LJ Textbook Affordability Survey: Costs Still a Concern, OER an Opportunity

As the cost of textbooks continues to rise, college and university students are citing increasing difficulties when it comes to paying for class materials. Library Journal ’s 2019 Textbook Affordability Survey, sponsored by Taylor & Francis Group, asked academic librarians who acquire digital and print materials for their libraries about textbook cost challenges, faculty collaborations, trends, and possible solutions.

textbook affordability image survey imageAs the cost of textbooks continues to rise, college and university students are citing increasing difficulties when it comes to paying for class materials. The issues of student success and retention have become prime considerations for faculty choosing course materials, as students who cannot afford academic materials are more likely to underperform or fail to graduate. Digital resources can offer less expensive options, however, and the growing use of open access (OA) material and the creation of open educational resources (OER) can further alleviate cost concerns.

Library Journal ’s 2019 Textbook Affordability Survey, sponsored by Taylor & Francis Group, asked academic librarians who acquire digital and print materials for their libraries about textbook cost challenges, faculty collaborations, trends, and possible solutions. Two-thirds of the libraries surveyed agreed that textbook affordability is a major concern for their institution, and nearly all—95 percent—believe that it’s a major concern for students. Community colleges are even more impacted by textbook affordability than four year colleges—84 percent said it was a major concern for the institution, and 100 percent cited it as a problem for students. Public institutions had a bigger issue with textbook costs than private ones.

Libraries reported working actively with faculty to offer options. These collaborations included selecting open educational resources (64 percent), suggesting or selecting course materials (56 percent), and creating course reading or course lists (49 percent). Some 22 percent even reported developing and publishing an open access textbook themselves.

There is plenty of room for faculty to play a bigger role in collaborating with libraries’ efforts. On average, across all kinds of academic institutions, 19 percent of faculty currently work with library staff to reduce textbook costs. Nearly two-thirds of libraries surveyed feel that number is growing; another third say it has remained the same. Only 2 percent reported that that fewer faculty are helping in these efforts.


Ensuring that ebooks and other digital materials are available is one solution to the problem; while an average of six out of ten students use library resources for assigned reading to save money on textbooks, there are not always enough physical materials to go around.

Of the libraries surveyed, 93 percent of them work with instructors to make digital alternatives available to students—most often to supplement a print textbook, although half report also having acquired new materials to replace a traditional textbook. Nearly half (48 percent) have worked to find, vet, or curate OA publications from other institutions—17 percent reported this as their primary strategy—and another 39 percent report working to help make faculty publications available as OA. Another 14 percent ranked building e-textbook collections as a primary affordability strategy. Community college libraries are the most likely to find OA publications from other institutions, but least likely to build e-textbook collections—one-fifth of private institutions, on the other hand, listed collection-building as a top strategy.

The majority of students (58 percent) access digital library resources through the school’s learning management system, such as Blackboard or Moodle; just over a quarter go through the library website.


Faculty are, for the most part, receptive to the idea of integrating digital materials into their courses—25 percent very much so, libraries, report, and 60 percent at least somewhat receptive. Only 15 percent are reluctant, with a mere 2 percent “very reluctant.” Faculty and institutions in the sciences were most open to seeking affordable textbook options (41 percent), followed by the social sciences, and then arts and humanities. According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, textbook costs for engineering, the natural sciences, and medicine routinely topped those for the behavioral and social sciences and humanities.

The time and effort required to build digital resources is the top barrier cited by faculty, according to 81 percent of respondents (and 94 percent of community college libraries surveyed); 65 percent of faculty were reported as stating that needed materials were not available. Another 12 percent claim that this is “not a problem that needs solving”—whether because they already integrate electronic materials into their course work, or have no interest in doing so. Another third were cited as stating that students’ preference for print presents a barrier.


More than one half (56 percent) of survey respondents noted that they have “increased the number of faculty members/course sections participating” in textbook affordability work, while 44 percent saved money on library textbook purchases. More than one-quarter had not assessed their work around textbook costs.


Most of the ideas offered in response to the survey’s open-ended questions involved OER—more high-quality open textbooks, incentives for their creation, and better lines of communication and ways to share information. “Ethically, people should be paid for their expertise, time, and labor. You get what you pay for. Therefore, if you want excellent textbooks, provide compensation,” wrote one respondent.

Libraries are eager to embrace digital technologies as an affordability workaround, but are often frustrated by costs or digital rights management (DRM) restrictions. “For example,” one commenter wrote, “yesterday another librarian and I were looking at a textbook we have on course reserve, for which the last two chapters are only available via the enhanced textbook code for online access—effectively cutting these chapters off from any students who did not buy their own, brand new copy of the textbook.”

A number called for change on the publishers’ part, such as affordable print and digital bundles, print-on-demand options, unit-sized (chapter) packages, compatibility with learning management systems, digital updates to purchased textbooks, and DRM-free, multi-user library copies. “Better user interfaces,” a sample suggestion read. “Fully compatible with preexisting e-reader apps. Mak[e] the digital copy significantly cheaper than the print copy. Provide solid information to instructors indicating that students can do just as well with digital.”

Many librarians also expressed a desire to play a greater role. One respondent suggested “Coordinated efforts to enlist subject-specialist librarians in contributing public evaluations or reviews of open-access textbooks and other OER materials (e.g., on platforms like OER Commons, Open Textbook Library, etc.).” They added, “Having informed reviews available helps faculty select materials, but many teaching faculty feel too busy to contribute such reviews themselves, so librarians can help to provide this type of evaluative information.” Several felt that written policy, either at the institutional or state level, could ensure more options and the ability to expand them.

The textbook affordability issue is a work in progress, and while steps are being taken, there are many opportunities and challenges that both libraries and instructors need to consider. If there is a clear takeaway from the survey, LJ’s report states, “it is that greater communication between faculty and library needs to take place in order to ensure that everyone in the university is working in concert to alleviate the issue of textbook affordability.”

The full report can be downloaded below.

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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Hope H.

Thank you for your article. I do agree that emphasis on blended learning can increase communications between library and faculty, while also reaching out to next gen students about the continued importance, relevance and usefulness of our libraries; both digitally and on-site.

Posted : Jul 13, 2019 02:02



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