Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University;
Steven J. Bell
, Temple University; Larry Hardesty, College Library Directors' Mentor Program;
Mark Tucker,
Abilene Christian University

Vol. 31, No. 1                          printable version (pdf)   home

September 2010



Textbook Turmoil:
The Library’s Role in the Textbook Revolution

By Steven Bell

Ask any college librarian what the most frequently asked question at the reference desk is during the first week of the academic term. In recent years, hands down, that question is “Does the library have a copy of my textbook?” With their course syllabi in hand, students descend on the library in droves to scour the shelves for textbooks, and their success depends on the library and its philosophy on acquiring textbooks. Driving this phenomenon is the rapid acceleration of textbook prices.

Students spend an estimated $1,000 per year on textbooks, and it’s common to learn of textbooks costing in excess of $100.  At those prices it’s no surprise that students hope to find their textbook in the library; even old, outdated editions are preferable to further indebting themselves in the pursuit of higher education.

Of course we want to help our students. We recognize the significant burden that textbook costs place upon them by adding to the overall problem of student loan debt. Librarians also recognize the profound pedagogical problems created when students take extreme measures, such as group sharing or simply choosing to do without a textbook. How effectively can we expect our students to learn without a required textbook? But what is the best way to offer that help?

Fortunately the problem of escalating textbook costs has hit the boiling point, and both the higher education and publishing industries are seeking solutions before the pot explodes and legislators step in to clean up the mess. A forced legislative solution is avoidable given the options for delivering instruction materials in new ways that range from less costly but mostly traditional digital textbooks to open educational resources that faculty create and share freely in order to provide students with no-cost options for accessing course readings.

This issue explores these different options, and considers the more immediate challenge facing academic libraries, which is what to do about textbooks. Should the academic library buy them for students? Does doing so squander institutional resources better spent building strong collections?

The textbook problem strongly divides academic librarians into different camps. They can choose to respond with solutions that help students in the short run by providing their textbooks or they can adopt a position as campus leaders who work with faculty and administrators to implement new approaches that make textbooks affordable and accessible. First, we all need to understand the problems and potential solutions.


Libraries and the Textbook Conundrum

          It’s the e-mail message that every library director gets, and that every library director dreads because no matter the response, it’s a losing proposition. It may come from a single student or more likely the president of the student association and it goes something like this:

I am writing with a simple request that will offer great benefits to the student body. We are asking the library to provide at least one copy of every single textbook.

How should the director respond? Buying one copy of every textbook, no matter the size of the institution, is surely a prohibitively expensive proposition for all but the most well resourced academic libraries. Even if the budget allows the library to purchase every textbook, or even those required for the most heavily enrolled courses, there are those librarians who believe doing so is counterproductive and antithetical to the goals of collection development.

In responding to the textbook conundrum of whether to acquire them or not, a typical solution is some balance between the all and nothing approaches. Many academic libraries will acquire selected textbooks when faculty specifically request them for courses, and in other cases libraries will accept faculty-owned copies of textbooks for placement on reserve.

There is no one best solution, and thus the ways in which academic libraries manage the textbook conundrum is all across the spectrum of possible acquisition and delivery options.

The textbook conundrum is occasionally the subject of debate on discussion lists, and as recently as mid-2009 academic librarians discussed the challenge of how to handle the spread of “the library acquires every textbook” myth that somehow is passed from student to student, or even worse is information supplied to prospective students and their parent by campus tour guides.

These discussions invariably lead to debates about the advantages and disadvantages of acquiring textbooks. Those who choose to do so point to the value of helping students deal with textbook expenses. Those who refuse to do so point to the funding challenge and the short shelf life of textbooks; academic libraries, they proclaim, do their institutions a disservice when limited material funds are spent on textbooks.

A Closer Look at Textbook Management

The mild volatility of the textbook dilemma for academic libraries was well characterized in an opinion piece authored by Bonnie Imler, a librarian with Penn State University, in the November 2009 issue of American Libraries. Imler lamented that students increasingly expected the library to have their textbooks. In discovering this was common at many academic libraries, she described the no-win position in which we find ourselves with textbooks. Either we buy them and students win while we lose, or we refuse to buy them and we win but the students lose. Academic librarians and their administrators need to come up with a win-win solution for their libraries and students.


“Even if the budget allows the library to purchase every textbook, or even those required for the most heavily enrolled courses, there are those librarians who believe doing so is counterproductive and antithetical to the goals of collection development.”


What do we already know about the collection and distribution of textbooks in academic libraries? How widespread is the physical placement of textbooks in reserve collections or the stacks? A 2009 study of library e-serves that surveyed 84 academic libraries found that 67 percent did not collect any required textbooks and 52 percent purchased no recommended textbooks. Only 32 percent of the libraries purchased some or all of the required books that instructors requested. Only 4 libraries purchased all the textbooks requested by faculty.1

Despite students expecting their library to offer textbooks, most do not. Some libraries, such as Arizona State University, indicate they no longer purchase any print materials for their course reserve, having gone all digital. At the other end of the spectrum North Carolina State University is purchasing at least one copy of every required textbook, at a significant cost to the library. As expected, the program is well-liked by the NCSU students, but how many academic libraries can afford this type of commitment to students?

When it comes to deciding how textbooks should fit into the libraries collection development policy, a mid-2009 exchange of messages on the college librarians’ online discussion list (COLLIB) illustrated just how diverse the opinions are. One discussant indicated that while his library will acquire textbooks, no more than a third of those would fall into the category of traditional textbook with the remainder being monographs or novels that the existing collection would accommodate. Another library director shared that her library acquired the textbooks for all introductory courses. The stated reason was to help students who could not afford them. And yet others indicated that they don’t regularly acquire many textbooks, just the few that were requested or supplied by faculty.

Another discussion on that same list tackled the unusual problem created when students are led to believe, by campus tour guides, admissions staff or uninformed fellow students, that the library acquires every copy of every textbook. This contributes to that early semester phenomenon in which large numbers of students come to the library thinking their textbook is in the collection. How, discussion participants wondered, could the academic library best react to and control such rumors, and do so while offering limited numbers of textbooks.

For academic libraries, textbooks are more than just another addition to the collection. They create complexity.

New Solutions to the Textbook Challenge

The good news is that options are emerging that could lead to that much desired win-win solution that simplifies the textbook conundrum for students, faculty, librarians and academic administrators. Foremost among them is the birth of the open educational resources movement. There is already a well-established open access movement that promotes the transformation of scholarly communication from a system controlled mostly by private commercial publishers to one in which researchers publish and distribute their intellectual output in publicly accessible venues such as institutional or disciplinary repositories or in open journals. The open educational resources movement is similar in that it encourages making both educational offerings and learning materials more widely available to the public.

MIT’s Open Courseware program is a good example of an open educational resource. Recorded courses, though not leading to degrees, may be experienced by anyone with an Internet connection. Just as they make their courses available, faculty may also choose to make their textbook content available to other faculty for re-use. In addition, commercial publishers are developing new strategies for lowering the cost of textbooks.

Electronic versions. Traditional publishers, such as McGraw-Hill and Pearson, are reducing textbook prices by providing electronic versions. A digital version may sell for one-half the cost of its print counterpart. One challenge to this initiative is that students still show a preference for print textbooks. New e-text reading devices and enhanced viewing and note taking technologies may encourage students’ to accept e-textbooks, but digital texts need further refinements before they are ready for prime time. For example, a new e-book reader called the Kno is designed specifically for digital textbooks. It has dual viewing screens so that it looks and acts more like a book, offers color, greater navigation throughout the text, replicates graphics to book-level quality and accepts notes. As the digital textbook readers improve, students may be more accepting  of e-textbooks, especially if the promised savings materialize.      

Rentals. Rentals offer student yet another option. As the market for used textbooks grew, it demonstrated that students would accept textbooks as temporary learning tools if it saved them a few dollars. The concept of renting rather than buying a new or used textbook was popularized by online providers such as Chegg and BookRenter. With students showing a preference for renting rather than owning, more traditional publishers such as Follett and Cengage Learning announced that they too would offer textbooks for rentals. In the latest twist on the rental option, campus bookstores, particularly those operated by Barnes & Noble, will begin offering textbook rentals in the fall of 2010. Textbook rentals do lower costs for students, and it reduces their expectation that the library is the place to get textbooks.  Limitations on how much students may write notes in a rented book or take highlighter pens to them, as well as the obvious problem of losing what might one day be of value, are the primary pedagogical weaknesses of the rental method. The substantial savings for students is a powerful lure to keep them from being much concerned about the short and long-term consequences of renting textbooks.


“The current state of the textbook industry is in such flux that academic librarians are suffering from ambiguity about how we can best help our students to deal with the textbook conundrum.”


Open education options. Alternate publishers such as Flat World Publishing and Connexions encourage faculty to make their textbooks openly accessible by facilitating the collection of sharing of the texts, and then allowing students to access them for free online. As many students still prefer printed textbooks, there is an option to order a print copy, on demand, for less than fifty dollars. These open publishers allow faculty to use all or just selected chapters of textbooks. This flexibility moves the delivery of learning materials to students in the direction of mass customization. With open education options, in combination with digital content provided by the academic library, faculty have the capacity to assemble only those chapters, articles, videos, and other learning materials that truly meet the needs of their students. Faculty may then use their online courseware system, such as Blackboard or Moodle, to efficiently package and deliver the material to their students. In this way, faculty are no longer shackled to the tyranny of the static, costly textbook, which few if any faculty are able to entirely cover in a semester anyway.

What More Can Academic Libraries Offer

All of these options could allow students to access textbooks at low cost while allowing academic libraries to get out of the textbook business. Here are a few strategies academic librarians, working with their administrators, faculty, bookstore managers and academic officers, could implement now to begin taking control of the textbook problem. While the campus librarians bear the brunt of dealing with students looking for cheap alternatives to textbook purchasing, achieving that win-win solution is going to require a collaborative campus effort. The library director and staff can lead the way.

Leading the Revolution on Campus

How you can tell when academic libraries have no clear solutions for a challenging, wicked problem that confronts higher education? When they are all taking completely different paths to solve the problem at the institutional level, when there is absolutely no clear rationale for any particular path taken and when those paths are mostly tied to the past and offer little vision for the future. Perhaps that is what makes the problem of textbooks, and what academic librarians are doing about them, particularly vexing. The current state of the textbook industry is in such flux that academic librarians are suffering from ambiguity about how we can best help our students to deal with the textbook conundrum. So we have academic librarians trying everything from buying every single textbook to absolutely refusing to spend even a penny of the book budget on a single textbook, and many variations between those two polar opposites.

College and university librarians, working closely with students, faculty, bookstore managers, and administrators can forge a clear strategy to blend multiple options, be it encouraging the use of open educational resources, low-cost rentals, and exploring new digital models, that allow the librarians to break the cycle of supporting a textbook system that is broken. When we provide little or no help to our students we shirk our professional responsibility to them and their academic success. When we simply buy their textbooks for them, we do little but apply a band-aid solution that fails to support efforts to mend a broken publishing model.

As a profession, we can do better. The options and opportunities are growing. Academic librarians and their administrators must harness them to establish a path that sets a new direction for starting a textbook revolution on campus.


1 John H. Pollitz, Anne Christie, and Cheryl Middleton, “Management of Library Course Reserves and the Textbook Affordability Crisis,” Journal of Access Services 6:459-484, 2009.

Additional Resources

Steven Bell, “Not Textbooks. Think Curricular Resource Strategy: Part I.” Library Journal Academic Newswire, Dec. 10, 2009. http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6711099.html

Steven Bell, “Not Textbooks. Think Curricular Resource Strategy: Part II.” Library Journal Academic Newswire, Dec. 17, 2009. http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6712127.html

Steven Bell, “Taming the Textbook Market.” Inside Higher Ed. June 11, 2010. http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/06/11/bell

FlatWorld Knowledge – http://www.flatworldknowledge.com

Connexions – http://www.cnx.org

Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 31 no. 1 © 2010 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $84/one year; $144/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $26 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: editor@libraryissues.com) Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at http://www.libraryissues.com


last modified:

May 2010


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