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Public libraries to test digital service

Six regional library systems plan to begin testing online research services from start-up Ebrary, augmenting their shelves of resources with thousands of digital reference materials.

An experiment in digital publishing will take a step forward this week, with six regional library systems scheduled to begin testing online research services from start-up Ebrary.

The service, dubbed Ebrarian, lets people read articles and books online for free but charges them to copy text or print pages. The company said it has thousands of titles from more than 100 publishers. Among the topics offered are history, classics, business, economics, technology, education and social sciences.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Ebrary said it plans on Tuesday to announce the new customers: The Bibliographical Center for Research, which serves the western United States; Palinet, which serves the mid-Atlantic region; New England-based Nelinet; the Michigan Library Consortium; Wisconsin Library Services; and Ohio's Ohionet. Ebrary said the networks will distribute its online research service to 6,000 libraries in the United States, beginning with a 30-day trial in April.

Although publishers may be warming up to placing their copyrighted material in a digital format, it remains to be seen whether the market for online libraries will take off. In November, Colorado-based NetLibrary, which licensed digital books to libraries, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Two months later, Dublin, Ohio-based Online Computer Library Center, a nonprofit group that offers computer-based cataloging and reference services to libraries, purchased NetLibrary's assets.

"There's a vulnerability for all of these (online research) companies to be financially successful," said Marti Harris, research director for Gartner. "These digital content providers and relationships are very important and essential for research as part of the whole library collection, (but) they're not going to be replacing the traditional libraries...We're a long way off from having a totally online library."

Harris added that online research companies that act as middlemen could be left out of the digital-publishing chain. She said publishers and libraries might prefer to place books and materials in digital formats themselves.

Ebrary said its service allows libraries to add to their existing digital resources and catalog services. For instance, the Ebrarian includes research tools that let people link to biographical information, definitions, maps and other digital resources. The service also eliminates the hassle of retrieving books that are not on a library's shelf.

"Typically, when you go into a library what ends up happening is that if you wanted to look at all the electronic resources, what you're forced to do is almost go from terminal to terminal in order to do comprehensive research," said Ebrary CEO Christopher Warnock. "What we're enabling libraries to do is to make these electronic resources accessible to people through their card catalog system in a context in which all the libraries' resources can be more efficiently used."

This week's partnerships signal Ebrary's aggressive efforts to take a foothold in the online-research publishing market. At the end of last year, Ebrary agreed to work with a group of major publishers to distribute their titles online. The partners included Penguin Putnam, academic publisher Greenwood Publishing Group and John Wiley & Sons, a publisher of scientific, technical and medical books.

Founded in 1999, privately held Ebrary is backed by publishers Random House Ventures, Pearson and McGraw-Hill. Warnock's father, Adobe Systems Chairman John Warnock, is also an investor and sits on Ebrary's board of directors.