The newest books on library shelves come with battery rechargers and buttons to turn the page. At $270 apiece, they are not to be returned in the book-drop bins.
Leading the way in electronic books among area public libraries, the Anne Arundel County system has made 24 Rocket eBooks available for checkout in its 15 branches. The portable reading devices weigh less than 2 pounds and can hold the texts of 10 novels. Other libraries in the Baltimore region are evaluating the digital reading devices, but Anne Arundel is the first system in the area to circulate them. Two libraries in Southern Maryland are also lending electronic books.
"We decided to turn them loose to see what people had to say about it," said Susan K. Schmidt, head of materials management for the Anne Arundel system. The volumes began circulating last month for the standard three-week loan period. They're all checked out, and four are on a reserve list.
In a long line of innovations such as paperbacks and digital video discs, the electronic book is the latest to hit public libraries, and librarians nationwide are evaluating the format to determine how to make the technology available to readers.
"I remember when we introduced paperbacks 30 years ago; it was controversial," said Christine Lind Hage, a past president of the Public Library Association and director of the Clinton-Macomb Public Library in suburban Detroit.
"The same thing happened with videocassettes, audiocassettes and CDs, so the electronic book to me is just another format," said Hage, who estimated that 5 percent of the country's libraries are circulating the Rocket eBook, one of a handful of electronic reading devices on the market.
"Consumers don't want to be left behind," said Betty I. Morganstern, Anne Arundel's information and outreach librarian. "They're curious, and we're trying to balance the new and old technology."
For public libraries, the emergence of the electronic book could mean a new way of doing business. If the technology catches on, a reader might be able to download the latest John Grisham or Danielle Steele best-seller - and a dozen other books- onto a portable reading device without setting foot in a library.
"I think that digital books will prevail in the long run - it has too many advantages," said Maurice Travillian, assistant superintendent for the state's division of library development and services. "In future versions, the illustrations will move, there will be video, you'll be able to change languages, They just have so many features that will develop."
Other librarians say that though the electronic book has potential for travelers and students because of its portability, most readers aren't ready to curl up in an armchair with one.
"I'm not sure how popular it will be for folks who like a good read," said Joanne Trepp, manager of the Severna Park branch. "It's not as cozy."
To give local libraries a glimpse of electronic book technology, state library officials distributed at least one electronic book-reading device to each Maryland library system this year.
Anne Arundel's administrator, Ronald S. Kozlowski, decided to take it a step further and circulate the electronic books to the public on a trial basis.
Readers who check out an electronic book take home a white box that contains the computer - about the size of a paperback book - a pencil-like stylus and a battery recharger. The Rocket eBook comes preloaded with a dictionary, an illustrated version of "Alice in Wonderland" and five books downloaded by county librarians from the Internet. Schmidt chose titles in the public domain whose copyrights have expired, including an Agatha Christie mystery and "The Wizard of Oz."
The device has a touch screen, which allows the reader to select titles or highlight text with a stylus or a fingertip. A click of a button allows readers to do text searches on a tiny keyboard or illuminate the screen for night reading.
Readers cannot download additional electronic book titles onto the Rocket eBooks because the devices are registered to the Anne Arundel library, which controls the passwords or encryption code necessary for the device to operate. But a reader could buy a Rocket eBook, then download his selections onto the device.
Kozlowski said that it sounds like a good idea to take one electronic book to the beach instead of a tote bag full of heavy volumes but that he's not ready to make the switch.
"I'm a very tactile person, and I like to feel the paper," Kozlowski said. "So we don't know what the public reaction might be, and what we find out might help us in the future with demonstrations or trying out new formats."
In the same way, many libraries made videocassette recorders available for checkout when videocassettes went on the market 20 years ago, before the machines became fixtures in most living rooms.