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Commentary: Reading online libraries

The decision by Ebrary and the Learning Network to launch their own e-library comes at an excellent time.

By Marti Harris, Gartner Analyst An e-library is one of those ideas too good to argue with. It gives readers, researchers and students the opportunity to browse books, magazines and other materials they might never otherwise get to see.

Giving them the option to buy what they're reading in print form or to photocopy pages--for a fee, of course--is also beyond reproach. If the company running the e-library can make money from the venture, so much the better.

The decision by Ebrary and the Learning Network to launch their own e-library comes at an excellent time. Ebrary, a start-up company focused on online research, says its service will let people search content without subscription and membership fees, and pay only when they download or print something. The cost, set by the publisher, will be around 25 cents a page. The economics of the move are by no means guaranteed, but high-speed Internet access makes the viewing of online pages quicker, and publishers can finally begin to see a business model that allows for both print and online versions of their publications.

See news story:
Web companies build online library
The initial interest (and income) will come from students and professionals needing topical collections (for instance, business and technology). Drive-by browsing will likely not take off in the near term. Consumers who don't visit libraries in the real world will likely not visit an Internet version--except, perhaps, out of initial curiosity. Publishers understand this dynamic and will gear up to produce digital titles relevant for this market.

Distribution models that will satisfy publishers' concerns about copyright are the key to getting digital content to consumers. Searching and viewing content for free should satisfy consumers as much as browsing the books in a bookstore or library; offering a service with a poorer experience would ensure its failure. The bookstore, though, aims to sell books, something Ebrary seems to understand and to have built into its business model. Still, it will have a harder time extracting revenue from students, who would be more interested in the "library" aspect, which allows them to browse and copy but does not require them to buy a book.

Although not a new idea, the e-library does bring new competition to companies such as NetLibrary. The online research publishing market remains immature, and questions regarding the protection of copyright are far from answered. But the e-library is an idea whose time has come, even though strong, general collections are still years away.

Gartner believes that success in distributing to students content normally published by university and academic publishers--and the large-scale penetration of the e-learner market--requires a formal, contractual relationship with libraries. Selling pages at 25 cents to individuals and without contracted membership fees does not seem a good way to ensure long-term business viability.

(For related commentary on managing e-learning content, see

Entire contents, Copyright ? 2001 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.