The Case for Textbooks

Our service traditions call for us to provide them

February 17, 2010

At Miami University’s regional campuses in Hamilton and Middletown, Ohio, we have also encountered “the textbook phenomenon” described by Bonnie Imler. However, our response to students’ confusion about the roles of the library and the bookstore has been quite different from Imler’s. Our reaction to the oft-repeated axiom that “libraries don’t purchase course textbooks” was to ask, “Why not?” After all, isn’t part of our mission as academic libraries to make materials for learning as widely available as possible?

We took into account several of the arguments against textbooks in libraries noted in Imler’s piece: A single copy of a circulating textbook would serve only one student at a time; frequent updates and new editions quickly render texts obsolete; and purchasing texts is the students’ responsibility—part of the college experience. However, we also applied a standard test of library service, S. R. Ranganathan’s “Five Laws of Library Science,” to the concept of textbooks in the library. Our conclusions were:

  • Books are for use. Imler may have assumed that textbooks are not available anywhere but in the bookstore. In Ohio, though, textbooks may be found in just about any library, whether or not that library maintains a “textbook collection.” Why should we stand in the way of students making use of the materials that are already found on our shelves or the shelves of those we are able to borrow materials from?
  • Every reader his or her book. Though we cannot provide every informational resource under the sun for our patrons, we should reasonably respond to expressed needs for materials as we develop our collections. If students are looking for textbooks, and we have reason to believe this is a legitimate need, why shouldn’t we attempt to address this need through the library practice of sharing our wealth? We routinely purchase other materials with the expectation that people will use them without having to buy them themselves. Textbooks are no different.
  • Every book its reader. An academic library purchases hundreds or thousands of books and other items in a given year. Can we guarantee that many or all of them will be used? Certainly not, and we should not hold ourselves to a guaranteed-to-check-out standard. However, consider the flip side of this question: Why shouldn’t we purchase items that will have high circulation? One might find, as we have, that these quickly “obsolete” materials see more checkouts in their short lives than items that stay on our shelves for a decade.
  • Save the time of the reader. Imler describes the very real situation of students seeking temporary textbooks from the library to fill in for slowly arriving textbooks purchased online. We can help in this scenario and others unrelated to a student’s purchase method. Our students occasionally face textbook shortages from our bookstores, and having a copy on reserve in the library can be an essential fill-in. Students receiving financial assistance may face delays of up to three weeks before they have funds available to purchase textbooks at the bookstore. Assisting students in locating a textbook for a course may save them both time and money.

Textbooks on Reserve

Ultimately, we decided to work with our students, faculty, other academic support departments on campus, and the campus bookstores to create in both of our libraries “Textbooks on Reserve” collections, which are updated through a combination of faculty and student donations and library purchases.

We all have a concept of what our libraries do and what we refrain from. Let us not fall into a self- designed trap, though. What libraries restricted in an earlier age, such as fiction, would seem ludicrous today. Let us seek new ways to serve our patrons and provide them with the resources they need.

KRISTA McDONALD is library director at Miami University’s Hamilton, Ohio, campus. JOHN BURKE is library director at Miami University’s Middletown campus.