Tackling Textbooks

Many libraries grapple with whether to buy textbooks to put on reserve for students to use. At my college we do acquire textbooks, though of course we purchase many other books for circulating use as well. I’ve usually thought about the textbook issue from the perspective of the library, for example, our materials costs vs. the relative perishability of these books. Textbooks also have an impact on our library faculty and staff: our students assume that the library has their textbook on reserve and and sometimes get frustrated when we don’t, and can take their frustration out on our library faculty and staff.

But I’m starting to think that our offering many textbooks on reserve for students to use is deflecting many of the core issues with textbooks. Recently we’ve heard our faculty lament more and more often that their students are not buying the textbook for their classes. This is not surprising: textbook prices are high and growing, and I’d guess that one of the main reasons students don’t want to buy their textbooks is that it seems like a lot of money for something they may only use in one class, especially for classes that aren’t in their major.

We are certainly helping our students when we provide textbooks on reserve for them to use, which is an important part of any college library’s mission and goals. But we’re also allowing faculty to sidestep a major and thorny issue in academic publishing: the extremely high and continuously increasing cost of textbooks.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s definitely value in textbooks. Writing about complex subjects and disciplines in a clear, concise way that’s appropriate for undergraduates, especially first year students, is challenging. A good textbook can be very useful for faculty teaching and students taking a course. Some textbooks are not unreasonably priced, either. But for far too many topics it seems like the textbook market is out of control, with new editions every couple of years, and costs into the hundreds of dollars.

Open access textbooks and educational materials are one way to tackle these thorny textbook issues. As we get closer to Open Access Week I’m preparing for a faculty workshop we’re planning at my library, and am beginning to read about encouraging experiments with open access textbooks and other curricular materials by librarians and faculty. Is your library working on an open access curriculum project with faculty? Please share your thoughts and lessons learned below.

About Maura Smale

Coordinator of Information Literacy and Library Instruction, New York City College of Technology, City University of New York

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