Questia is probably the most famous online commercial library, and I’ve been a subscriber for quite a while. It has quite a lot of advantages over a physical library, but I’m not totally sure it’s worth the cost.
Where digital libraries win
Finding items more quickly
Unsurprisingly, all of Questia’s advantages are technological. The obvious one is being able to instantly locate items in its catalogue. Compared to large physical libraries with complex cataloguing systems, digital libraries win pretty much all the time.
It also makes it possible to rapidly check several items for their suitability without spending time tracking them down in a building. This is actually quite a substantial advantage when doing initial research without other references to recommend items.
Searching within items
By far the largest advantage of a digital library like Questia is being able to search within items. Books are actually quite a poor medium for information compared to digital formats, largely because you can’t work with the data in them without searching manually. It’s rarely the case that the entirety of a book is relevant, so being able to rapidly search through it gives a real boost to your research speed.
Questia can also automatically generate citations and bibliographies for each item in its catalogue. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t integrate with Zotero. This is a real wasted opportunity, especially when other digital library services have this functionality.
A few practical advantages
Another drawback to physical libraries is that there’s usually a limit on the number of items you can take out at once, if any. And if you don’t bring them back on time, the fees can be quite hefty (perhaps more than the subscription to a digital library like Questia). Finally, there’s the risk that items in physical libraries turn out to be missing or damaged when you do find them (this happens more often than it should).
Is Questia much better than Google Books?
All the advantages above apply to all digital libraries regardless of cost, so for Questia to be worth paying for it needs to significantly outperform free alternatives like Google Books. Overall, it probably does for access. Google’s catalogue coverage is at least as good as Questia’s, but actual access to the items is patchy and frustrating.
Questia often wins on newspapers, magazines and journals as well. As journal articles are usually the best source for secondary research material on a specific topic, and newspapers for primary material, this is a considerable advantage. However, Questia’s coverage still isn’t as good as it could be. Whilst it’s comprehensive in some subject areas, there’s no certainty it will have the specific title you’re looking for.
Is Questia worth it when you have access to other resources?
This is a much trickier point. Most students will have access to excellent library facilities and digital resources like JSTOR anyway, so it could seem excessive to also take a subscription for Questia.
Where Questia loses to physical libraries
As mentioned above, Questia’s coverage isn’t what it could be. How this compares is totally dependent on the library in question, but something like Cambridge University Library is going to win hands down on coverage every time.
A more universal disadvantage of Questia is the lack of staff and on-site experts. However good the support and meta-features are, it’s still not going to be as useful as a face-to-face conversation with a librarian for the relevant department. This can have quite a large impact on deep research topics, particularly in specialised fields.
Also, the interface on Questia (and other digital libraries) really is bad. Not being able to copy text which you’ve paid to access certainly is irritating. This is largely aimed at avoiding copyright infringement, but it inconveniences genuine users and plagiarisers alike.
In the end, it looks like Questia is good for one kind of research and less useful in most other ways. What it does well is providing an initial entry into a topic by making effective use of the books it does have. If you want a specific title, though, you’ve only got luck on your side.
For regular essays, Questia can be pretty good investment. It’s definitely a step up from general free content on the internet, and if you don’t have access to a good library this is significant. But for deeper, focused research, it’s probably not good enough on its own. It has all the potential, but loses out badly on its lack of comprehensive coverage.