E-books shape research

A unique new collection of digital books on the University’s library Web page may reshape the way that knowledge is acquired and retrieved.

The new collection, which debuted in January, is a joint project of the library and Oxford University Press, USA. It is a collection of texts on history and related areas of the humanities published by Oxford, numbering about 300 to 400 new texts a year over the next five years, to reach a total of up to 2,000 digitized tests.

The collection, at digital.library.upenn.edu, not only allows researchers to find textual information, using keyword searches of the book texts, but also allows the library and OUP to research the researchers — or rather, how researchers use the digitized texts. The project, not fully debugged, also invites faculty feedback.

Among the facts the OUP/Penn Digital Books project hopes to uncover are a comparison of how people use digitized and print texts, whether digitized texts and print texts supplement or displace the other, and whether digital book production is cost-effective for publishers and libraries.

“The project lets us get full-text books that have just been published — and some not even published in paper yet — available to Penn folks on line,” said Roy Heinz, Library Systems Office director.

The books are available only to the Penn community, with a sample site of three texts open to the general public.

The new site displays the books in Acrobat format, which means what you see is what the actual book page looks like. That has advantages for both the scholars and the library.

For scholars, it means they can cite text by page in the traditional way, their keyword searches may enable them to pinpoint the briefest mentions throughout the collection, and they can navigate quickly from indexes and tables of contents to targeted text.

For the library, it means that posting an entire text on the Web may take as little as two hours, Heinz said.

The project may affect how scholars gather information, said Joseph Zucca, executive assistant to the library’s director. “They may just use it as a filter, or it may affect the kind of scholarship they produce — maybe more superficial. We don’t know how it will affect their learning experience.”

Originally published on March 2, 2000