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A new chapter for the textbook

At Virginia Commonwealth University, sociology students use a textbook that exists only online. It sends them to related Web sites, has recorded lectures and offers discussion areas that supplement and enliven classroom discussions.

At Kent State University in Ohio next spring, a few dozen students will receive devices called electronic books, which look like latter-day Etch-a-Sketches and will be loaded with course texts.

And in Texas, the state Board of Education is planning a pilot program to distribute electronic books and laptop computers next fall to thousands of high school students.

While futurologists have mistakenly predicted the end of the printed page for several decades, no one is preparing a eulogy for the traditional book. Television did not doom radio, video did not kill film, and electronic publishing likely will not end print.

But with two electronic books on the market and an exponential increase in reference and scholarly material available online, many experts say that the shift from page to screen, once a Jetson-like fantasy, is approaching reality.

And there are those, like Jeff Rothenberg, a senior scientist at the Rand Corp., who say they can see the day when books printed on paper will be viewed "more as objets d'art than things we use all the time."

Valerie Raymond, an editor at McGraw-Hill, said: "I am a book person and I never believed I would want to give up the books I carry around with me. But I'm starting to think of myself more as a content provider. I look at my 11-year-old son's school backpack, which I worry is ruining his spine, and I can see advantages to electronic books. We know we are standing on the edge of a precipice."

The notion that a shift is imminent comes because of several parallel developments.

First, electronic book technology is advancing rapidly, with better screen resolution and longer battery life. The cost of such devices is dropping; two kinds of electronic books are on the market for $300 to $500 each; and another, for $1,000 to $1,500, is due early next year. All of them allow downloading of books from the Internet into their memories, permitting students to carry many books in one lightweight device. The devices allow word searches and have built-in dictionary functions.

Second, the amount of material available for downloading is enormous.

And third, a generation is coming of age for whom absorbing digital information seems easy and natural. Even if not many young people seem ready to curl up with a hand-held screen to read a novel, the idea of reading textbook or reference material from screens is increasingly common.

"Ten years ago, anything electronic was exotic," said Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. "Today, computers are an integral part of higher education. You can see where electronic books would fit into the shape of academic life. I see this as a key time for this technology, probably still one of interesting failures but ones we can really learn from."

One important change in the last few years is the growing use of the Internet for reference works. Texts for physicians, lawyers and other professionals are being put online, where they can be updated with greater ease and at lower cost.

In addition, a growing number of textbooks have online supplements for graphics, pictures and, increasingly, video and audio supplements. Some think it will not be long before entire books are transferred into digital format.

John Wiley & Sons, which publishes texts for professionals in technical fields, says that in the coming months two of its standard reference works - the Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology, and the Wiley Encyclopedia of Electrical and Electronics Engineering - will be available online.

Like most other reference works on the Internet, those books will be accessible for a fee. That is also the case with an Internet publishing site called Online Originals, which publishes original works of fiction that can be bought online for $7 each.

Some publishers are placing texts on the Web free, relying on contributions or advertising for revenue. The Gutenberg Project (, for example, has placed thousands of classics online.

The market for educational texts was more than $5.5-billion last year, and the Internet has only expanded that market, which has grown more than 8 percent in 1998.

And if textbooks really do move from the printed page into the digital realm, the potential for profits could be greater still, because that change could reduce the need for warehouses, trucks, returns and, even more significant, the used-book market.