Troublesome Textbooks

Students confuse the roles of the library and the bookstore

October 26, 2009

I refer to it as "the textbook phenomenon," and it has me perplexed. Over the past five years, I have watched increasing numbers of students struggle with the difference between the traditional roles of the college library and the college bookstore.

I still remember the first time a student approached me at the reference desk and innocently inquired about the location of our textbook section. With some prompting, I found that the student just assumed that the library carried all of his textbooks so that he wouldn't have to buy them. This transaction amused me enough to share it with the other librarians; within a few days, a colleague reported that she had experienced a similar student encounter.

The next several years saw a steady increase in the number of students looking for textbooks at the beginning of the semester. It soon became apparent that they weren't just confusing the library with the bookstore. As the number increased, I began to believe that a false rumor was being spread, so I asked if someone had told them that the library owned multiple copies of all the textbooks used on campus.

The responses were all some version of "No, I just figured you did." I found this interesting because as an undergraduate student, I didn't assume that I would get my textbooks anywhere but the bookstore; too bad I couldn't, because I could have purchased a lot of pizza with the money I spent on them.

Last year the number of inquiries grew large enough that we started keeping stats. This year, on only the second day of classes, I broke down and created a handout titled "Looking for Textbooks?" Coincidentally, on that same day, a librarian Facebook friend, Matt Ciszek, posted, "Gentle reminder to new students: The Library is not the bookstore, we don't sell books, and have a limited supply of books for your courses. Whining, kicking, screaming, and crying will not change these simple facts." He was still receiving responses from librarians a week later.

Suddenly we had a support group. I created the handout to cover the finer points that I have now repeated more than a thousand times: the difference between the library collection and textbooks placed on course reserve by faculty; the possible pitfalls of ordering old textbook editions through interlibrary loan; and the fact that unlike purchased textbooks, borrowed ones can be recalled by other students at any time. In addition, I have verbally- and vainly-tried to point out to students the impracticality of using the entire collections budget to purchase textbooks that will be obsolete almost immediately. I have also played the "unfair card," noting that it wouldn't be fair for one person in the class to receive their textbook for free while others pay; this is usually met with a stare that says, "That would be completely fair if that one person was me."

The online option

To be honest, not all of the students searching for textbooks are hoping to avoid purchasing them. Many are looking for temporary copies while they wait for the textbooks they purchased online to arrive. The opportunity to save money by buying or renting textbooks online wasn't available when I was in school. But while these methods may be costeffective, the student is frequently at the mercy of the seller when it comes to time of arrival.

I'm curious to see how the textbook phenomenon evolves. Our library is already beginning to see an offshoot of this trend: For the past year, the reference desk has not only been hit with textbook questions at the beginning of the semester, but also the last week. Believe it or not, these students are looking for textbooks because they sold their copies back to the bookstore before taking their final exams. They must have needed pizza money.