Carl Linnaeus classified humans as Homo sapiens or the ‘man who is wise’ in Latin. He did so because we are prolific users of tools, have developed languages and writing systems, and can imagine things and actually bring them into reality. We search for knowledge to better ourselves. In our society, we have long relied on libraries and textbooks to help us gain knowledge. Have they outlived their usefulness?
Staying true to course, young people in our society go to university to gain knowledge. They study a field they hope to master, and eventually prosper in. The tools have remained constant through the centuries – good teachers, great study material, and a milieu where young people discuss a wide variety of subjects with their peers, slowly firming up their opinions and understanding of the world they inhabit.
Current world of textbooks
When students enter college, they immediately get access to the library. Although educational texts have been written by experts and used by students since ancient times, the modern textbook became available widely and easily, thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press. Once compulsory education was introduced in the 1900s, textbook publishing became an important trade.
Libraries have generally not collected textbooks, however. Colleges students purchase, borrow or share textbooks. As prices of textbooks have risen more than 1000% from the 1970s, students find it harder to buy them. Frequently, students make do without buying prescribed textbooks. Their grades suffer. Other students spend their money on textbooks and run short of money for rent later. In fact, the College Board thinks students should put aside $1200 for textbooks every year!
Many college bookstores buy back textbooks at end-of-term and resell them to students who need them. As digitization makes inroads into all businesses, students buy e-versions of textbooks, read them online, get a subscription for homework help which helps them with Q&A and other textbook solutions too.
Changing supply and demand in the textbook industry
On the other hand, universities cut costs by replacing tenured professors with adjunct professors. Most adjuncts are graduate students. In any case, they frequently do not have the luxury of time and resources to prepare notes or supplementary material. Their increasing reliance on textbooks is not surprising.
With all these disparate parameters in the mix, the textbook publishing business seems to be in a churn, with the price of textbooks spiraling out of control. To stay relevant publishers are now trying the following:
- a subscription-style model where a flat fee will cover all textbook needs and this might cost less than one textbook
- an ‘Inclusive Access’ system by partnering with universities, where the price of textbooks is bundled into the ‘course materials fee’ paid by the student.
- bundling textbooks with codes to access extra material.
More might be required from the publishers to provide affordable textbooks. Students have noticed problems in these changes that leave them at an obvious disadvantage. For example, reselling a book might not be easy if it has an access code. The code initially pushed up the price of the textbook. It might lapse after a time period, lowering or eliminating the book’s resale value.
Many authors/professors, who understand the difficulties faced by students who need access to expensive textbooks, offer their work under a creative commons license or other open licenses, with the help of student advocates.
Rutgers University has implemented the Open and Affordable Textbooks (OAT) program to make textbook-style course material within reach of a student’s budget. Publishers have begun to understand the need to tackle of affordability in all seriousness. Otherwise, they will not stay relevant in a world where technology might slip in a reasonably priced alternative. As it is students routinely photocopy pages from textbooks for reference.
Libraries, too, have been changing to survive.
Historically, people have traveled across the world to learn something new at the feet of great scholars. Beginning within the old civilizations of Greece, India and the Middle East, the teacher has been placed on a pedestal as a source of great learning. The relationship between a teacher and the students is the stuff of lore. Until writing became common, teaching was through an oral tradition. Then writing took center stage with many great civilizations recording their knowledge systems on papyrus, leaves, clay/stone tablets, and metal sheets.
The ancient libraries, of Alexandria, Nalanda( China), and Baghdad, were supported by empires that emphasized learning. In turn, they became wealthy centers of learning and trade. This established the development of universities as centers of learning, which were in turn dependent upon libraries with a magnificent collection of written material among other things. Every time an empire collapsed, the learning centers and their great libraries were destroyed, helping us understand how intrinsic they were to a civilization’s greatness.
Current academic libraries
As enrollment in universities is falling, libraries are facing the side effect of shrinking budgets. As a slew of libraries shut down across the country, the ones which have stayed open have realized that they need to engage wide and deep with the community they serve. They have started outreach programs for the communities outside the universities, even as they extend the services they offer their students to people in the community.
Here are a few things which have been quietly happening in the ‘shhh silence please’ world of libraries:
- Many libraries have started or host writing centers, which is extended to the surrounding community
- Libraries offer tutoring services
- Grammar hotlines are run
- Programs to educate faculty and students on eTextbooks and open educational resources are run.
- They offer free wi-fi for members.
- Student requests for workshops are accommodated.
- Bridging research efforts of students with community, by organizing panel presentations and workshops
- Improving the user experience of their resources via improved search or information availability on their website
- Physical spaces are being redesigned for current populations to use library resources and engage better with peers and faculty.
- Librarians are helping students get published
- Librarians with the University backing are ensuring that their students can have access to affordable e-textbooks available at the library. They shortlist books by understanding data on what students and faculty are reading, and by conducting surveys.
To wind up, it’s interesting to see how textbooks and libraries are fighting to stay relevant. In fact, librarians may grow to fill vacuums in universities, contributing towards solving both the textbook and the college education affordability problem.
Sophia Sanchez is a newbie online ESL/EFL instructor. She is a passionate educator and blogs about education on her personal blog. She found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. When Sophia is not busy earning a living, she volunteers as a social worker. Her active online presence demonstrates her strong belief in the power of networking.