Academic libraries have historically avoided collecting textbooks, for several reasons. Perhaps the most important are these:

  1. Philosophical: Academic libraries tend to see themselves primarily as supporters of research, and classroom texts are not research materials.
  2. Practical: Library collections (and collecting practices) have their origins in the print era, when housing and managing a comprehensive textbook collection would have been a daunting challenge, both fiscally and logistically.

Unfortunately, as with many of our traditional practices (interlibrary loan, journal check-in, etc.) we librarians have allowed an unfortunate limitation of the print world to shape not only our behaviors but also our philosophy, to the point that many of us in academic libraries seem to see excluding textbooks as something like a defining value of librarianship — not a service we regretfully forego because it’s not feasible, but a service we forego because “That’s Not Who We Are As Librarians”. This has produced a curious perversity in our professional posture, a stance that says to our student patrons, “Count on us to give you access to all of the information resources you need in order to do your scholarly work — all, that is, except for those you need most desperately: your classroom texts.” At a time when it is increasingly necessary for libraries to find new ways of being mission-critical to their sponsoring institutions, this aversion to textbook provision seems to me increasingly self-defeating.

Yet very few libraries have taken on this challenge. In 2015, Brown University Libraries began hosting a textbook-lending program for low-income students, but it was an initiative of Brown’s student organization and not the library — and the books are donated by students. Nor is the collection managed by the library, or by anyone else, for that matter; the books are kept in open stacks and are borrowed and returned on the honor system. However, the North Carolina State University Libraries do run a comprehensive lending collection of currently-adopted textbooks, and the University of Texas-San Antonio provides a limited selection of textbooks for its students. In 2012, Cengage Learning embarked on an ambitious project with the California State University system, whereby the system underwrote discounted access to e-textbooks for all of its 400,000 students.

When asked why they don’t offer textbooks, librarians seem increasingly inclined to respond along the lines of “How about if we just revolutionize the textbook marketplace instead?” This was the proposal of thoughtful and influential library commentator Steven Bell in 2011, and since then many other librarians have taken up the torch of open educational resources (OERs). This is by no means a bad idea, but the prospect of revolutionizing the textbook industry with OERs seems like it’s going to be a long-term one: five years after Bell’s call to arms, the ratio of words to action in this realm remains quite high. While we wait for the revolution to start, why not take the opportunity to make a real difference to students right now?

Make no mistake, this opportunity is significant. If libraries can find a way to shake off the mindset that keeps us thinking textbooks are not our bailiwick, and if we can find a way to solve the admittedly difficult problems of textbook provisioning, we can increase our relevance and necessity to a key academic constituency considerably, and do much good for our students — especially for the less-privileged, for whom the cost of textbooks can be an enormous barrier to full access to education.

As course texts continue moving inexorably into the online realm the logistical barriers to textbook provisioning fall away, and the ones that remain are fiscal: classroom texts are expensive whatever the format, and textbook publishers’ business models are built on the assumption that on each campus, scores (if not hundreds) of individual students will pay for those that are adopted. Libraries can’t afford to take on that level of cost, and publishers can’t afford to trade scores or hundreds of book sales to individuals for a single campus sale at the same price (or a slightly larger one).

However, there is a serious pain point here for publishers as well as for students. In addition to the vigorous secondary market in used textbooks, various surveys and studies indicate that significant numbers of students forego buying textbooks entirely due to their high cost. This state of affairs hurts everyone: students who need textbooks, publishers and authors who need revenues, and professors who need prepared students in their classrooms. This means that, for publishers and authors as well as for students and professors, a winning scenario for library-based textbook provision does not require achieving the sales equivalent of 100% campus penetration for an adopted text. It requires stopping the bleeding and increasing the percentage of market penetration that currently exists.

Is such a program possible? I suspect it is, but the work required to assess its feasibility would be daunting. It would require gathering data to illustrate the scope of the problem, starting with a snapshot of all required and recommended texts at 2- and 4-year colleges in the United States. Then it would be necessary to estimate what current textbook publisher revenue streams look like, what percentage of complete penetration they are actually achieving in the current marketplace, and whether (and if so, to what degree) that percentage would need to change in order to be sustainable. Having gotten a reasonably reliable picture of the current market reality in this way, it would then remain to estimate what it would cost libraries to help publishers meet a sustainable revenue target.

An obvious objection to this initiative would be something along the lines of “Why should libraries care about helping textbook publishers reach sustainable revenue levels in their textbook business?” The answer, of course, is that we don’t. What we do care about is helping students succeed, and one obvious way of doing so is to ease the very serious financial burden of textbook access. Helping textbook publishers, in other words, is not the point. But if, in helping students, we end up helping textbook publishers as well, that might be something we regard as an acceptable byproduct — especially if it attracts textbook publishers to the project as collaborators.

I’d like to hear comments, especially from my fellow librarians. Is something like this desirable? If not, why not? If so, is it feasible?

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


88 Thoughts on "Academic Libraries and the Textbook Taboo: Time to Get Over It?"

Hi Rick
Bravo! Journal publishers fought open access and finally are starting to find a reasonable business model. Book publishers have found a way to deal with e-books, soft and hard backs and the used book market. Textbook publishers are now being faced with Amaon and lending libraries, increasingly with faculty generated materials including open access text materials and thus have to address the shifting market.

Universities at one time were homes for scholarly research with students coming to study with “masters”. Up to WWII and the Korean War, most jobs required only secondary school certification and only a few went to post secondary. The influx after the wars saw older adults and increased demands for a curriculum that qualified graduates in much the same way that secondary schools did in the past. Universities have changed and libraries have to realize that their clients are not those who crammed into library nooks for scholarly research and ate cheese and brown bread in small garrets for the sake of scholarship. Libraries are a service function of the university for their community. That community has changed and libraries need to bite the bullet and admit to the changing roles even as the researchers are now changing how they access scholarly knowledge and use the libraries.

In addition to OER, why not work toward the day when faculty create their own textbooks that are freely available to students? Libraries are well positioned to help faculty work collaboratively across multiple institutions and libraries could advocate for crediting faculty who help create and maintain such works. Libraries could organize a continuing program of post-publication review.
Of course some administrators will oppose this because the institution derives some income from textbook sales. They will get lots of help in those campaigns from publishers. Librarians will become less comfortable.

When we work with faculty members on OERs, what you describe is very often just what we’re doing — helping them develop free textbook-like materials for use in their own courses, and which can obviously also be used by others. I haven’t yet seen or heard of any university administrators objecting to it.

Having edited a few (and coauthored one) textbooks back in my books days, I firmly believe that textbooks are not easy to create, or at least, creating a really good textbook is not particularly easy. There is much work that goes into a good textbook, including a huge amount of editing for consistency of voice, tone, writing level, terminology, etc. A good textbook needs clear, understandable and consistent illustrations. There are particular writing styles that work better than others, helpful features like study questions for readers, laboratory exercises, and increasingly, demands for multimedia (is it time to retire that term?) content.

All of which takes a lot of time and effort, and as we know from any other type of writing, not everybody is good at it. As with most forms of scholarly publishing, you could just do it yourself, but you will need to take a significant amount of time away from your primary work (research, teaching) to do so, and the end results will vary in quality.

There are certainly courses that are well served by having the faculty teaching them put together their own texts, but this may not be generalizable to all courses and I would suggest that having a well-written, coherent and comprehensive textbook is likely a boon to most teachers. Are librarians the right people to provide the publishing support and expertise to make that happen?

All of these points go some distance, I think, towards explaining the difficulty we in libraries are having with getting faculty excited about developing OERs. It’s certainly been a struggle for us at the U of U, and based on what I’m hearing from my colleagues, we’re not alone in our experience.

I’d be interested in hearing comments from librarians who have had notable success in this area.

Rick I am not surprised over the resistance on behalf of the profs. They know what it takes to do a textbook. I was a college acquisition editor and was able to offer advances of over $100K and grants of similar size for some freshmen books and still could not get folks to sign contracts. BTW I am talking 1980s dollars.

Writing a textbook is an onerous task and one that is not taken on lightly!

Hi Frank, Many librarians are already great advocates in this space. It speaks so clearly to who we are as professionals & is one of the truly exciting movements in the library world. More power to it I say 🙂 Sandra

I have a better idea. Students spend about $1200 on textbooks and the same on entertainment (beer). Why not just have a section of the library devoted to kegs?

-66% of students are spending $1,200 or more each year on entertainment (bars, restaurants, live music, media, alcohol, marijuana, etc.); more specifically, 21% spend $3,000 or more, and 6% spend $6,000 or more.

Would you believe it? Students spend less on textbooks then entertainment! Knock me over with a feather!

The yearly books-and-supplies estimate for the average full-time undergraduate student at a four-year public college is about $1,200. You may be able to lower these costs by buying used textbooks or renting them.

In some schools in the mid west there is the rental textbook system whereby a student rents the book from the university. Of course, profs being who they are seldom change books in this system, but who needs the latest information anyway? I have seen instances where a prof does not even change to a new edition.

Mr. Lowey I know of no university which derives any payment from a publisher for a book being used on campus except for the rental system mentioned above.

Lastly, Rick I think the library would be better served if it spent more time working on making the library relevant to today’s students rather then becoming a source for textbooks or for that matter the new home for the university press.

Or how about having the big-time sports universities use some of their profits to subsidize textbook purchasing by their needier students? Cut Nick Saban’s salary in half and help 2,000 students buy their textbooks at Alabama!

To respond to the more serious of your comments, Harvey: my whole point is that providing access to classroom texts would, in fact, make the library more relevant to today’s students. What could be more relevant to students’ scholarly needs than providing access to the academic materials they need in order to do their work?

Rick as you know profs choose books for their courses. Some change books like they change socks. Now if the proposal is for the library to provide the server for students to download books; that is one thought but that will take lots of coordination, just ask the book store what it takes to have books on hand for the start of any semester.

My argument is that supplying textbooks even on a server will take enormous resources like contract negotiations with publishers and concomitantly funding to do the task. Is that the best place for the library to put resources and funding?

The question isn’t whether it’s “the best” place for libraries to invest resources — who can say what is? The question is whether investing resources in this way would be likely to yield good value for money, relative to the other possible investments we could make. My posting indicates that I believe it could, and that I think this is an opportunity we should take more seriously than we have in the past.

And, the experiences of very many Australian university students, teachers & librarians agree with you. Sandra

Could a more US-knowledgeable reader put this post into context for us Europeans and Brits? When I attended university, there were no required texts, but if you wanted to read further or make notes the library would have 30-40 copies of the most popular titles for each discipline and one or two copies of most other textbooks you could care to name. Do US college libraries really have *no* books in them?

Hi, Hannah —

In the US, most college courses require the purchase of textbooks. A typical college student here will spend roughly $1000-1200 per year on required course materials (textbooks, coursepacks, etc.). The word “textbook” may be tripping you up, as we use that term somewhat differently in the US from the way it’s used in the UK.

US college libraries do, of course, have books in them — numbering anywhere from tens of thousands to millions, depending on the library — but these are generally not the books that students are required to buy.

In my 25 years of teaching;at a university, I and most of the professors I knew put desk copies of our textbooks in the library at the reserve desk so that all students could have access to them even if they could not afford to buy them. It was not the most convenient way to do the reading but it ensured no student could claim lack of access due to cost. Surely this is a simpler and less expensive way to deal with the problem.

Having one or maybe two copies of the book on reserve helps with access, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. Only one student can read a single print copy at a time, and if they can each borrow the book for a few hours at a time, they’ve got to figure out when to get to the library when the book isn’t in use by others. With students taking other classes and working part-time jobs and possibly working around limited hours of the reserves desk, it can turn out to be difficult to actually arrange to do the reading.

This is an interesting take on solutions to the problem of escalating cost of college textbooks. It ignores the contribution of the college store’s resources in collecting adoptions, obtaining books, distributing them through store sales and the income that provides to the university. If an idea such as this is to take off the university needs to be reconciled with that loss of income and the additional expense of hiring a staff to manage the process and ensure that the school adhere to HEOA requrements. These areas of expertise are not traditionally found in library staff so would need staff development expense as well to get a program going.

But many college bookstores nowadays are run by commercial outfits like Follett’s and Barnes and Noble, so profits are not going directly to the college anyway.

True Sandy, I am biased toward the advantages of a self-operated independent bookstore and I was imagining that structure when I commented. Leased operations like Follett and B&N do return some income to the school so that loss would need to be considered in the decision regardless of current bookstore management structure.

Harvey–I am speaking from a 19 year career in the college store industry. Course materials contribute to the bottom line of college stores significantly. Margins may be smaller on course materials but the overall volume is huge. In fact in the community college world that contribution if by far the largest in the store. For 4 year institutions the percentage of gross margin contribution varies widely depending upon the degree to which the school has a large spirit following, the number of competitors, the strategy by which they operate their course materials business and a number of minor factors. No school with a reasonably run course materials department would want to forego that income unless there was a significant upside of doing so.

Beth: I stand corrected . I was around when B&N and Follett expanded and colleges were more than willing to give up their stores because they were for the most part cost centers rather than profit centers. I guess things have changed.

Given the ridiculous prices that traditional publishers have been charging (in the USA, for example, textbook prices have risen more than 1000 percent since 1978, more than health care, housing, CPI), librarians are encouraging academic staff to self publish, thereby dramatically reducing the retail price that students have to pay, and increasing financial returns for the author. Traditional publishing models are no longer needed in this sector. Libraries are even starting to collaborate on their funding initiatives, cutting out the traditional publisher entirely, and funding the author directly.

Worth noting that the comment above is from the Vice President of a self-publishing company.

,,,,yes indeed, and I have no secrets to hide in this respect – it is for this reason that we we have named our company ‘Glass Tree’ – specifically representing the value of transparency – something needed in traditional academic publishing. I observe that everyone that has an editorial role in the Scholarly Kitchen has a vested interest in academic publishing, including David (OUP).

David is the only one with an editorial role in the Scholarly Kitchen, and in my experience he tends to be quite conscientious about declaring his interests when writing here — without having to be outed.

We do have a page declaring all of our affiliations:

But when we have a clear or potential conflict of interest with something we’re writing (or it has a direct impact on our own business), we try to go out of our way to add a disclosure statement to that particular post.

None of which means that anything you’ve said was wrong or unethical, but a naive reader might take a statement that “traditional publishers are no longer needed” in a different light from a librarian, an author or from someone whose company seeks to profit from removing those publishers. Hence it’s useful to make clear where one is coming from.

Bravo, Rick! Thanks for another thoughtful contribution to a difficult subject.

Hi Rick,

I love the idea of the library helping to make textbooks more affordable for students, but what about copyright issues? Aren’t textbooks considered to be “consumable” under copyright law, and might libraries be running afoul of copyright by purchasing a copy or copies designed to be used by students? Think of the fourth factor of fair use and the right of the copyright holder to realize revenue on its products. A few years ago I had this conversation with my university’s general counsel’s office and this point was made, along with the point that it might start us on a slippery slope toward students (and perhaps faculty) assuming that it is the library’s responsibility to purchase textbooks for them.

I’ve heard some librarians raise the copyright issue in the past, but it seems to be very much of a red herring to me. Making a text required doesn’t change the fact that it’s still just a book which the library can buy and lend just as it does any other book.

I believe “consumables” applies to workbooks and other supplementary educational materials designed for a single use by an individual. Textbooks, in contrast, may be resold, rented and circulated among many library users.

Hi, Timothy —

I think you may be confusing textbooks (which are not usually consumables) with workbooks (which often are). But even workbooks may be lent under the First Sale Doctrine. I can’t see any copyright issue at play when the library buys a copy of a book and allows students to check it out, whether it’s a textbook or not.

Thanks for the clarification, Rick. Does it change the situation at all when the purchased copy is an ebook with multiple user simultaneous access? If a library is to purchase a textbook for a class multi-user licenses make the most sense given the large number of students who would want to use it..

When the library purchases an ebook (whether it’s a textbook or any other kind), it’s always with a license that specifies how many people may use it simultaneously. Most often these licenses are for unlimited simultaneous usage (so any number of students may access the book at once), but sometimes the license will allow only a limited number of simultaneous users. In the context of these agreements, copyright restrictions under the law are basically a non-issue because the license represents a special agreement between the copyright holder and the library, and acceptable usage is governed by the license terms.

Rick is it made clear to the publisher that the e book will be used as an adopted text for a class? Usually publisher have different fees for such usage.

I don’t believe that’s the case. We license tens of thousands of ebooks for unlimited campus use, and I’ve never heard of a publisher asking whether one of them has been adopted for a course.

Of course, publishers don’t necessarily make actual classroom texts available for that kind of licensing, so when the book is not available on a site-license basis the question is moot.

Say, American Lit adopts Huckleberry Finn and the class enrolls 150 students. Would you feel obliged to tell the publisher that the book is being used in the course with an enrollment of 150? Or better yet, Strunk and White Elements of Style for freshmen comp which enrolls 1,200 students. H9w about that 30 copy adoption of Plato? I know that ACS counts on the revenue from its style guide as does APA these are hardly “greedy” publishers.

In short, what is the ethical or moral cutoff when supplying students books.

If you pay for a site license to an ebook, there’s no ethical or moral issue at play. The library has paid to give all members of the campus community access to the book, subject to the terms of the license agreement (which may provide for unlimited simultaneous or for a limited number of simultaneous users). I’ve negotiated scores if not hundreds of such agreements with publishers, and I have yet to see one that provides different access terms or pricing in the event that one of the books included in the package gets adopted as a course text. This is simply not an issue. Campus access is campus access, course adoption or no course adoption.

During your negotiations have you ever said: Oh, by the way this book that is new to the list of e books has been adopted for a class which will have 150 students?

Why not mention the next time such a book is added to the list. Or, why not call a sales rep or whomever you deal with and bring it up.

Generally speaking publishers believe they are dealing with honorable people, at least I always have.

Harvey, I feel like you’re not listening/reading carefully here.

When an academic library licenses campuswide access to an online resource — whether it’s a single ebook, a package of ebooks, a database, or a journal — what the library pays for is the right of everyone on campus to have access to that resource, for whatever reason they wish. Whether they access it because they’re doing research for a paper, or because they want to read it for pleasure, or because it’s been assigned as a course text in their class, simply doesn’t matter. The library has paid for the right of everyone on campus to have access. The reason the issue of course adoption is never, ever addressed in licenses (which the publishers write, by the way) and never comes up in license negotiations is that it’s not an issue that matters to either party. When you suggest that publishers would want to enter into a new negotiation if a licensed ebook gets adopted for a course, and that failing to notify the publisher about course adoption of a licensed ebook reflects poorly on the librarian’s honor, it reveals your lack of understanding of how this business is done and of the expectations that publishers and libraries actually have of each other in this situation. Those expectations are laid out in licenses. Which are written by the publishers. And never say anything about course adoption. Because it’s a non-issue for them.

If you suspect that (for some unfathomable reason) I’m lying to you about this, please contact the ebook publisher or vendor of your choice and ask them.

Rick in no way do I want you to think that I doubt your honesty or integrity. I understood what you conveyed. But, this is a new avenue for both libraries and publishers. I am going to ask a few friends in the industry if they have considered the fact that a book on the e list is being used for a classroom adoption. It could be something they have never considered and it could be something which is of no concern. It is interesting to note that the library salesperson has no idea of what a college adoption is and that library really does not talk to college!

These are interesting waters in which we now swim. College publishers are seeking to survive by raising prices to ridiculous heights. I recall when an expensive text was $19.95 and a freshmen English handbook was $4.95.

Harvey, while this territory is apparently unfamiliar to you, it is by no means new. Those of us who do this work have been doing it for decades now. (I began negotiating licenses for campuswide access to online resources almost 20 years ago.)

Nor is it the case that “the library salesperson has no idea of what a course adoption is,” or that “the library really does not talk (to) the college.” Sales reps know perfectly well what course adoption is, and librarians communicate with their colleges on a pretty much constant basis.

If you would like a quick orientation to how libraries work and how we do business with publishers, please contact me directly at and I’ll be very happy to carve out some time.

Rick: Thank you will take a look. Just spoke with two national sales managers and they commented that their licenses have a clause to the effect that the books on the list are not to be used for classroom adoption.

Not to be a PITA but who monitors the not to be used clause?

I guess what I am getting at is that I am not for a system whereby the library becomes the monitor or gate keeper of usage. To me librarians are guardians of freedom of usage.

Harvey, I’d like to see those licenses for myself. If such clauses are really there (and if these are licenses for the kinds of products you and I have been talking about), then I’ll be happy to stand corrected. Could you (or the folks you spoke with) provide me copies of those licenses?

In the meantime, I can provide you with a copy of a license that shows what I’m talking about — extensive provisions as to the ways in which the ebooks in question may be used, with no mention whatsoever of course adoption — though it does indicate a different level of concurrent users for actual textbooks in the collection. See (This is probably not the most recent version of the EBL license, so if someone can provide a link to a more recent one, please do.)

Where I come from we agree with the Charlotte Initiative when it comes to e-Tectbooks. No DRM, unlimited concurrent users, permanent access. Not only that but we proactively notify our library clients of what e-Textbooks they have already licensed from us. To this someone will say, oh but you need to buy in subject packages from them. Correct, quid pro quo. Not ashamed of this.

Speaking as a publisher who focuses on this exact kind of licensing through aggregators, I can concur that if we classify a book as a “textbook” and believe it likely to be adopted, we don’t make it available for ebook purchase under standard models (single, multi or unlimited use) by libraries. I am very interested in seeing where this conversation goes in general, however, as I do fully believe there is a place for libraries to provide textbooks to the patron base.

Hi, Melissa — Yes, the strategy you describe is the one that I believe most publishers employ: if they think a book has any significant likelihood of course adoption, they simply don’t offer it on a site-license basis. That’s a much smarter and more effective approach than including such books in a package, expecting the library to monitor all course adoptions on campus, and then expecting to open up a new negotiation in the event that one of the books in the package is adopted.

I think the solution is look at and adopt two models. Where a text is available under a library based platform buy it this way, but on balance not many really valuable textbooks are offered this way and secondly look at developing new and innovative acquisition models based on providing e-textbooks directly to individual students through campus based VLE’s. Personally I think there are massive opportunities here for libraries to cement our role at the centre of learning provision and tailored support at our university’s bringing our expertise to bear. Plus also threats of we don’t engage in this way!
Dominic Broadhurst

FWIW … though I suspect Rick know this, others may not some publishers not only “allow” course use, they promote it.

I teach courses in addition to being a librarian at UIUC. Here’s the email from Springer not too long ago:

“Dear Dr. Hinchliffe,
As a member of the University Of Illinois – Urbana Champaign teaching community, you have unlimited access to thousands of Springer eBooks at your library, including a number of designated textbooks! Springer eBooks make for excellent classroom resources because …”

When we think about ebooks as textbooks, we have to remember the open book exam. Taking electronic devices into exam rooms is still an issue for students.

This is bizarre! Every academic library I’ve used or worked in across the UK and Ireland lends textbooks, why would there be an issue with doing that? There are really librarians who don’t buy the books students need??? Our first purchases are always from the required reading lists!

Publishing open access helps. Example: “Fundamentals of human resource management. Emerging experiences from Africa” was published as a paper book by the African Studies Centre in Leiden (NL)in 2011, and at the same time in PDF format in the repository of Leiden University, PDFs old-fashioned? Sure. Repositories not very attractive? Sure. But since 2011, the book has been downloaded 125,000 times, of which 12,000 times from India, 3,000 times from Ethiopia and 2,000 times from Nigeria. It is used as a textbook at several universities worldwide. Effective way of distributing? Tell me.

Yes, an open-access textbook would be one example of an OER. These are the kinds of resources that Steven Bell and others (including us in my library) are encouraging the academy to focus on producing. We seem to be having quite a bit of trouble getting very many faculty interested in doing so, however. As David Crotty pointed out above, writing a high-quality textbook is a significant and expensive undertaking. Authors who do it generally expect to get royalties in return for their investment of time and energy; publishers expect to get revenues in return for their up-front investment of money and risk. These two factors (among others) make it tough to get people on board with producing OERs. Obviously, that’s not to say that it isn’t happening — your anecdote shows that it can happen and does. But we’ve been talking about OERs for 15 years now, and they haven’t revolutionized the system yet, so maybe we should be looking at some other possible solutions as well.

There are some developments along this line in the UK and very good they are too. However I can’t see this ever extending beyond a niche area owing to the work involved and other related complexities. Inevitably you will only ever get junior faculty involved and there will still be a cost involved somewhere down the line. Main focus I think is to get publishers to change their business models as they see their traditional text book sales decline for a variety of reasons. We libraries can offer them volume but they need to reduce their margins and move away from the print model
Dominic Broadhurst

Here at USQ (Australia) we have senior academics active in the creation of open textbooks & advocating change. We find that all kinds of academics are thinking about this movement & the role that they might play.

Sandra, can you provide us a link to information about the program you refer to?

Absolutely Rick – my pleasure 🙂 This is the initiative that began last year – & this is the work of one of the grant recipients – I was on the operational committee for the program last year (but not this year) & one the outcomes that I most loved, was the way people began to challenge what a textbook could & should be. It was genuinely exciting. Two grant recipients were academics in Education & another recipient was a TESOL team so that probably helped create these kinds of questions.

The primary internal medicine textbook is Harrison’s, which became available electronically quite a number of years ago. We licensed it for the campus and continued to acquire campus licenses for required texts when they were available and affordable. We saw it as a very logical extension of the library’s role. Other than the feasibility issue of acquiring sufficiently large numbers of print copies, the “we don’t acquire textbooks” prohibition never made sense to me.

Scott, is acquiring site licenses for required texts a more common practice in medical libraries like yours than it is in more generalist academic libraries, or are you guys an outlier in doing so? (And can you give a ballpark estimate of what percentage of required texts your library licenses in this way?)

I don’t have data on this, so it’s just speculation, but I think we may have been a little ahead of the curve, but that it is still more common in medical than general academic. And I’m afraid I can’t give even a ballpark estimate for the percentage.

Corroborating anecdote – at Cornell University, we’ve got a policy/workflow for buying multi-user e-books for class use in general, but our Veterinary Library is absolutely the most zealous about it.

Very interesting article and pretty much sums up both our position and what we are trying to at the University of Manchester Library in the UK. For the last couple of years we have running the Books Right Here Now project of which one its core tenets is to provide selections of our students with their individual copy of an e-textbook. We are trying to meet the needs of our students with providing them we what they actually want plus helps to positions our role as experts in this field tot the wider university cementing our centrality in the teaching and learning. For more information
please see here or contact me We are always keen to hear from all libraries who are working in this area as we strive to get publishers to change their business models on textbooks for the digital world!

This comment brings up a point that I should have made in my piece, but failed to — that the dynamic I’ve described is largely an American one. My understanding is that in the UK and Europe, it’s much more common for academic libraries to provide access to classroom texts. I apologize for not making the US-centrism of my piece more explicit. I actually had it in mind while I was writing, but it never made it into the posting.

Thanks for reply Rick. Interesting because over here in the UK we see the issue of textbook provision being one that publishers want to impose the lucrative US model on us. You are right in that UK academic libraries have always tried to provide some form of textbook provision, but really this has been a failure as never really achieved much. Now with rising expectations both on part of students, but also the libraries, we are trying to deal with in a much more bespoke and active level really trying to get to the root of the problem and ultimatley provide our students with what they want. So then we have a lot more in common than you think!

I’ve been hearing from librarians that they are purchasing AccessMedicine from McGraw Hill to provide required “textbooks” for courses. I think for the most part the purchase has resulted in the displacement of research literature.

Thanks Rick for the mention of my column and thoughts about how we librarians, in collaboration with faculty colleagues, can bring about change in the textbook landscape. I tend to advocate that rather than supporting the textbook industry, higher ed should totally rethink what constitutes learning material. There will always be some areas of the curriculum when the traditional textbook might work best (e.g., intro to anatomy), but we have faculty proving every semester – even in fields like chemistry and mechanical engineering – that they can effectively achieve learning outcomes without traditional textbooks.

I do think that since my 2011 column there has been significant progress in moving us closer in the direction of a textbook revolution. Many more open textbooks are available. Many more academic libraries have started alternate textbooks projects – perhaps quite a few more than have started textbook purchasing projects (see a growing list here: Many more faculty have taken a public stand on the need to see textbook affordability as a social justice issue for students which they – the faculty – need to support. (such as Rajiv Jhangiani at We now have the Open Textbook Network making it easier to locate alternatives to traditional textbooks, helping librarians to increase open textbook adoptions among faculty and with the support of our libraries innovating even better ways to publish open textbooks. So while I agree with your point that the revolution of which I spoke is still some years away, there is clearly lots of progress since 2011. And just so your readers will know, I have written about alternate textbooks and open textbooks quite a few times since 2011, such as this 2016 column in which I share ideas for how to go about achieving an institutional strategy for textbook affordability – see

I think one of my main concerns is that if academic libraries decide to use their limited resources to purchase these expensive textbooks, in addition to supporting a broken textbook publishing industry (re: constant new editions, unnecessary but costly ancillary materials, paywall connections to alternate versions of article databases we already purchase, etc) it sends the wrong message to our faculty colleagues. It says to them that their decisions about choosing learning material does not matter. It sends the message that it is fine for faculty to choose the most expensive textbook because the library will buy copies for students – and gives the badly mistaken impression that textbook affordability is no longer an issue for our institution. I think we need to go in a different direction where the academic library, working with colleagues in the teaching and learning center, the bookstore, the distance learning office, etc, work together to encourage faculty to think differently about the learning materials they choose – where the primary objective is effective student learning – which many faculty will outright acknowledge that the textbooks in their fields do not accomplish well – and the secondary objective is affordable higher education for everyone.

When we do create faculty awareness that their learning material choices do matter and can make a difference for higher education affordability, we can see real change with a big impact for our students. For example, a business school faculty member participated in our alternate textbook project in 2015. She eliminated a $140 textbook and instead used a mix of OER and licensed library content. For a class of 25 students the impact is good but not significant. Maybe the library could have just purchased one copy of the textbook and she could have noted on the syllabus it was available on reserve (let’s not even get into the issue of how many students will even bother to make the effort to get that book on reserve – or will just bother to forego reading it or for the ones who can afford to do so – they’ll rent a copy from Amazon). But here’s what happened. She has such good results with the project that she convinced all the instructors of this course – it’s required for all freshmen – to stop requiring a textbook. That means 2,700 students will no longer have to buy a textbook for this course – $378,000 in potential savings to students – and with respect to learning outcomes – every student now has access to the learning content – not just the ones who can afford it or will bother to visit the library reserve desk. If the library just opted to spend its money to buy the textbook rather than incentives to faculty to stop using textbooks – this would never have happened.

I do think we should be doing more to leverage our e-textbook purchases as potential learning content that could be used instead of traditional textbooks. I really like what they are doing at UNC Charlotte with their “Faculty E-textbook Database” (see which facilitates faculty ability to locate a library e-text that could be used as learning material. We have a prototype of this type of database here at Temple that I think will work really well – when it’s fully implemented – to help our faculty take advantage of the many e-books they could point their students to (let’s not get started on terrible ebook interfaces and single user limits).

I have no doubt that academic librarians will continue to debate the pros and cons of buying required textbooks for students. I do admit that it’s an easy win for the library and that those that choose to do so will get lots of kudos from their students. But not so much from student advocates for open textbooks. Those students, on the other hand, want nothing less than a textbook revolution.

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment, Steven. I clicked through to the list of library-based alternative textbook projects you provided, and scanned through the seven programs on that page. Several of the links were dead, and of the ones that remained, it didn’t appear to me that any of those programs had actually produced any open textbooks — but it’s very possible that I looked at them too superficially. Do you know of any studies that measure the productivity of OER programs generally, and of library-based ones in particular?

That being said, I agree that we’ve made good progress in advancing discussion of OERs, particularly in very recent years. I’m just not sure how much longer our students (especially our poorer ones) can wait for us to overthrow the existing system. I take your point about not wanting to support it, but I’m conflicted about mortgaging the interests of today’s students against the hope for a systemwide revolution later. (I once heard that Karl Marx advised against giving money to beggars, because to do so would tend to dampen their proletarian ardor and delay the revolution. I haven’t been able to determine whether he ever really said that, but the concept has always stuck with me — don’t ease the suffering of those victimized by the system, because it’s liable to make them less incentivized to overthrow it. I’ve never been entirely convinced by that line of reasoning.)

It needn’t be a choice between two alternatives. As Steven suggests, most faculty are sympathetic to affordability concerns when it’s brought to their attention. Working closely with faculty, and presenting them with options, gives us the opportunity to look at less expensive alternatives from traditional publishers as well as the possibility of developing OER (or partially OER) solutions. Even encouraging faculty to consider if they really need the latest edition, so as not to gut the used textbook market, can help students. As with most aspects of publishing, we’re looking at evolution, not revolution and there are many small but very useful steps that can be taken along the way. But engaging with faculty and identifying champions is key to all of them.

Agreed, Scott — I want to be clear that I’m not trying to discourage anyone from developing OERs. As I mentioned in my piece, we’ve been working in that direction ourselves here in my library. I think OERs are great. And while we’re waiting for them to radically disrupt the textbook industry, I’d like to find ways to be of help to our students right now. Especially our relatively underprivileged ones, who represent a significant percentage of the student body at my institution in particular.

Most of the studies related to OER, particularly open textbooks, focus on student learning outcomes. If you take a look at what Lumen Learning has done, their research tells us that faculty that adopt open textbooks find their students do just as well with OER as they do with commercial textbooks and certainly no worse. Most of the libraries with alternate textbook projects, like my own, require faculty to submit evaluations of their projects, focusing on student engagement with the alternate learning materials and student performance.I don’t think the results have been compiled into a study.

I can say that in 45-plus projects at my institution the faculty typically report as good as or better outcomes with their alternate textbook projects. I’ve never had a faculty member, after participating, go back to using a commercial textbook – and it is more often the case that they drop commercial textbooks in their other courses and encourage other faculty to do so.

Can’t say I know of any research that speaks to the efficacy of library textbook programs for student success or academic performance. Most of what I hear about them is either anecdotal (“students love that they can borrow a textbook from library”) or based on satisfaction surveys. As one would expect, students favor the programs. Then again, when faculty tell students they don’t have to buy a textbook for their course, they are overjoyed.

I get that you want to help your students to be academically successful and are willing to invest your materials budget in supporting it. We all want that. But when librarians try to fix it by buying textbooks, we make the textbook affordability issue a library issue – one that only we are seeking to resolve. Why isn’t the financial aid office contributing to the purchase of textbooks – or giving those who need it a $500 a semester credit at the bookstore. What about academic departments? Shouldn’t they be contributing to a student textbook fund.

To my way of thinking, textbook affordability is an institutional problem that requires institutional solutions. (see the LJ column to which I refer in my original comment) At the top of my list of institutional strategies is a commitment from the president and provost making textbook affordability an institutional priority – and encouraging all faculty to consider the costs of learning materials.That is something we should be able to do right now – or at least organize a textbook affordability task force that includes faculty, students, the registrar, the bookstore, the library, etc – to figure out the best way to tackle this problem.

Rather than buying the textbooks, the academic library can lead the way by bringing attention to the issue and being proactive in getting partners to the table. That’s a mistake I made with our alt-textbook project – trying to go it alone. It works for a while but isn’t sustainable in the long run. If I had to do it over again, I’d start by building a coalition and work together to develop a set of strategies that involve all the players – and who knows – that might even involve the purchase of selected textbooks.

BTW, thanks for letting me know I had a few broken links on my alt-textbook project page. Now fixed with a few new ones added – and a few more to go. Thanks for raising the issue and asking some good questions. I hope some more of our library colleagues, whatever position they take, will chime in.

Can’t say I know of any research that speaks to the efficacy of library textbook programs for student success or academic performance.

Sorry, Steven, I phrased my question badly. I wasn’t asking about the efficacy of open textbooks, which I have no reason to doubt. I was asking about the productivity of programs that are designed to encourage the production of OERs. In other words, it appears to me that there are lots of such programs out there (like the ones listed on the page to which you linked), but they don’t seem to be resulting in the production of very many OERs. I’m not sure I trust my perception, though, so I was wondering if you know whether these or any other programs have been particularly successful at producing OERs.

I get that you want to help your students to be academically successful and are willing to invest your materials budget in supporting it. We all want that. But when librarians try to fix it by buying textbooks, we make the textbook affordability issue a library issue – one that only we are seeking to resolve.

You’re right — I’m encouraging us to make textbook affordability a library issue. But I’m not trying to make it one that only libraries seek to resolve. I’d like to see collaboration between libraries, faculty, students, the bookstore, and publishers (and I definitely agree that we should help raise faculty awareness of textbook costs and the impacts their adoption decisions have on students). I don’t see buying textbooks and bringing attention to the issue of affordability as mutually exclusive options — I see them as complementary, though I think the affordability issue is actually one that’s pretty well understood already.

Fabulous to hear librarians advocating learning-centredness – not enough of us do it &, in reality, it’s our core. 🙂

Rick, I’d love to talk to you about how we are using deep learning AI technology to create custom educational content. One of the problems with OER is that you need a system to vet the integrity of the material. We believe that the teachers should be in control of the content in order to customize and localize it for their own class. Let me know if we can chat.

This is a great article and I appreciate the thoughtful comments from my colleagues in the thread. In the State University of New York System (SUNY) the libraries have been focusing on OER as one of their strategic goals. Although we have found value in providing textbooks for students we also understand that we couldn’t provide a textbook for every student. Our community colleges have invested financial and human resources towards scaling OER use across our system and we have seen positive results. Student grades go up and class persistence increases where OER has been adopted. SUNY campuses are beginning to identify their libraries as the go to group to get support for faculty OER adoption, building, and creation.

All of this began at SUNY Geneseo who created the Open SUNY Textbook (OST)Project back in 2012 to test the feasibility of library as publisher of Open Textbooks. The results have been significant, with 15 Open Textbooks available and many more still in development. The Open Textbooks are peer reviewed and go through a copy editing process as well. But OST did not meet the needs of all our faculty. Faculty were looking to adopt more than create so recently OST created another service structure called SUNY OER Services. This provides faculty with a platform to adopt, build, and create OER while still having access to peer review and copy editing. SUNY OER Services is not just about Open Textbooks; it is about OER and I think there is an important distinction to be made there. Publishers have created software packages and designed digital resources that lock students out of their course content if they don’t pay the additional charges required to access the course materials. There is evidence to that students who do not have access to course materials tend to either drop the class or perform poorly.

For many of the community colleges in SUNY we see OER as an equity issue for our students who cannot afford to pay the cost of high priced publisher generated course materials. More importantly, OER is a pathway to celebrate academic freedom of our faculty. Our faculty have been seeking an alternative to textbooks for a long time and now SUNY OER Services provide them an alternative. And libraries in SUNY are leading the way.

Very cool, Mark — thanks for the info and for the link to the program.

Thanks for the article, Mark. IMO, textbooks have not been regularly purchased at some libraries for several reasons–high cost (especially during lean budget years), regular updates requiring purchase of the latest edition (although questionable if content has substantively changed), channeling monies away from titles requested by faculty for research, formats gaining popularity for teaching and learning (e.g., media), etc.

We did not systematically purchase textbooks for some time until the cost to students and our ability to alleviate that burden became a priority a few years ago. We now have a popular program in place called “TextSelect” in which the library initially partnered with the campus bookstore to purchase textbooks costing over $50 for core undergraduate courses. These titles are placed on reserve in the library and are available for two-hour blocks to students who wish or need to save that expense. The program has branched out to include textbooks for required 100, 200, 300 & 400 level courses in some majors and some graduate courses (bookstore is no longer involved). Our Subject Librarians work closely with instructors to identify the titles to be purchased with TextSelect funds.

I would say this was our first formal foray into college affordability for students, but we have begun an OER pilot that I think will increase in popularity as more faculty realize there is quality open content available for them to use, modify, and build on. And that they have more control over their teaching if they take the time to cherry pick content that aligns more closely with their learning objectives. Some faculty are quite keen on cutting higher ed costs to their students, and not just term and adjunct faculty. We have tenured and junior faculty who are in the mix, as well.

So, back to your thesis about libraries purchasing textbooks. . . a blend of approaches seems logical until the “best” model rises to the top (I’m rooting for OER). Insofar as possible, librarians should be actively involved with providing their academic community with all possible options. If buying textbooks is prohibitive, or shelf space is unavailable, online open textbooks could be a viable choice. As long as we’re paying for it, databases and ebooks the library subscribes to are important sources of teaching material. I would lay money on the odds that much of the licensed proprietary content libraries subscribe to is either not used or underused.

Perhaps the ultimate question is to what degree will academic libraries shift their collection dollars to
underwrite creating new OER materials, redesigning courses to incorporate OER, reviewing new OER content, etc.? If this is an institutional priority, is money being allocated annually at that level for this purpose? [I’d be interested in hearing Mark’s comments on this.] We made the choice to purchase textbooks to help students in the short term. But in the long term, we should consider ways to flip this practice by advocating vigorously for OER.

As one closely involved in the planning for the Brown University textbook exchange (somewhat dismissively) mentioned above, I feel it’s worth sharing a few facts about why the library made the choices it did when agreeing to host the service.

Students did indeed initiate the program at Brown. They took ownership of the concept, rallied their fellow students for support, and worked out many of the details. The library did not want to take that sense of ownership from them and make it a library-managed project with library-centric goals. We also felt the overhead was neither trivial nor something we were prepared to assume. Judgement calls about which texts to accept or whether a given text was really suitable (was the class being taught again? If not, should we take a copy of the text?) were best left to the students to manage. We also did not want to get into issues with the bookstore over lost revenues. We felt that their picking on a student group working for the common good was far less likely than their coming after the library for undermining their business model.

These are not the only reasons and may not sway anyone already convinced that libraries should provide textbooks. They do, however, help contextualize the situation and, I hope, clarify why some decisions were taken.

Hi, David —

I apologize if my reference to the Brown textbook program came across as dismissive — that wasn’t my intention. I think it’s a fine program, and the reasons you’ve provided for organizing it the way you and the students have seem very reasonable to me. But I was citing that program in the context of the observation that very few U.S. academic libraries are providing textbooks to students, and in that context it seemed important to make clear that while the Brown textbook collection is located in the library, it’s not a library-run program.

Thanks, Rick. It ended up in the library because other spaces/groups on campus did not wish to partner with the students or did not offer some of the advantages of the library (location, operating hours, etc.). While not a library-run program, it’s unlikely that in this particular instance, the initiative would have succeeded without library support.

Your point about few academic libraries providing textbooks stands, of course, though I might qualify it a bit to say that the generalization applies more easily to research libraries than to community or undergraduate-only colleges. Most of us can see from ILL activity that some institutions are indeed buying textbooks and that our students are looking to borrow them. There is no question about demand for these materials.

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