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John Murphy finds out about Cengage Learning and its approach to offering books and other resources

A generation ago students learned from text books – sometimes written by their lecturers. An elite few got to travel to the dusty archives where they could do primary research and report their findings in the next generation of text books.

Today, the text books are part of a complex network involving awarding bodies, virtual learning environments and teachers. Books have to come with online support pages, including test question banks and links to internet and library resources. Higher education libraries must provide access to primary source material for research at all levels in the institution.

These changes mean that academic publishers are now looking to sell a package to institutions that covers all these needs. This is one of the goals of Cengage Learning, a new company that was formed last year when Thomson Learning was bought for $7.75 billion by a private equity consortium. Thomson encompassed a number of leading publishers of educational and reference works in the humanities, social sciences and English Language teaching. Although well-known academic brands such as Gale, Nelson and ELT are continuing to operate as independent imprints, Cengage has augmented their lists to include online support and resources and extensive online archives.

‘Our imprints have a very strong reputation with the social sciences and the humanities. The link we are trying to make strategically is to unite the functions of the text book and the classroom experience to the other resources available through the library service,’ explained Mark Holland, publishing director for Cengage Learning/Gale in Europe. ‘All the leading text book publishers are looking to fill out the value of a text book with more topical material or more in-depth information and we are looking to develop this further.’

Databases and books converge

In addition to text books, Cengage Learning also offers databases, under the Gale brand. Although they are part of a single company, the sales and marketing approach is different for books and databases. Books are aimed at specific teachers and courses whereas the database and archive resources have to be able to support courses at many different levels in many different departments in order to gain adoption from the institutional library.

Despite differences in sales approaches, however, Holland sees books and databases as converging. ‘The two channels are moving together as electronic texts come to the fore. We think that libraries will become more important in the dissemination of electronic texts than they were in the print culture,’ he observed. ‘As learning becomes more interdisciplinary the databases will become more important.’

A database of newspapers, for example, can support media studies, history, economics, or politics as primary source material. Similarly, a legal database can support any course where there is a regulatory element – from town planning to catering – while the transcripts of trials from the 17th century onwards can also reveal interesting details of social organisation during the historical period of the trial.

The Gale range of 120 databases include UK and European newspapers and journals including full archives of The Economist and The Times, business and economic information, reference databases and literary resources. Recent additions include an 18th and 19th century database of newspapers in partnership with the British Library. There is also a database of the UK government’s state papers from 1509 to 1603, covering the formation of modern government and the UK Reformation, from the National Archives at Kew and the British Library.

‘We are creating new databases which will change the way people undertake research and learning,’ said Holland. ‘We are also adding tools for students and researchers such as personal notebooks and ways of putting comments back in through a peer-reviewed structure. The reciprocal user involvement is expanding greatly and we need to reflect that.’

One example of this is in the UK state papers database, where there is a facility for users to comment on documents or entries they have studied and correct facts or make scholarly comments. These comments are then posted within the product. ‘This type of feedback loop is increasingly important to users,’ explained Holland. ‘There could have been a false transcription in the past, for example, and we can contribute to learning by allowing researchers to contribute comments like that. It is similar to the type of experience that students find in their social networking sites.’