Water on a Hot Skillet: Textbooks, Open Educational Resources, and the Role of the Library

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The rise of emerging technologies and the evolving needs of scholars have emboldened libraries to experiment more directly with digital scholarship. This chapter of The No Shelf Required Guide to E-book Purchasing examines the problems associated with print textbooks and how electronic textbooks, although still an emerging technology, provide a viable future alternative.


Overview and Context for Action

To promote change in the economics and publishing of scholarly information, libraries have well-established roles as advocates and educators about the nature of the scholarly communication cycle. Libraries can move adeptly to gather and present information about important scholarly communication issues, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandate for dissemination of funded research, and position themselves as expert advocates in support of positions such as authors' rights and copyright. (1) This advocacy role has largely been determined by the historic role of the library in the scholarly communication cycle--one of collecting, preserving, and brokering access to large quantities of scholarly information on behalf of an academic community. While not contributing as direct actors in producing or publishing scholarship, the traditional library role in impacting scholarly communication practices has logically centered around purchasing and advocacy. Change in scholarly publishing has been painfully slow and remains largely in the hands of scholars. The interdependency in the cycle of scholarly communication of libraries and scholars and the complicated relationship of academic publishing to promotion and tenure have made the possibility of libraries taking more direct action difficult.

Recently, however, the rise of emerging technologies and the evolving needs of scholars have emboldened libraries to experiment more directly with digital scholarship. While scholars remain largely focused on established channels for publishing scholarly information, many libraries have shifted their focus to scholarship that lacks established distribution and publishing channels or scholarship that is not integrated so closely with promotion and tenure. One such type of scholarship is the textbook market. Library experimentation in the textbook area is a logical outgrowth of technological developments in textbook publishing and libraries. As technology continues to broaden access to knowledge, traditional textbook publishing models increasingly stand in the way of progressive innovation. Textbooks, specifically the emerging digital textbook models, are a quickly evolving form of scholarship that presents both challenges and opportunities for libraries.

Although the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries' initial steps in the textbook environment began in the traditional scholarly communication roles as advocates and information providers, we quickly realized that we could be direct actors and effect more change by experimenting and promoting new textbook models as part of our overall curricular resource strategy. Over the past few years, we've seen a growing interest in electronic educational resources and a move toward digital textbooks as a way to help financially distressed students. Burdensome textbook prices cause students to share, pirate, and even do without required course texts. Indeed, textbook prices and fees have recently been cited as one of the top two factors in students not completing college?

In contrast, new, affordable digital textbook solutions are emerging, including innovative models of open textbooks that leverage online access and low-cost alternative formats to enhance accessibility. The NCSU Libraries has experimented with both print and digital textbook models to introduce new, innovative textbook publishers to our campus, to engage our students and faculty in investigating potential textbook models, and to work with students directly on tackling the issue of textbook affordability. …


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