v31#1 How Libraries Can Lead: An Introduction to Affordable Learning for Libraries and Publishers

by | Apr 12, 2019 | 0 comments

by Gwen Evans  (Executive Director, OhioLINK)  

Libraries have always been at the crux of affordable learning.  A collection of content shared by many, over many generations, means more people have access to more and better content than they could ever afford on their own.  All libraries that serve more than a single private individual share this characteristic — public, academic, and special. In institutions of higher education, libraries actively support learning and discovery for students, instructors, and researchers by acquiring materials on their behalf which may be used for curricular purposes.

In the contemporary institutional context, however, affordable learning usually means addressing the staggering jump in the cost of attending college, specifically the cost of commercial textbooks.  Major student costs include tuition and fees (often influenced by levels of state support for higher education), room and board, personal expenses, transportation, and books and supplies. As Dave Ernst, Executive Director of the Open Textbook Network, often points out, when we ask ourselves what we can do, the only category where libraries in particular can have a direct impact is the last one.1

Affordable learning is an integral part of an academic library’s service model — so integral that it is often invisible or unremarkable to administrators and faculty.  However, it is extremely and viscerally appreciated by students when they can use the library to reduce their textbook costs. Many librarians and consortial library leaders can tell you how often students credit the library or consortium with getting their assigned materials or textbooks for free, whether because the assigned material was already part of the library’s print or digital collection, the library put class materials on reserve, or consortial lending arrangements mean that multiple students can borrow multiple copies from across the lending network.  Delivering affordable learning is a core mission of libraries and explains why many academic libraries are widening their scope of endeavor to include OER curation, promotion, and publishing; acquiring textbooks in packages in partnership with departments or divisions; and negotiating with textbook publishers directly to lower prices for students. Libraries and library consortia, both in their relationships with publishers and their relationships on campus, are ideally placed to spearhead efforts to relieve financial pressure on students. A recent survey of university and community college students found 36% to 46% percent suffered basic needs insecurity (food or housing).2  In another widespread survey, 66% of student respondents said they didn’t buy required texts at least once due to cost, and just under 50% said the cost of textbooks caused them to take fewer courses or not register for a specific course.  Adverse effects on grades or completion were also tied to prohibitive cost.3  This is a critical issue for our students, and one in which libraries are actively addressing in leadership roles on campus.

What goes into the cost of a textbook?  What’s driving the cost of textbooks? How do publishers approach textbooks (or potential “course adopted” monographs) when they are pricing eBook packages?  What’s the role for open access monographs from established presses? What’s the business model for open textbook publishing houses or library publishing initiatives?  How can commercial textbook costs be mitigated on campus in a sustainable manner? How do libraries help faculty find and assess options, either library materials or initiatives designed to promote OER?  What’s the faculty opinion on these initiatives? It’s important we all begin to ask these questions, and look closely at how academic libraries can assist in discovering, and in many cases, providing, the solutions.  At OhioLINK, we often say “Students first.”  We take our role in affordable learning seriously and we are appreciative of the opportunity to bring more information to the readers of Against The Grain.  This special issue purposefully presents a variety of perspectives on textbooks and affordable learning;  we sincerely hope you find it helpful to your own strategies and efforts.

What is OER?

While definitions vary, at their core, Open Educational Resources are freely accessible, openly licensed text, media, and other digital assets that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes. — Creative Commons

Open Education “…is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general and the Web in particular provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse knowledge.” — The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

What is Inclusive Access?

  • Digital-only course materials from commercial publishers
  • Access of the first day of class
  • All enrolled students (with an opt out process)
  • Integrated in Course Management System and billed automatically to students through the bursar


  1.  David Ernst, “Open Education: A Commitment to Mission,” Presentation at the OER Implementation and Policy Summit for MHEC States, Chicago IL November 28, 2018. https://www.mhec.org/sites/default/files/resources/201811OERSummit_presentations_1.pdf
  2.  Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., Schneider, J., Hernandez, A., & Cady, C.  (2018) Still Hungry and Homeless in College. Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Madison, WI.  https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Wisconsin-HOPE-Lab-Still-Hungry-and-Homeless.pdf
  3.  Florida Virtual Campus.  (2012). 2012 Florida Student Textbook Survey.  Tallahassee, FL. http://www.openaccesstextbooks.org/pdf/2012_Florida_Student_Textbook_Survey.pdf

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