Economics and Usage of Digital Libraries: Byting the BulletSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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16.3 Issues affecting the design of the studies
Based on the economic framework above, we studied the environment, publishing costs, and library costs. We explored various views on the function and design of online books. We conducted numerous and diverse studies of use and of user preferences. In this chapter we summarize some of what we've learned and discuss implications for the future.
In concrete terms, the Columbia University Online Books Evaluation Project repackaged books for online delivery, studied the use of those books, and estimated the costs for publishers and libraries of providing print and online books. There were four publishing partners in the project: Columbia University Press, Oxford University Press, Garland Publishing, and Simon and Schuster Higher Education. We analyzed the costs of development and delivery, and the use of digital texts. We sought to relate those costs to that use, within the context of university library service, and to the potential for service. Our analysis of the potential for service is by no means complete.
In the remainder of this section we review several considerations that framed our studies and motivated particular choices we made in the design of the studies.
Why put books online?
Online books have several advantages. First, we anticipate that online books will be cheaper to produce, to purchase, to acquire, and to maintain. We also expect that online books will provide increased functionality such as searching and linking. They offer obvious potential for enriched content through the addition of links to multimedia, computer simulations, and other features. There is also potential for developing expanded products, rather like a collection of books linked through a web site. Not least in importance, online books can provide availability around the clock and calendar.
Why not put books online?
The issue of whether to put books online at all was a serious one in 1994 and 1995, when the project was planned and launched. At that time, it seemed that the most important negative point was users' objections to reading books online. We do not know how true this is in the year 2000. There are definitely many who do not want to read books online, but we must entertain the possibility that most of those users are of an older generation, and will eventually be replaced by people who do want to read online.
Usability. When the project began, it was anticipated that online books would be difficult to use. At that time (1995), it was not even apparent that Web technology would be easy to use. We were also concerned that there was no feasible market model for the development of online books. We cannot say today that there is a clearly defined market, but the activities of netLibrary, Questia and other online, commercial accademic libraries show that there are multiple possible paths into the market for scholarly books, aimed at libraries and students, respectively.
Accessibility. We were concerned about the adequacy of access and connectivity. We had in mind, primarily, people working at home, connecting over telephone lines with top speed of 14.4 kilobits per second, which seemed likely to be inadequate. However, about halfway through the project the typical home-access speed had moved up to about 56 kbps, and increases in access speed continue to occur.
Production Cost. We were concerned that online books would be too costly to produce. In fact, we shall see that the production method we employed was relatively costly. Nonetheless, when compared with the total life cycle cost of paper, online production is something of a bargain.
Author Interests. We also believed that authors might oppose the presentation of their books in online form. Authors might fear loss of royalties, and object to aesthetic compromises. HTML is a limited rendering language, and the connection to HTML might remove some important aspect of layout. Also important is a fear, on the part of young scholars, that exclusive publication in an online form might become common for first time authors and that this would demean their works and lessen their chances for career advancement. On the other hand many academic authors are concerned with documenting the impact of their works and the extent to which they are being read. The online environment is ideal for this.
National Environment: Access
Reviewing the environment for online books from 1995 to 1999, we see a number of changes. First is the improved price-to-power ratio for personal computers, discussed further below. We saw penetration of Internet use to more than 50% of all USA households by 1999. In addition, by 1999 half of all adults in the USA were Internet users. There was little improvement in Internet service provider pricing between 1997 and 1999. Hand-held book readers emerged in 1998, and some of our focus group work suggests that this will be important in the future growth of the online book market.
National Environment: Computer pricing
Moore's famous law is that computing power at a given price doubles every 18 months. The inverse formulation is that the cost of a given amount of computing power falls by half every 18 months. However, the corollary that consumer prices for computers falls at the same rate does not hold. Starting from when the base price of an adequate computer was about $4000 we would have expected that by the end of our study this price would have dropped to well below $1000. What we actually saw, through a program of tracing ads for an entry-level computers, is that prices dropped fairly rapidly to around $2000, and held there for some time. Towards the end of the study period there was a new break down to $1000. Apparently the strategy of manufacturers was to identify market price points that are acceptable to consumers and to improve the configuration of the computers rather than drop the price past those points. If Moore's law held strictly, a general purpose computer adequate for the use of online books over the 56 kbps lines should now cost only $300.
Local Columbia Environment
The local environment at Columbia for online books changed substantially during the period 1995 to 1999. By the end of this period there was Ethernet connectivity to every building and dormitory. By 1997, which is the last time that we could justify the costs of surveying to ask the question, 80% of students and faculty had adequate access to a network computer. By 1997, most library users reported an average of six hours per week of online activity of all kinds. That works out to about an hour a day and we estimate that by now this has probably at least doubled if averaged over the entire community.
By spring 1999, online use of complete texts had become common at Columbia. For example, the level of JSTOR use was equal to one use per month per potential user, on average. We found that most online book use was from on-campus computers. This is consistent with a concern that access from home might not be adequate. It is quite possible that, as bandwidth to the home increases, the usage of online books will increase further.