For Future Reference

Some books make good books. The Catcher in the Rye makes a good book, the familiar, dog-eared, maroon-and-yellow paperback that's sat on everyone's shelf since the ninth grade. Likewise the Bible, the Torah, and hell, the unwieldy but lovable Infinite Jest (footnotes included) all make good books.

Other books don't. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, say, or Bockus's hefty four-volume medical text Gastroenterology. Enter Versaware Technologies, a text-conversion company that partnered with Lycos last week to provide users access to a multimedia version of the Funk & Wagnall's Encyclopedia (all 29 volumes). Unlike previous companies that have tried to woo book publishers into digitizing their titles, Versaware is specifically targeting the reference book market, and has signed deals with Random House, Oxford, Merriam-Webster and others.

What Versaware wants most, however, is to become an e-bookstore, selling downloadable, multimedia versions of textbooks and reference materials through its Web site. The current selection is a little sparse at around 200 titles, but Sol Rosenberg, Versaware executive vice-president, promises several thousand more by the end of the summer. "Textbooks and reference books lend themselves to a multimedia approach," he says. "We see the day when students will buy their required texts in an e-book format. It'll be cheaper and easier to use. There's a revolution going on in how people obtain information, and we want to be on the cutting edge of that."

Rosenberg says his Versabooks will cost slightly less than the list price, and there's little doubt an electronic encyclopedia is handier than its hardcover cousin. Multimedia versions of reference books have so many benefits they threaten to wipe out the market for the print versions altogether. Encyclopaedia Brittanica will run you $1250 and take up a whole wall in your home, but the CD-ROM version costs $120 and only occupies a slip in your CD carrier. For $5 a month you can simply access the encyclopedist's encyclopedia online. Likewise, Microsoft's Encarta Online Library, arguably the first successful multimedia encyclopedia, also runs $10 a month. It's enough to drive even the most technophobic of librarians to euphoria.

"This is the most fantastic thing that has happened in many, many years," says Dr. Thomas Supernant, a professor in library science at Queens College. "People can tailor their learning styles to the new media, so it provides much more variability in the way information is used. If a kid looks up 'Whales' in an online encyclopedia, he can actually watch the whale jump. That gives children a much stronger visual orientation on realities that used to only exist on paper."

 
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