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    16.1 Introduction

    This paper reports some observations about cost, use, and users of online books during the Columbia experiment. From winter 1995 to autumn 1999, the Online Books Evaluation Project at Columbia University explored the potential for online books to become significant resources in the academic world. The project prepared books in HTML format, a choice that seemed reasonable at the time it was made (1995). Later observation of user behavior makes us less certain of that choice. The evaluation component of the project included monitoring of the national technological environment. The project analyzed (1) the Columbia community's adoption of and reaction to online books, (2) relative life cycle costs of producing and owning online books and their print counterparts and (3) the implications of traditions in scholarly communications and publishing. The experience involved integration of two very diverse cultures, and has taught us the relevance of the following joke.

    A manager, an engineer and a computer scientist are all traveling in a car in the mountains when the brakes fail and the car careens down the road and eventually stops just hanging over the edge of a cliff. They carefully climb out of the car and the manager says, "Well, now we'll have to form a focus team for a matrix review of vision and objectives." The engineer says, "Let me have a screw driver; I may be able to fix this in 10 minutes." And the computer scientist says, "Let's push this back up to the top of the hill and see if the brakes fail again."

    Our approach to online books at Columbia was like that of the engineer, but "10 minutes" has been more like four years. One of the lessons learned is that, as libraries become more interdependent with online information services, we must become more accustomed to the kind of trial-and-error approach exhibited in the joke.

    Figure 16.1: Abstract variables of interestFigure 16.1: Abstract variables of interest

    We started from an abstract formulation of the relation between users, libraries and constraints upon each of them; see Figure 16.1. Our goal is to understand the behavior of the user of the system, shown in the middle of the diagram. The capabilities of the individual users obviously influence their behavior. Their disciplines also probably influence it. The overall environment including technology and attitudes toward computers influences it. The resources available in the library also influence behavior. In turn, library management controls those resources. Our study is an effort to insert the dotted line shown in Figure 16.1, to provide management with feedback about the behavior of users which it can use to better manage the library resources.