Tag Archives: textbooks

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.

The Paperless Dorm Room

It’s always good to start the day with a good laugh.

Joseph Storch has an idea (behind the Chronicle’s pay wall) to deal with textbook piracy – have all publishers put their books on a common electronic platform and let the colleges negotiate a subscription on behalf of students and dole out royalties to publishers based on use. Students will be fine with it because online is where students are at, and if a few students insist on printing content, well, even so “the system could save considerable paper.” And publishers might even start creating some digital content to supplement textbooks. What a concept!

Evidently Mr. Storch, an assistant counsel in the State University of New York’s Office of University Counsel, knows something about intellectual property law, but hasn’t paid much attention to the textbook industry and the masses of expensive online content they bundle with books, or to how students prefer to read. I don’t know about your students, but at our college most students print any online content that they want to read with care. Like most of us, they hate reading long texts on screen and even those suffering from ecological guilt prefer reading, marking up, and (if they’re on the ball) bringing their materials to class so they can refer to it. Professors want students to refer to texts under discussion, but are not universally delighted to face a classroom full of students with their noses buried in laptops. Not all students have laptops. Not all classrooms have wireless access to handle all those laptops at once. (I won’t even touch on the silliness of an ecological argument that landfills full of printed textbooks are a bigger problem than landfills overflowing with electronic junk, heavy metals and all.)

I applaud any attempt to improve the situation for students who have to spend so much on textbooks, but solutions should be proffered with some rudimentary research done beforehand. Libraries have subscribed to bundled electronic content on behalf of students for a long time, and while it means more content is accessible, it doesn’t make it cheaper – nor does it mean students will use more content. And so far, having all content through one platform may be the dream of some of our ambitious vendors, but it’s not likely to happen – or save anybody money.

I also had to laugh that he mentions Harvard Business Review – the outfit smart enough (or should I say greedy enough?) to have licenses with their content bundled into library databases spell out that it cannot be used for courses. For that, you pay more.

[Whoops - as Steven points out in the comments, I read that wrong. It's Harvard Law Review. I did notice something else, though, that I hadn't before - the copyright statements on full-text articles in Academic Search Premier vary from publication to publication, and a lot of them specify articles can be downloaded "for personal use." It makes me wonder if that's to wriggle out of use of these articles in courses, with links in syllabi or e-reserves systems. But that's a paranoia for another day . . .]

A cheaper solution? Nice thought, but I doubt it.