Taking action to support student learning through textbook access
OER text cloud above an open textbook

The University of Rochester is committed to nurturing and maintaining an equitable and inclusive learning environment at all times, under all circumstances. Textbooks represent a key area where the University can make strides toward this core objective. 

The ACT Commitment is an effort to raise awareness of the limitations that come with using commercially published textbooks, to promote the use of more accessible alternatives to those textbooks, and most importantly, to ensure Rochester students have access to the textbooks they need to learn and succeed at the University.  



When the COVID-19 outbreak required the University of Rochester campuses to close, students and instructors had no choice but to learn and teach remotely. Although the University will reopen for the fall 2020 semester, not all students will be returning for in-person classes.  

The problem for remote learners and students who cannot afford to purchase textbooks is that many existing course textbooks are unavailable for library purchase in formats other than print. This makes it nearly impossible for library and University Bookstore staff members to provide students with safe, affordable access to assigned textbooks. Ultimately, the course material is the faculty member's decision; ACT is an effort to both inform and support their choices. 


An issue of access 

This is not a library problem, nor is it a bookstore problem, nor is it a University of Rochester problem. This is a commercial publishing problem, and one that affects all higher education institutions, including their students and faculty, their research output, and their grant funding. It is estimated that only 10% of academic titles are available for university libraries to purchase as digital copies for their students.

These publishers do not allow Rochester or any other higher education institution to purchase an e-version of textbooks they publish: 

  • Pearson Higher Education

  • Cengage Learning

  • McGraw-Hill Education

  • Oxford University Press  

  • Sage Textbooks

  • DawnSignPress

These platforms do not make it possible for any library to provide access to their ebooks:

  • Amazon
  • VitalShelf
  • RedShelf
  • Top Hat interactive textbooks

Additionally, it’s also exceedingly difficult to obtain e-versions of “common reads,” popular fiction, popular nonfiction, and health sciences texts from many other publishers. 


Why we have to ACT 

Textbook publishers use a profit model that is dependent on selling e-textbooks directly to students. They could make library options available, but they choose not to, effectively cornering students. In most cases, if a course is using a commercially published textbook, students have to buy it because there’s no alternative.  

The cost of textbooks and other course materials creates an educational barrier. And it’s one that disproportionately affects “populations historically underserved by higher education.” 

Here’s another reason: higher education has given them enough. These corporations are already capitalizing on academic labor to monopolize and control knowledge production. They don’t also need more of the University’s or its students’ money (often federal aid dollars) too. 


Taking ACTion 

The University Libraries’ staff is ready to work with instructors to identify and implement viable textbook alternatives. Here are some ways to shelve commercially published textbooks: 

  • Use an existing e-book from the library’s e-book collection or ask the library to purchase one. Many academic e-books aren’t considered textbooks and are therefore, available for purchase by the library. 

  • Adopt an open educational resource (OER). OERs are free educational materials that are openly licensed to allow for re-use and modification by instructors.  

  • Provide alternative access in Blackboard through Course Reserves: 

    • Post individual book chapters, excerpts, or scanned copies of the content (in accordance with copyright limitations).  

    • Link to content from the library’s existing collection of electronic resources (e-books, journal articles, streaming media, and other digital materials). 


Our University partners 

We’re grateful to the University community member who have already made the ACT Commitment. Let us know if you are ready to sign on!  

  • University Libraries 
  • University Bookstore 
  • Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning 
  • Office of Undergraduate Research 
  • College Center for Advising Services 
  • Paul J. Burgett Intercultural Center  
  • David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity 
  • Greene Center for Career Education and Connections 
  • Rochester Center for Community Leadership 
  • Office of Disability Resources
  • Office of Minority Student Affairs  
  • Student Association
  • Graduate Student Association  
  • Puerto Rican Student Organization 
  • Pre-Law Society 
  • Pan-African Student Association 
  • Joan Saab, vice provost of Academic Affairs  
  • Jeff Runner, dean of the College 


Questions and information 

For more information on: Contact:
Updating a textbook with the bookstore  Kendrah Williams, Course materials manager 
Updating your course reserves rrlreserves@library.rochester.edu
Open education resources Kim Hoffman, Head of outreach, learning, and research services 
Commercial publishing Lindsay Cronk, Head of collection strategies and scholarly communications


Special thanks 

We are grateful to colleagues at University of Guelph Libraries and Grand Valley State University for sharing their experiences with this challenge. We have adapted documentation they provided with permission.