Hitting the books every which way

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    Having written, in 1945, of whollynew forms of encyclopedias, ready-made with a mesh of associativetrails running through them, VannevarBush is credited with being the first to envi-sion the World Wide Web. Bush, who wasthen chair of the wartime U.S. Office of Sci-entific Research and Development, proba-bly didnt have in mind such items as Brit-ney Spears fan sites, instant messaging,and Web cams that flash a new pictureeach minute to an indifferent world.

    But when Bush went on to describethe memex, his conception of a localdevice capable of searching and browsinga large collection of data, he may wellhave had Questia in mind. Indeed, manyof the imagined attributes of memex aresurpassed by Questia, an on-line researchlibrary service launched in January byQuestia Media Inc., Houston.

    Questia aims squarely at students inliberal arts programs who could use ahand with researchand can pay for it.It provides the ability to search throughits collection of scholarly works for afee of US $19.95 per month. The collec-tion includes original fiction and non-fiction source works, but no textbooks.

    Questia can skim an entire book orsearch its entire collection. How is it dif-ferent from searching the Web? It isbroader, because it contains the completetext of many works not available on theWeb, and narrower, because it avoidsmuch of the non-scholarly chaff that atypical Web search would include, such aspress releases, personal histories, andthose ubiquitous fan sites.

    Users can search bibliographic datafor free. Subscribers get to search the

    full text for keywords and view theresults. Nonsubscribers can also huntfor the full text, though they cannot viewthe actual pages where matches arefound. Thus, even a nonsubscriberwould be able to dig for a term, or severalterms, and see what works contain them,and then go to his or her own schoollibrary with some of the initial researchlegwork done.

    At its launch, Questia covered about30 000 books. It intends to grow its col-lection to 250 000 books and journalsa size that, it claims, would be largerthan 80 percent of all academic librariesin the United States.

    Better than memex

    Anticipating other features of theWeb and Web browsers, Bush wrote:Any given book of his library can thus becalled up and consulted with far greaterfacility than if it were taken from a

    shelfhe can leave one item in positionwhile he calls up another. He can addmarginal notes and comments.

    Bush gave as an example a student in-terested in the origin of the bow and arrow:Specifically he is studying why the shortTurkish bow was apparently superior tothe English long bow in the skirmishes ofthe Crusades.First he runs through anencyclopedia.Next, in a history, he findsanother pertinent item, and ties the twotogether.When it becomes evident thatthe elastic properties of available materialshad a great deal to do with the bow, hebranches off on a side ....

    This is almost exactly theQuestia experience. Whileunable to answer complexhistorical questions, Questiadoes cut through some of themost tedious and time-con-suming aspects of under-graduate liberal arts research.

    It allows for bookmarks,as well as the margin notesBush mentioned, and forlonger notes distinct from the

    text. Stored on the Questia sys-tem, the notes feature accommodates stu-dents working from several locationsadorm room, a public library, a motel roomwhile on spring break, and so on.

    Whats more, Questia lets the usercreate bibliographic entries at the click ofa button, in any of four standard stylesfor writing bibliographies (say, TheChicago Manual of Style).

    The Questia document database cur-rently consists of between three and fourterabytes of data, stored in an OracleIntermedia database. (Intermedia is anextension of Oracles software for usewith text-rich databases.)

    According to Allan Jones, Questiasvice president for technical operations,the service has been stress-tested, withoutfailure, with up to 500 simultaneoussearches, the operation that most inten-sively uses the database. Jones expects thecurrent infrastructure to easily accom-modate the spring semester.

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    With Questia, students can mark up virtual books

    without getting thrown out of the library.

    Hitting the BooksEvery Which WayBY STEVEN M. CHERRYManaging Editor, Spectrum Online