Way beyond the library bookmobile.
Anyone who has ever walked through the doors of a massive college library probably remembers the feeling of being overwhelmed by all those stacks, with books reaching seemingly beyond the horizon. In the online world, the sensation can be the same, but with a twist. Unlike a physical library that depends on order to combat informational chaos, texts online must be ferreted out from multiple sites. Houston-based Questia Media is taking on the challenge of consolidation, to the relief of the students it serves. Troy Williams, the company’s founder and CEO, talks about the future of the online library.
What prompted you to start a subscription-based online library service?
Fundamentally, the reason I wanted to create this service was that I had personally experienced the disparity of access to books. I grew up in a small rural town in the Northeast and my first college’s library was extremely small and outdated. Then I transferred to Rice University in Houston and had access to a world-class collection. Finally, I finished at Harvard, where the collection was about 7 times the size of Rice’s. But, even at Harvard, I routinely was unable to get a copy of a book I needed because it was checked out, lost or misshelved. So I started Questia out of the belief that the Internet makes it possible to level the playing field. Not every kid can go to Harvard, but every kid should have access to a first-rate college library.
Today’s students are so Net savvy; how do you stay current with your technology and offerings to keep them interested?
By listening to our customers and continually improving the ease and usability of the Questia service. Although Version 1.0 of the service was Java-based, we migrated to HTML technology about a year later in March 2002 with Version 2.5. The impetus that drove this shift in technology was customer satisfaction research. We found that 30-40 percent of our customers had trouble downloading the Java applet and therefore, had difficulty using the service. With the migration to HTML, the technical issues have been eliminated and virtually all our users can enjoy Questia trouble-free.
What future directions do you see for the service?
First, Questia will focus on continuing to build on our strong collection. Within ten years, I expect to have over a million titles. On a parallel line, we will continue to work to sign publishers that have not yet licensed us rights to their titles. With over 240 publishers, we have a great list but there are a few publishers whose titles would make the collection even stronger. Second, we will continue to refine the service to make it even easier to use and even more intuitive. We have recently integrated a “Grade Questia” box on the site and are getting some great feedback as a result.
How does Questia compare to physical libraries and their collections?
One of the most powerful benefits of Questia is that it democratizes access to information by placing a first-rate library in the hands of students and researchers everywhere. Virtually every small private high school and most of U.S. colleges and universities struggle with providing their students with first-rate libraries. Almost 90 percent of colleges and universities in the U.S. have fewer than 250,000 books in their collections. That’s compared to the millions of books that the best libraries have. Since we equate our current library with a physical library of 250,000 books, we feel that we are able to impact all of the students at 86 percent of colleges and universities for the better as well as most high school students and thousands more around the world.
What do you like best about your service?
Questia enables students everywhere to have unlimited access to the full contents of over 70,000 books and journal articles 24 hours a day, regardless of their geographic location, academic standing or socioeconomic status. It brings a first-rate library to every student from any connection to the Internet, at school or at home. It’s never closed and no book is ever checked out. What could be more powerful than that?
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