Most academic libraries are driven by a student-centered approach to operations; doing what best serves the needs of students, within reason, should be at the core of decision making in academic libraries. One area in which this is most difficult is helping students cope with the high cost of textbooks. Readers of ACRLog are familiar with the litany of reasons why academic libraries avoid collecting textbooks. If nothing else, we might bankrupt ourselves if we had to purchase even a single copy of every textbook required each semester at our institutions.
While there have been some investigations into the high cost of textbooks there are currently no immediate solutions on the horizon. In this essay a rather radical alternative to pricey textbooks is suggested, the free book. “All Systems Go: The Newly Emerging Infrastructure to Support Free Books” by Ben Crowell presents an interesting look at how faculty might, using the WikiBook model, create alternate books for their students. Crowell acknowledges that there are barriers, the least of which is the textbook publishers themselves, but he presents a look at the different options and current ventures in producing free books.
I think we’d all agree that free books will never replace commercial textbooks, just as open access journals won’t replace subscription journals. But in the same way that open access journals have served to slow the increase in the price of those subscription journals with which they compete, it may be possible that a viable option for free books could encourage textbook publishers to price their books more reasonably. If you’ve heard stories on your own campus about students who are simply priced out of the ability to buy their textbooks or groups of students who buy one book and share it, then you know the current crisis in textbook pricing is not conducive to good learning.