A Libraries-led coalition seeks to make textbooks less of a financial burden
Author: Matthew Cook
OER text cloud above an open textbook

A recent survey conducted by College Board found that last year, the average full-time undergraduate student, studying on-campus at a four-year school spent around $1,200 on textbooks and supplies. And there are indications they will need to spend more in the future.

So, what happens when a Rochester student can’t afford to purchase a textbook for their course? They could turn to the library, but COVID-19 has made that difficult. Physical materials must be quarantined for a minimum of 72 hours after use. Remote learners would need a digital version, and many e-versions of course textbooks are unavailable for library purchase.

Right now, the world of textbook alternatives is a bleak and largely inadequate desert-scape. The River Campus Libraries (RCL)-led Access to Course Textbooks (ACT) Commitment seeks to create a more student-friendly environment. Ultimately, the course material is decided by faculty members. ACT is an effort to inform and support those choices by raising awareness of the limitations of using commercially published textbooks and, through University partnerships, provide students with more accessible alternatives.

“Finding alternatives is hard,” says Sakhile Ntshangase ʼ21. “Most of the work assigned is going to be based on the course textbook.”

But it’s more than hard. There’s an almost cruel scarcity of options. For example, when Ntshangase managed to find an alternative textbook for a statistics class, he ended up completing an assignment that did not count. Because it wasn’t the correct assignment. Because he wasn’t using the same edition of the textbook. That’s like finding an oasis only to discover the water has salt in it. A mirage would have been kinder.

The current lack of accessible textbook alternatives for Rochester students is not a new issue, but one that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic. ACT is already addressing this by shining a light on existing open educational resources.

“It is so much harder to do our job now,” says RCL’s Lindsay Cronk, head of Collection Strategies and Scholarly Communications. “I was getting requests for licenses all the time, and there was nothing I could do. I had to say, ‘No’ over and over and over again. It felt horrible. The whole reason we do this is to get folks what they need.”

Cronk found an opportunity to shed her helplessness in a statement on textbook access released by Grand Valley State University (GVSU). She recruited Kim Hoffman, head of Outreach, Learning, and Research Services, and asked Scarlet Galvan, collection strategist librarian at GVSU, for permission to adapt the school’s statement. Galvan says her university has been contacted by more than a dozen higher education institutions to do the same.

“We had so many discussions that began with ‘The library won’t buy it,’” says Galvan on why her university produced the statement on textbook alternatives. “I knew we had to disrupt that pattern of thinking. Our efforts focus on reframing the conversation away from the library as a textbook warehouse and as a fully formed campus partner.”

Cronk and Hoffman also focused on the concept of being a “campus partner.” The first partnership they sought to form was with the University Bookstore.

“We have had ongoing discussions with Lindsay [Cronk] on ways to collaborate and provide students with safe, affordable access to all learning materials,” says Frank Tallarico, general manager of the University of Rochester Barnes & Noble. “This initiative felt like a natural extension of those conversations.”

Cam Schauf, director of Campus Dining Services and Auxiliary Operations, shared Tallarico’s perspective. He says, “Auxiliary Operations and our campus bookstores have worked for years to get all students all required learning materials, at the lowest cost.”

The University Bookstore is one of the ACT Commitment’s 16 University partners. Individual faculty members have also begun to verbalize their support.

““I strive to make me my classroom as equitable a learning experience as possible for all my students," says Lee Murray, assistant professor of Earth and environmental sciences. “I fully support the ACT Commitment.”

Galvan noted that GVSU’s statement is part of concurrent efforts around preserving what works about the existing scholarly communications infrastructure, and reimagining what doesn’t. Rochester is doing the same through its work in sustainable scholarship. For Cronk, the ACT Commitment is an important step toward a larger goal.

“We’re generating momentum toward a culture of openness,” says Cronk. “To be in a place where we can really ensure access for everyone, we have to embrace open educational resources.” ∎

For more information on the ACT Commitment or sustainable scholarship, contact Lindsay Cronk at lcronk@library.rochester.edu. Enjoy reading about the University of Rochester Libraries? Subscribe to Tower Talk.