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The Imperative for Lending High-Impact Textbooks

by Jan H. Kemp, Assistant Dean for Public Services, University of Texas at San Antonio

We live at a time when student success and graduation rates receive a great deal of attention in higher education, and libraries strive to demonstrate the positive impact of their collections and services on student success. Institutions at all levels have sought to identify and remove barriers to student retention, and one challenging area for many students is the financial cost of a college education, including the high cost of textbooks. I work at a Hispanic-Serving Institution where 55% of students are Hispanic and 63% of students identify as minority, 40% are economically disadvantaged (eligible for Pell grants), and 46% are First Generation college students. In addition, twenty-four percent of the 32,000 students are part-time, which provides some indication of the number who work to support themselves and their families while pursuing educational goals. Textbook costs matter to our students.

In the strategic planning document, “American Library Association – Strategic Directions,” ALA lists Equitable Access to Information and Library Services as a key action area and notes a "critical need for access to library and information resources, services, and technologies by all people," including those who experience "barriers to equal education" (American Library Association, 2015, p. 2). Providing students with access to textbooks during the critical first few semesters in college is one way libraries can support First Generation, economically disadvantaged, and minority students, fostering inclusivity and equal access to education.

In 2016, education leaders and policy makers in Florida investigated the impact of high textbook costs on student success. The state’s 40 public postsecondary institutions invited their students to take an online survey, the Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey, to better understand how textbook and course material costs had affected students’ academic decisions and their progress to graduation. 22,000 students responded to the survey, and results showed that the high cost of textbooks had serious consequences for students, negatively impacting their access to courses and their progress towards graduation:

The findings suggest that the cost of textbooks is negatively impacting student access to required materials (66.6% did not purchase the required textbook)
and learning (37.6% earn a poor grade; 19.8% fail a course). Time to graduation
and/or access to courses is also impacted by cost. Students reported that they
occasionally or frequently take fewer courses (47.6%); do not register for a course (45.5%); drop a course (26.1%), or withdraw from courses (20.7%). (Florida Virtual Campus, 2016, p. 5)

Alternative Textbook Options
The Open Educational Resources or OER effort, supported by libraries at many institutions, encourages faculty to adopt free or low-cost texts in lieu of expensive textbooks. Our university lists textbook costs in the schedule of classes so students are aware of the cost of course materials when registering for classes. However, while the library offers grants for faculty who adopt OER materials for their courses, both for individual classes and across an academic department, only a fraction of classes currently use low or no-cost textbooks. OER holds much promise, but currently it provides only a partial solution at most schools.

Another promising approach is the purchase of e-textbooks when the book is available via a student-friendly platform with a sufficient number of simultaneous users. Unfortunately, at present only a small percentage of the textbooks in use at our university are offered in electronic format, and this approach has had a limited impact.

Textbook Lending Program
Some libraries, including ours, have tried a third approach—lending copies of selected print textbooks. We allocate collections funds to purchase print copies of textbooks for lower division classes, since first and second year students are at greatest risk for dropping out, placing the textbooks on reserve and notifying faculty when their class textbook is available in the library. Of course, making a trip to the library to check out a physical copy for two to four hours cannot take the place of owning a personal copy of the textbook, because only one student has access to the physical textbook at a time. However, for some students, having access to the textbook may be the lifeline they need at that particular moment.

Since the initiation of the textbook lending program, expenditures for textbooks have increased from $15,000 in 2010 to $62,000 in 2017, and textbook circulation now accounts for 50% of the use of the physical collection. The use of textbooks on reserve has increased annually, while circulation of other print materials continues to decline. Comparing the cost per use for textbooks with other materials easily justifies the expenditure of collections funds and staff time, since each textbook receives many more uses than other physical books or DVDs in the collection. Further, coming to the library to use textbooks gives students the opportunity to learn about and use other academic support services such as laptop and tech gear lending, tutoring, the writing center, research assistance, and study spaces that support collaborative and individual productivity.

Selection Methodology: Textbooks for High Impact Courses
At our library, the textbook lending program began with a modest investment. In 2009, faculty members were placing personal copies of textbooks on reserve for their classes. In many cases, the books were used so heavily they fell apart, and the library responded by allocating funds to replace the worn-out texts. In response to student demand, we increased the textbook allocation gradually over a number of years, purchasing books for lower division courses with high enrollments when the textbook cost was over $100. We have since gone beyond the initial methodology, fine-tuning the selection criteria to identify textbooks that will have the greatest impact on student success.

In 2017, we gained access to the university bookstore’s online list of textbooks, allowing us to match courses with textbook titles. We now also receive data feeds from the registrar’s office providing course, section, instructor, and enrollment data, as well as feeds from the Office of Institutional Effectiveness reporting on the number of students who earned grades of D or F or withdrew from a course. Using programs created by library staff, we can identify the print and e-textbooks we already own that are included in the bookstore list of current textbooks; calculate average textbook costs per student and by department or college; and calculate enrollment figures to include all sections of a course. We then use the enrollment, course D/F/W grades, and textbook cost data to identify ”high impact” courses—those with greatest potential impact on student success—and calculate the costs to purchase print textbooks to support those courses with the most critical need.

We also calculate average textbook costs per student, department, and college; identify textbook assignment trends; and compile enrollment data. This information helps inform discussions with faculty and campus leaders as we consider OER options to relieve the burden of textbook costs for students.
Implementing a textbook lending program requires staff time and effort. Textbook titles and editions change frequently, and it is a challenge to carve out funds for textbooks, given collections budget constraints. Nevertheless, heavy textbook circulation shows a compelling need for this service at our library. Textbook lending also brings many students to the library, allowing us to offer the wider range of services that support academic success. In the future, we expect e-textbooks and OER usage to reduce the demand for print textbooks, but during the transition, high-impact textbook selection strategies can mitigate the high cost of textbooks for those students most at risk, supporting student success and equal access to education.

Florida Virtual Campus. Office of Distance Learning & Student Services. (2016). 2016 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey. Retrieved from:

American Library Association. (2015). Strategic Directions. Retrieved from:

Copyright 2019 by Jan H. Kemp,

About the author:
Jan H. Kemp is assistant dean for public services at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She has held previous administrative positions at Texas Tech University and North Carolina State University. Active in ACRL, Jan has served as co-convener of the Evidence-Based Practices Discussion Group and the Heads of Public Services Discussion Group among other roles. She has published on topics including proactive chat reference, textbook lending, discovery systems, and peer-assisted research assistance, and she co-authored a paper that won the Beta Phi Mu—Library Research Roundtable Research Paper Award in 2015.  Jan holds an M.S. in Business Administration from Texas Tech University and an M.L.S. from the University of Texas at Austin.