Free Books As Alternatives To Textbooks

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.

One thought on “Free Books As Alternatives To Textbooks”

  1. If the answer to high textbook prices is simple: write your own – I have a lovely bridge to sell you.

    Infrastructure isn’t the problem so much as having the time to develop the text. And while production and distribution costs aren’t cheap, the editorial and development work and marketing are what run the bills up. Oh, and the permissions thing: it’s not that we couldn’t find open source stuff to use – but if you’re putting a Hemingway short story into an anthology, you need the one Hemingway wrote. And for that you pay a lot

    And then there’s the creep into classroom content. This is where I have the biggest issues.

    Textbook publishers will argue that the reason prices are high is because they offer so much more bundled with the book. I didn’t think much about that until I heard some faculty members ask about a CMS product “why would we use that? our textbooks come with all the online stuff.” Case in point: a Spanish textbook that costs over $200; what you’re paying for is access to the online material. Access you can’t resell at the end of the term. Access to material that once was paid for by your tuition that went to support language labs.

    Now, if I were a student I’d be upset about footing the bill for material that was once provided by the institution. And I’d be upset that I was having to pay so much for something I didn’t even own.

    What’s spooky is some of these textbooks come with article databases. Aggregators we deal with (e.g. InfoTrac) have cut deals with Pearson and other textbook publishers that mean the student pays for access to what we’ve already provided them – and is guided to a much smaller universe of materials than what’s in the library. Now, that’s a lousy excuse for high textbook prices.

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