Recently I was at a middle school as the students were leaving for the day. As I watched the kids streaming from the building to the busses, some of them were toting backpacks that were big enough, and apparently heavy enough, to handle two weeks in Europe. My warped little mind retrieved that vision as I read a post from Tim Lauer about a company that is experimenting with technology allowing people to build their own books from material in different places.

Right now the company, O’Reilly Publishing, is limited to using their own content, and that of a few partners, in their SafariU experiment (mostly techie titles) but can you imagine what could be done with a much larger pool to draw from. Districts, schools and even individual teachers could pull together material from a variety of sources to produce custom textbooks targeted at the needs of relatively small groups of students.

Now imagine that we don’t print that textbook (we’ll probably need a new term as well) but instead it would be downloaded to a laptop or some other kinds of digital display wirelessly as the student sits in class. (Or at home?) We could finally reach the long-predicted concept of continually updated electronic textbooks which are never outdated – not to mention lightening the load of those middle school students.

The big impediment to the create-your-own-book concept, however, is the content owners. Textbook publishing is a huge and very profitable business and it’s not likely these companies are going to allow customers to mix and match materials from different sources as they please. But there are efforts to push the process in that direction, such as the California Open Source Textbook Project or the user-maintained Wikipedia.

I doubt we’ll be seeing the end of textbooks very soon. But it will be interesting to see how the internet and portable technology continues to pressure traditional publishers into less traditional methods of resource creation and distribution. As with the terms "record" and "album" in music, maybe use of the term "textbook" is about to change.