An Open Letter to Faculty about Textbooks and Library Collections

Dear LMU Faculty,

As we approach a predominantly-online fall 2020 semester, the librarians and staff of the William H. Hannon Library are working to provide alternative access to our print course reserves collection, which are unavailable for fall semester 2020. A significant portion of the books typically placed on reserve are print copies of required textbooks, which faculty place on reserve to provide a free alternative for their students. But students cannot access these texts without coming into the library, and copyright law prohibits us from continuing to offer the emergency digitization services we were able to implement in Spring 2020 to assist our students and faculty with access to required materials.

As health recommendations continue to change in light of new information about the spread of COVID-19, the library is planning for a variety of scenarios, some of which include restricted physical access to materials. Even if access to physical course materials is possible, those text may need to be quarantined for up to 72 hours between uses, reducing access and dampening the benefits that physical reserves often provide to students.

The Problem of Textbook Publishing for Higher Ed

Library access to course materials is complicated by textbook publishers who do not provide electronic, institutional purchasing options for libraries. Many existing course textbooks are simply unavailable to any library, regardless of budget, in formats other than print. Textbook publishers have built their profit models around selling e-textbooks directly to students using single-user licensing for a limited period of time. The cost of textbooks and other course materials is a barrier to success for students at every university, and essentially sends taxpayer-funded student financial aid back to content providers, who further exploit faculty labor and research to monopolize and dominate knowledge production.

This is not a library problem. This is an industry problem that impacts everyone in higher education: students, advocates in support and success roles, and faculty. Of particular concern is the conflation of prestige and paywalls with quality in scholarship evaluation; an issue that extends into scholarly communication beyond course materials.

Over the last three years, Hannon Library has committed substantial resources to the Course Adopted Text (CATS) e-book program, in which we seek to acquire copies of all required textbooks and course materials available to assist those students who are unable to purchase their own. But as of AY 2019-2020, we were only able to provide students e-access to approximately 25% of adoptions, due to limitations in access to content from some of the following major publishers:

  • Textbooks (Pearson, Cengage, McGraw Hill – no library licensing available. Wiley, Oxford, Cambridge – library licensing varies)
  • Most publishers of ‘common reads,’ popular fiction, and popular nonfiction (Harper Collins, Penguin, etc. – if available, we can only acquire single-user licenses)
  • University presses (library licensing varies widely – we recommend you check with us!)

This means that in courses that have adopted textbooks for which we cannot license a library copy, with inaccessible print reserves in the library, students who do not purchase the textbook will not have any options for alternative access to the textbook content. (More information about the impact of textbook costs on students.)

What the Library Can Do To Help

Librarians and staff at the William H. Hannon Library are committed to working with faculty to explore and identify viable textbook alternatives, including:

  • Using an existing e-book in the relevant subject area from the library’s e-book collection or partnering with you to identify and acquire e-books from publishers that allow library licensing.
  • Adopting or creating an open educational resource (OER). OER are freely available educational materials that are openly licensed to allow for re-use and modification by instructors. Learn more through the library’s Open and Affordable Textbook Initiative (OATI).
  • Partnering with the Academic Technology Committee and the Office of Faculty Affairs to offer funds to faculty interested in reducing the cost of course materials and increasing access for their students through the OATI grant. (Schedule and funding for AY20-21 coming soon.)
    • Creating an online course pack in Brightspace by:
    • Posting individual book chapters or excerpts and scanned copies of the content, subject to copyright limitations
    • Linking to content from the library’s existing collection of electronic resources (e-books, journal articles, streaming media, and other digital materials)
    • Linking to other digital content freely available online

We will make all efforts to secure online materials for the library collections that are free from digital rights management restrictions (DRM) in order to ensure unfettered student access. DRM includes limits on the number of users that can access a resource at any one time, as well as limits on copying, printing and downloading.

We also recognize that there are courses and disciplines where changing from a standard textbook is not feasible. There are still ways that you can help keep costs down for your students, including flexibility in adopting older editions, avoiding loose-leaf editions with no resale value, and (most importantly) early communication with our partners at the LMU Bookstore to maximize options for rentals or other affordable access.

Connect with Your Librarians

Still have questions? We would love to hear from you.

We are grateful to our colleagues at Grand Valley State University and University of Guelph Libraries for sharing their language documenting these challenges. This post is adapted from their work.