​LETTER: Addressing high textbook costs

We read with interest two recent opinion pieces in the Cavalier Daily, “High textbook prices hurt students” and “A new way to cut textbook costs.” Here at the University Library, we share the authors’ concerns.

Mr. Berman and Mr. Sequeira rightly highlight the local and national impacts of an issue the University takes seriously — affordable access to required course materials. Both editorialists clearly did their research, and the data are unambiguous: the costs of textbooks and other required course materials directly affect course enrollments, grades and graduation rates for all students, but with a particularly acute impact on students already facing economic challenges. Proprietary textbooks also prevent faculty from adapting, updating, remixing and otherwise improving on their content.

When the Library began exploring this issue in the fall, librarians spoke with University students who told disturbing stories about the impact of textbook costs — courses they dropped, grades that suffered, even entire courses of study they avoided, all because of high costs of materials.

We were determined to help ease this burden. We began by looking at how students already use the Library to access course materials. The Library identified 107 textbooks from our collection available on reserve at the Library during the spring 2016 semester. Of the 68 books for undergraduate courses, more than half were never checked out. Demand for the remaining titles was highly variable, from fewer than five check-outs for 13 texts, to 63 checkouts for a single text. The current approach seems to be having a disparate impact from course to course, and a relatively minor impact on access overall (though the impact may be substantial for each individual student we serve). We need to find ways to do better.

Textbooks aren’t the only course materials students need. Faculty make robust use of library electronic materials — journal articles, e-books — in Collab, potentially saving students substantial sums on printed course packs. For many disciplines, however, at least the introductory courses are still taught with textbooks, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Much more can be done. Armed with the data from our research, we are exploring a range of options, such as including increased purchases of e-book versions of frequently-assigned textbooks, with unlimited simultaneous users, reaching out to faculty to raise awareness of Library course reserve services, which provide direct links to online materials already in the Library’s collections (books, articles, software and more) and increasing promotion of the adoption and creation of open resources — which are free to download, edit and share.

On the last point, Mr. Sequeira rightly points to national and international collaborations on open source software as a model for open learning materials. Indeed, there is already a movement afoot to support educational resources specifically designed to be affordable or free, accessible and reusable: Open Educational Resources. Our peer institutions are investing time, money and expertise in OER both as an answer to unsustainable increases in textbook and course material costs and as a way to free teachers to experiment with teaching materials. The hope is that this will spark innovation in the field in the same way that open source software has led to an explosion of innovation in software. We hope to join our peers soon with services and programs that encourage wider adoption of OER. We welcome the help and support of the University student community.

Brandon Butler, Director of Information Policy

Dave Ghamandi, Open Publishing Librarian

Ellen Ramsey, Director, Scholarly Repository Services

University of Virginia Library

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