Academic libraries have historically avoided collecting textbooks, for several reasons. Perhaps the most important are these:
- Philosophical: Academic libraries tend to see themselves primarily as supporters of research, and classroom texts are not research materials.
- 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?