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    16.2 Economic Perspective

    We take an economic perspective on the complex problem of establishing an online books service at an existing major research library. We presume that the actors involved weigh the costs and benefits of various alternatives available to them. Each applies some kind of personal utility function to those costs and benefits, and chooses the action with the largest personal utility. In this complex setting there are many different kinds of economic actors: students, faculty, and staff. Indeed, the library itself, and even the entire university, can be thought of as "actors."

    Individual economic factors

    User Costs. What are some of the forces affecting individuals? First, there are costs of two kinds, capital and continuing. The capital costs are the cost of equipment needed to be able to use the digital library or online books, and the cost of acquiring the needed skills. Since, in the setting of our project, there is no transfer of funds from users to the library associated with use events, the continuing costs are (a) the cost of connecting to the library and (b) the mental costs or efforts associated with use. Not a lot is known about these costs to the user, at this point. However, in the transition from page-based books to the HTML format that we chose, we sense that certain kinds of mental landmarks that readers have developed over years of working with print on paper are removed. It seems likely that this results in additional mental cost to the users.

    User Benefits. There are also benefits to the users. First among these, of course, is ubiquity of access. Also, our system provided a search capability. In addition, the book-marking system (supported through the browser) permits users to store pointers to important locations within an extended text. Our system did not directly support annotations, but obviously annotations can be established in the users' own computers. Finally, using a system like this provides the intangible benefit of being up-to-date relative to one's peers.

    Beyond all this, having and using a digital library provides symbolic utility. Symbolic utility is a concept introduced by the philosopher Robert Nozick to represent the utility assigned to something good to have or to do, even if it doesn't necessarily "work" (Nozick, 1993, p. 226). In this case, members of the Columbia community may have felt proud about contributing early to the development of digital library systems.

    Given the nature and variety of benefits, it seems probable that they outweigh the costs to individual users.

    Staff Economic Factors

    Staff Costs. Economic forces also affect the staff of any library that introduces a substantial digital component. One important cost is the learning curve, representing costs that must be incurred in order to get the system to work. The other, which is becoming a pervasive feature of the library world today, is the cost of continuous change, which involves not only learning but psychological stress as well. Because some older librarians did not foresee and do not enjoy those stresses, we will probably see a gradual change in the psychological profile of the profession.

    Staff benefits. Among benefits to the staff, the first and most important is the ability to provide better service to patrons. Another important benefit is the ability, in the online books or digital library situation, to adapt materials developed by others. In focus groups conducted at New York University, we heard for the first time librarians reporting that they were pleased to be able to develop web resources in which pointers to resources developed by librarians at other institutions played a major role. A final benefit to staff is the fact that by working in the digital environment they are developing skills that are much more portable than traditional library skills.

    Library Economic Factors

    Library Costs. There are several incremental costs to the library in implementing this project. The most notable are costs of equipment, materials development, and training.

    Library Benefits. Among the important library benefits are the contributions to the competitiveness of the university, and the contribution that digitizing the library contributes to the shared professional goals of growth and service.

    Publisher Economic Factors

    Publishers must consider the potential of electronic books in terms of their business plans and goals. While publishers share some objectives with libraries, authors, and readers, the relationship is sometimes antagonistic, because some portion of the price to readers and libraries goes to publishers rather than authors. We presume that for-profit publishers seek to maximize profit, while non-profit publishers seek to maximize the net of income over expenses attributable to each book.