 as a base price plus $10 a student. All the add-ons would increase the price per student to $34. (Purchasing larger amounts, or for a longer time, brings down the price per student.) Some or all of the cost could be passed on to the students. For many institutions, this could be a very cost-effective way to add electronic services to their distance programs. The library can be the primary contact—or the institution could purchase access without the library’s involvement at all.


Costs. At first look, institutions might consider providing one of the collections described here, particularly one that passes costs on to the students, expecting to be able to cut back the expenses of maintaining an on-campus library and collection. To do so may result in a higher cost per student than exists presently for comparable library collections and electronic access, and thus higher tuition. To pass on the costs as an additional fee charged to students presumes that they will consider what they receive to be worth the cost. Institutions that have faced unhappy students charged “technology fees can imagine possible arguments: I never use the library, everything I need is on the Internet, I pay $20,000 a year to go to school here and you should provide me with a library, and so on.

Information literacy. Further, purchasing an electronic collection to replace a library assumes that libraries are only collections. In fact, as the Jones library recognizes, a library, through its librarians, provides services: guidance and assistance, obtaining materials, and, most importantly, teaching. Librarians are essential in helping students attain information literacy—gaining the skills to locate, use, and evaluate information efficiently and proficiently. The student who cannot make the appropriate choice between an
article from USA Today and the Journal of Psychology is not information literate. Librarians can make the difference.

Ease of use. But the electronic products are very attractive. What they have in common, first of all, is ease of use: one uncluttered interface, one password, one search engine, a simple series of steps. On the other hand, the resources offered by libraries are often presented on cluttered and confusing web pages. Because libraries buy products from various vendors, the products must often require numerous passwords and very different search engines. Indexes with only citations are intermingled with fulltext databases. Jargon is extensive (e.g., fulltext or citations). Many libraries can offer faculty electronic reserves, with articles mounted from electronic journals for which permission has already been granted. But their faculty must go through many different steps to do so, without the easy series of steps that XanEdu offers.

Marketing. These information products are also marketed extensively and very well. Libraries have always been better at providing services than at marketing them. For some reason librarians have been hesitant in promoting what they provide, as though their collections and services are unimportant, even though many academic libraries already have electronic collections as large as those now being offered. If XanEdu can place a flyer saying, “Thousands of journals! Millions of articles!” on every seat in the stadium, then so can libraries. If XanEdu believes this to be a strong selling point, why then don’t universities? Like Questia’s ads, should the university’s view book tout, “our students have 24/7 access to a complete electronic library”? In addition to being part of the university’s overall marketing strategy, libraries need to assure that all students and all faculty are aware of what they can access—which in many cases may be more than commercial ventures are offering at a higher price.

Market shake-out. The electronic products described here are very new. All of them have been launched within the last six months, with one yet to be released. What might be the future of these and similar ventures? A recent market report on what was termed the “e-library industry” estimates that there will be a quick shake-out of the current contenders, with the winners decided perhaps as soon as the beginning of 2002. These analysts felt that those remaining would be the companies with clear access to vast amounts of copyrighted materials and a product that is integrated both into other online learning resources and the curricula of the institutions it serves. Their pick was XanEdu. However, market analysts have not consistently been accurate in their selection of the winners in any electronic business. Whether or not these products return their large investments and become profitable still remains in question.

A sound business model? Is marketing information resources directly to students a sound business model? The premise appears to be that if students think nothing of buying $100 sneakers and dozens of CD’s, then surely they would pay a similar amount for access to well-packaged products that will help them write better papers. But students may not consider information resources a purchase as essential as designer pants. Whether or not they do will soon be known, perhaps in a matter of months. —M.A.

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last modified: May 2001

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