I spoke recently with a librarian who posted a flyer in her library highlighting a list of alternative resources (businesses, online stores, e-commerce sources) for students trying to purchase copies of textbooks. In her case, many required texts were on back order from the campus bookstore, but, generally, these resources were useful to students looking for used copies to help control costs. The librarian received push back from campus administration for the alternative acquisition list and had to take it down.
This raises the question: How should libraries participate in assisting students with identifying and acquiring cheaper course materials, especially those that come from a source other than the campus library? Does the creation of a research guide or flyer for textbooks that points to commercial sources other than the campus bookstore fit into the library’s mission and role on campus? More generally, what is the library’s responsibility when it comes to textbooks?
There’s good reason to provide alternative textbook acquisition information to students. Libraries have an obligation to highlight other resources as an extension of what we do particularly when it comes to information literacy. A student may not know or realize what sources are actually reliable and credible for buying their textbooks. If they click on a link in Facebook or an email for “dirt cheat textbooks” it may take them to a questionable resource at best; worst case, the student could unknowingly visit a phishing site and become the victim of fraud or identity theft. For those students who are not cautious or smart about where they get their materials, this could be a problem with severe ramifications.
Writ large, the issue of textbook formats and preference should also be a concern for academic libraries. It is still unclear if e-textbooks will overtake the textbook market, whether or not students like or prefer them over traditional textbooks, and what the impact of Internet access and bandwidth will be on e-textbook adoption. College and university campuses’ wired and wireless connections are already struggling to keep up with current use. On campus or off, not all students have a computer with reliable access to high-speed Internet or an appropriate mobile device to access these resources. Reading an e-textbook on a cell phone is not ideal. Anecdotes abound, but particularly compelling was a panel of four students (three undergraduates, one graduate) at the Library Journal “Future of the Academic Library: Bridging the Gaps” symposium hosted at Temple University in November 2011 that focused on the user experience of student information tasks. The students noted that while it was nice to access library materials on a variety of devices, it was not an ideal way to use them for practical research purposes. Only one of the student panelists had a digital textbook required for class. Two of the three undergraduates indicated a clear preference for print textbooks, even though they fit into the so-called “digital native” cohort many assume would take an immediate liking to digital offerings like e-textbooks.
Another major issue has to do with cost. They aren’t generally any cheaper than a paper-based textbook. To avoid purchasing “overpriced” textbooks, students frequently go to their campus library in search of their books, hoping they can avoid purchasing copies for some classes by checking them out (and rolling the dice with the recall process). While some faculty place required course materials on reserve for the semester, this is not the solution students generally desire. The search for a no-cost textbook option is not new. In fact it’s a long-standing issue for students that has been further complicated when the materials shift to an e-only format. They have always had a long-standing issue when it comes to cost for college. Tuition is on the rise, lab fees are unavoidable, and more faculty are requiring students to purchase key codes (sometimes called pass codes) to access online assignments in place of print workbooks. When it comes to textbooks, students generally must either purchase them outright or rent them. But textbook rental models don’t always demonstrate a useful return on investment for students. Just as with any rental model, it may not actually work out to be any cheaper.
Meanwhile, electronic textbooks are not necessarily easier for students to use. Today’s traditional-age student is not necessarily hard-wired to adapt to using an e-textbook, no matter how digitally enabled their upbringing. There are also potential challenges for the growing nontraditional student segment, which at many institutions includes anyone over the age of 24. This is compounded by the awareness of more students to the wide array of learning disabilities, as well as a projected increase of students with physical and visual disabilities for whom use of an electronic textbook may be impossible.
We also need to keep in mind that we have a lot of adjunct or affiliated faculty who teach at multiple institutions. They may be employed at an institution where the expectation of how students acquire texts is best described as “beg, borrow, and steal.” These faculty members may also play a role in undermining the course materials ecosystem.
We also need to think about the role on campus that libraries play as e-textbook use is piloted on our campuses. In 2010, I attended a university libraries–wide collection development meeting where one of our education librarians suggested we consider purchasing electronic access to one of the most widely used general education textbooks. This never happened, but even then there was librarian recognition that we could play a significant role in this still-settling information landscape. The campus library could not only have a seat at that table but also start to build relationships and make inroads with the publishers regarding investigation, acquisition, implementation, and cost.
It’s not just about supporting the campus bookstore. Libraries need to have a more active role on campus when it comes to textbooks—both in terms of how they acquire and make them available as a part of course reserves and in revising collection development policies to consider the inclusion of textbooks in a more systematic way. Are there opportunities to partner with other units on campus to acquire the textbooks students need? How can we partner with faculty to determine what other options and strategies are available and improve this scenario for everyone involved? The reality is that the cost of education for students will continue to increase, but when it comes to textbooks, libraries may be able to provide some much-needed relief.