Don's Diary: moving libraries online

February 15, 2002


Although I am not a don, I am the son of a don and married to one and my regular commute, as today, is the 7.54 from Oxford, which always seems to be full of donnish types, leavened with a sprinkling of doctors, computer programmers and publishers. I work with 12 colleagues at Paddington station.

Our business, xrefer, is a web company that has successfully negotiated the transition from the world of dotcom craziness to the saner, steeper path of subscription-based reference services for libraries.

Our key service, xreferplus, was launched a month ago, and a large proportion of our sales have so far been to the United States. The Americans love the idea of an online reference service that brings together more than 100 titles from 20 publishers in a fully integrated web-reference service.

So far, the subscriptions have been from smaller colleges, but today the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has said that it wants to give us a campus-wide trial.


I usually spend one day of the week in Oxford. Today I am using my Oxford day to visit the Open University.

Milton Keynes is a profusion of roundabouts, and the campus is confusing, but as luck would have it the person I stop to ask for directions is the one academic that I know at the university. An auspicious moment. The OU librarians like our service and engage with my presentation.

We are really keen for the OU to sign up early, because our integrated reference library will be ideal for students who study mainly at home.

Surprisingly, online use of library resources is lower at the OU than at some other large UK universities. I would have thought that all OU students would be permanently online to the library. Perhaps they don't have the resources that home-study students really need. A lot of online subscription resources are really aimed at research.


Blackburn public library signs up today. We get another subscription from the UK higher education sector: this college is in the first rank of teaching and research, but very small. When I hear the amount it is paying I wonder if we have fixed the prices too low.

In the evening I go to dinner at my old college, Queen's. The company is, as always, very polite, intelligent and civilised. But high table is a curious (if comfortable) anomaly, and I enjoy speculating on how it appears to the distinguished foreign guests who are usually to be found at the meal.


In the morning we have a strat-egy discussion involving board members and the management team. This gets quite heated as we all care very much about how the service evolves and to some extent our visions differ.

I tend to be very "content driven" but our lead investor rightly points out that we must listen patiently to the market. He knows the issues very well and comes at it with what he calls a "Hungarian" cast of thought. He is thinking of Rubik's cube but I am reminded of Hungarian and Polish notation as used in programming and logic: the same words but with the verbs and nouns in an order different to the norm. Good strategy sessions also work well if basic assumptions are shuffled about.


In content mode today we have an eye-opening discussion with a university press about a reference resource that they need to move online. It seems like they "get it" when we explain how our linking technology will mobilise their wonderful resource, but there is a daunting amount of digitisation before the project can get off the ground. I hope this isn't the stumbling block.


We telephone our son, who is enjoying his gap year in the Caribbean. Trinidad seems to have some advantages over Oxford at this time of year, but one of Oxford's compensations is the excellence of its music. Ben prefers Trinidad's carnival and the reggae and steel bands, but Emanuel Ax in the Sheldonian this evening is my kind of music.

Adam Hodgkin is managing director of xrefer, which has launched an online reference service for libraries.

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