WASHINGTON – New editions of McGraw-Hill's history textbooks were ready for the printer when terrorists hijacked airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Suddenly, the books seemed horribly outdated.
The challenge for Roger Rogalin, president of MacMillan/McGraw-Hill, was to update the books and still meet deadlines that dictate the books be on the market by early February.
Since Sept. 11, textbook publishers have scrambled to revise their books to include references to the attacks. Writers accustomed to spending months, even years poring over the importance of world events, had weeks to make sense of the attacks and place them in a context that even young children can understand for years to come.
Textbooks always require minor tweaks on deadline. This time, however, the stakes are higher, the job harder.
"It's very difficult for the publishers because events are still under way," said Gil Sewell of the American Textbook Council.
The new books, which students will not see until the fall of 2002 or 2003, must wear well over time, while providing reasonably current information — a seemingly impossible task.
Most textbooks are updated every two or three years, but states and school districts keep their books for five years or more. Many Texas schools, for instance, have hung on to their current history textbooks since 1992, and students will not get the new books until the fall of 2003.
Because school officials in Texas, the nation's largest single textbook buyer, are scheduled to review history and social studies books this February, publishers are racing to have the updated books ready. They have brought back writers, artists and editors, in some cases tearing up entire sections.
"It's some of the hardest writing I've ever done," said Michael Stoff, a University of Texas history professor who co-wrote the Prentice-Hall middle-school history textbook The American Nation.
Before the attacks, the book included only a few paragraphs on terrorism. Stoff has since added several pages, creating a section that opens with Sept. 11 candlelight vigils in New York and Washington lawmakers praying on Capitol Hill. It devotes several pages to the attacks and their aftermath.
The new text, he said, describes the events in a straightforward way, leaving out cataclysmic photos of crashing airliners, fireballs and imploding office towers. Instead, it features scenes of rescuers and of the American flag being raised amid the rubble.
In all, 20 pages were revised; sections on tensions in Korea and the end of apartheid in South Africa, among others, were condensed to make room.
Rogalin said McGraw-Hill's books will have more emphasis on world geography, including references to the region encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kazakhstan.
"All these '-stans' out there, people have to understand them now," he said.
The tight deadline also meant that publishers had to decide quickly whether to include references to Saudi exile Usama bin Laden, whom President Bush has named as the mastermind behind the attacks without publicly offering proof.
Given the likelihood that a textbook will be in students' hands for most of the decade, do you include him anyway or risk leaving out an important figure?
Chris Johnson, social studies editor for McDougal Littell, a division of Houghton Mifflin, said his team had only two weeks to redo four books, their deadline falling before the United States and its allies began bombing Afghanistan. The books do not mention bin Laden.
"It seemed to us it was just too early to say that the primary responsibility was Usama bin Laden," he said.
Stoff, who last week was still fine-tuning his text, said he will include references to U.S. military strikes targeting bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization without explicitly naming him as the perpetrator.
It is not the first time breaking news has sent publishers scrambling.
In 1980, the Mount St. Helens eruption happened "very late in the process" of preparing science textbooks, said McGraw-Hill spokeswoman April Hattori.
This past summer, Stoff had to update his text to include the Democratic takeover of the Senate after Vermont Sen. James Jeffords left the Republican Party.
Most publishers have hedged their bets by posting updated material on special Web sites for teachers, giving the sites names like "United We Stand" and "Our Nation Recovers."
Stoff and others said it is too early to tell if, five years from now, the attacks will remain the watershed event they seem this fall. He recalled that two years ago, textbook writers considered President Clinton's impeachment a major event.
"We thought that was the story of the end of the century, and of course now it probably will be a footnote in many history books," he said.