UW Libraries Blog

July 29, 2020

Commercial Textbooks in a Virtual Environment: Challenges Explained

UW Libraries

Thank you to our colleagues at University of Guelph Libraries for sharing their language documenting these challenges. We have adapted it with permission.

As we approach the fall 2020 quarter, library staff are working hard to provide alternative access to our traditional print course reserves collection. A significant portion of the books on reserve are print copies of required textbooks, and students cannot access them without coming into the library. To support instructors and students over the next several months, we are developing new approaches to how we acquire course textbooks, to ensure that students have access, even in a primarily-online, alternative-delivery environment.

However, this work is hampered by textbook publishers who do not provide electronic purchasing options for libraries. Many existing course textbooks are simply unavailable to libraries in any other format than print.

Many existing course textbooks are simply unavailable to libraries in any other format than print.

Textbook publishers have built their profit models around selling e-textbooks directly to students. Despite this, we also know that the cost of textbooks and other course materials represent a major financial hurdle for students at the University of Washington*. 

Many textbook publishers will not allow libraries to purchase e-textbook versions of their publications. This means that in courses that adopt textbooks by these publishers, students who do not purchase the textbook will not have any alternative access to the textbook content. One of our core values at UW Libraries is to ensure equitable access for all, and as such, we encourage faculty to consider equity when making their course material selections. 

UW Subject Librarians can work with faculty to help find textbook alternatives and solutions including resources within existing e-book collections, open resources and more. This post outlines these options and provides additional guidance. Efforts are being made to secure online materials that are free from Digital Rights Management (DRM) restrictions 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.

The publishing landscape is complex and is not ideal for a primary online learning environment for major research institutions. This is a challenge we are working to address – both in the short term, and beyond, and as UW Libraries, we are here to help you navigate the best choices for you and your students in the Fall.

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*Source: 2019 UW Student Experience at the Research University (SERU) data, section on financial concerns of students: 84% of undergraduate student respondents reported that they bought fewer books, bought cheaper/used books, read books on reserve (p. 60 of the report).