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.
Duke is negotiating a deal with Questia to buy subscriptions for its students. Questia has similar plans in the works with a few other institutions. However, contracts with publishers and copyright restrictions limit such deals.
Such constraints are increasingly common for purveyors of information on the Web. What's missing, partly, is an economic model for distributing electronic information. Unlike Questia, Netlibrary, a database of e-texts, sells individual copies of texts to libraries. They in turn lend them out, a system many librarians call archaic.
As dotcoms experiment with different ways to tango with copyrights, most realize that "somebody has to pay for these things," says David Smith, head programmer of the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
Yet even with the rise of companies like Questia signaling that charging for such information is no longer taboo, there is a thriving community committed to bringing material to people free of charge. The Gutenberg Project, which includes an online canon of classics, got its start in 1971 and now includes nearly 3,500 books. In fact, many of the texts offered by Questia published before 1923 (which means those in the public domain) are probably already available for free online or will be soon, according to Mr. Smith.
When Stephen Griffin, program director for the National Science Foundation's Digital Libraries Initiative, looks to the future, he sees a library without national boundaries - largely free - that includes audio, visual, and textual information in electronic form.
But before there's a digital equivalent of the Library of Congress (something that would be worthy of Mr. Williams's hyperbole), e-book technology will have to significantly improve. Programmers are still tackling things like digital indexes that can be browsed with the ease of leafing through a book.
Even when that moment arrives - sometime within the next 30 years, Mr. Griffin says - there might still be a niche for sites like Questia. A subscription buys customized service -the ability to turn your account into a personal library, for example - as much as content.
Ironically, that's not unlike the battle cry of many librarians these days. Says Dennis Benamati, the interim library director at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY. "If all we are is a repository, then I'm ready to retire."
For more information about electronic texts, see: www.xanedu.com; www.perseus.org; http://promo.net/pg/; www.egloballibrary.com; www.ebrary.com; www.peanut press.com; http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/ebooks.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor