Open Access / Open Access Week / Penn Libraries

Student Views on Cost Barriers to Purchasing Textbooks. Open Access Week Post #4

Post by Carolina Schultz and Wanyue Yang, Penn Libraries Digital Scholarship Interns

Textbooks are crucial components to learning in the modern school system. Without a course textbook, it is difficult if not impossible to succeed in a class. Our interest in Open Access led Wanyue and I to look into the accessibility of textbooks and the trending slogan #textbookbroke. Why has this key educational resource received so much negative press? What can be done about the textbook terrors?

We studied this problem from two different angles: how is this problem evident in our own student population and what resources exist to alleviate the issue.

Open Access Week GIF

We chose to survey students walking along Locust Walk past the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. Our survey was not as extensive as we hoped. Despite hours of tabling we were only able to secure about 30 responses. This is understandable as even we avoid the volunteers who gather signatures on sidewalks or ask for donations for a good cause. However, within these numbers lay a pleasant surprise. A fair number of zeros were present between all the hundreds others had spent. How had these people managed to spend nothing for textbooks for a full semester? Many attributed their $0 costs to the Libraries’ collections, BorrowDirect, EZBorrow, and access to pdf texts through the Penn Libraries’ subscriptions and other online platforms as a means to avoid purchasing their textbooks. While this is a marvelous solution it is only helpful for a handful of people. The library after all does not stock nearly enough textbooks for everyone in every class to check out a textbook.


[Look for your course texts through BorrowDirect and EZBorrow catalogs]


[Find journal articles and e-book chapters on the Libraries’ Articles+ platform]

Thankfully, there are other resources available to offset this barrier. Some of these resources are available to professors and others to students.

Professors can make their classes more accessible to students by selecting openly licensed materials to support coursework and learning. If professors cannot identify open access and openly licensed materials that suit course needs, they can put key texts on course reserves. This is an immense help to those struggling to purchase books. At the instructor’s request, library staff place books and other library material on course reserve for the entire semester.  Students can check books out for up to three-hour intervals. Often, you’ll find the course reserves listed on your course Canvas site, but you can also find them in the Franklin catalog–just search by title, scroll to the “library” facet, and choose “reserve.” This will limit your search to just those copies on reserve.




On the student side, for those unlucky to be second in line for the library copy of a textbook, other resources do exist. Remember to search the EZBorrow and BorrowDirect catalogs, which cover the collections of all the Ivy universities plus Stanford, the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and MIT (see above). EZBorrow includes libraries across Pennsylvania, plus New York University and other large collections. That means that a lot of books at a lot of libraries are quickly available to you for a 12 week loan. Librarians are also working to order course texts as multi-person-use e-books whenever possible. Check with your librarian specialist to see if he or she can locate an e-book that is available to libraries to purchase (they are not always available).

If you can find an e-version of a textbook, they can be convenient, cheaper alternatives to the hard copy texts most students prefer to buy. They can also be available to you immediately.

The Greenfield Intercultural Center has been maintaining a textbook library. Students can donate their used copies to the library and browse a spreadsheet to find out if there is anything in the collection that they can use. The demand has been high, but the high-use of the GIC textbook library demonstrates the need that exists on campus.

Join us this week in celebrating open access and the ways it can help break down the cost barriers to educational materials. Tweet back at the libraries @upennlib and follow #openaccessweek and #textbookbroke to participate in the discussion. Watch for our events to learn more and be a part of the change!

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