>Tiptoe through the TULIPs

>I’m currently reading Michael Lesk’s Understanding Digital Libraries for my LIS2000 class and I’m finding it remarkably interesting (although challenging) so far. The book is published by a subsidiary of the company I work for, Elsevier, and in one of the chapters Elsevier’s TULIP project is held up as an early success in digital library studies. I was a little surprised that I hadn’t even heard of this program before (though not entirely, as we’re such a huge company it’s very hard to keep track of all of our goings-on). Seems in 1991 Elsevier and 9 US universities got together to do an experiment to see how college users would react to having some of Elsevier’s content available to them on their desktops.

I must admit I’m pretty impressed with the presience of my company in this regard, as in 1991 I would wager that a lot of college students hadn’t had any interaction with the Internet (I know my 10-year-old self had no knowledge of it). Even more interesting to me is some of their results, and how similar they are to some of the same issues we still encounter regarding the most effective way to use and transfer library information digitally. One particularly notable finding:

There is enthusiasm about the concept of desktop access to electronic information, but the end of paper products seems to be far away still. Besides some practical benefits of paper products, there also seem to be “emotional” ties with paper and the library.

Here we are 15 years later (10 years since the completion of the project and the writing of the report) and that sentence could have been written yesterday. Although the dominance of paper has slipped in favor of digital formats, I still find reading lengthy documents on a computer screen to be uncomfortable, and either want the physical book in hand or to print out the article. The greatest trump card in favor of digital text interfaces is definitely searchability, but since PDFs don’t offer that function (maybe they will someday) I still find them fundamentally lacking. I wonder if students coming up in a primarily digital environment will have different reading habits, or if the problem of reading too much text online is primarily a biological one that needs to be addressed by improved hardware (better screens) or software (PDFs with OCR capability, for instance, or e-books that really mimick books). I would love to see some readability studies that address this issue, to figure out if it’s my own pet peeve or a more universal complaint — guess I’ll be searching the Internet to find out!

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