How Librarians are Impacting Student Affordability

December 14, 2017 Morgan Kubelka

GettyImages-516041744.jpgThere’s nothing librarians won’t do to help students succeed.

An increased focus on student success coupled with the rising cost of tuition and course materials has created opportunities for librarians to lead the charge on student affordability initiatives.

While historically outside of their purview, librarians are increasingly focused on providing students with required classroom materials as a means to not only drive affordable access, but to demonstrate measureable impact on student success.

For librarians, ensuring students have access to critical scholarly resources is nothing new. From assiduous collection development efforts to acquiring content through complicated contracts and licensing notations, librarians are well versed in the process and means of meeting the needs of their diverse student patrons.

Textbooks have always been a trickier business as compared to journals and reference works. In this paradigm, instructors have historically served as selectors while bookstores have owned (sometimes exclusively) procurement and consumer sales. There have also been philosophical debates among librarians themselves on whether or not it’s the library’s job to procure classroom texts, which do not necessarily fall into the category of their primary domain of supporting research.

But as times change, so do librarians.

For one, the rising cost of higher education and the increased pressure to demonstrate the library’s value has engendered a more proactive approach to librarianship than ever before. Whereas traditionally they may have been posted at the reference desk, librarians are now out on campus, in various academic department meetings and even embedding themselves into classroom instruction. They’re marketing the library’s resources, beefing up their patron services, and continually seeking innovative ways to contribute to student success. One of the most direct ways then that libraries can impact the student academic experience is by offering affordable solutions to procuring textbooks and course materials.

Another integral factor that has empowered more librarians to get involved in the student affordability movement is increased support from their institutions’ administrators as well as legislation and incentives in several U.S. states. With access to course material proven to be positively correlated to academic performance, the recent research indicating that nearly 67% of students are opting-out of purchasing required textbooks presents an untenable situation that institutions cannot ignore. In many cases, librarians are finally securing the internal and external partnerships needed to move the needle in a positive direction.

NYU’s Engineering E-Textbook Pilot

One recent example is a three-year e-Textbook pilot now underway at Bern Dibner Library, New York University’s engineering library. Angela Carreño, Head of Collection Development at NYU Libraries, recently shared details of the initiatives at last month’s Charleston Library Conference session, How Libraries Can Serve a Critical Role in Addressing Student Affordability, Equity of Access and Improved Learning Outcomes.

In January 2016, amidst administrative directives to support student affordability, Angela began a dialogue with Wiley about the potential for conducting a textbook pilot. After several conversations with key stakeholders on both sides, it was decided that NYU’s engineering library would license Wiley textbook content, embarking on a three-year pilot project.

A rigorous selection process ensued to determine which e-Textbooks to pilot, examining which Wiley titles had the widest circulation in course reserves, and which books would serve the largest number of courses and students. By the start of the fall semester, 14 Wiley e-Textbooks were licensed by the library on behalf of the students, providing free and unlimited access campus-wide.

By November, the success of the initiative garnered notoriety across campus, leading to conversations with important university stakeholders like NYU’s Provost and student affordability committee. In light of a relatively unsuccessful all-inclusive access initiative being piloted simultaneously at the campus bookstore, the library’s e-Textbook project was favored by the committee for its ability to make course materials 100% available on the first day of class and for providing unlimited, free access to all of NYU’s students.

While the pilot is still ongoing, the first year was already a tremendous success. With impact on over 800 students a semester, the potential savings reached as much as $350,000 for the year. Usage data indicates very high use of the 14 titles, demonstrating a strong return on the investment.

Now in its second year, Angela and her colleagues in NYU’s engineering library are focused on collecting data related to how students and professors are using and incorporating these e-Textbooks in the classroom. Aside from analyzing usage data, they’re also planning to survey faculty and students associated with the courses impacted by the pilot program.

Leveraging the power of the academic consortia

Another interesting facet of the student affordability movement is the perspective of academic consortia. Given that these organizations are less beholden to campus stakeholders than their library members are, academic consortia are perhaps even better positioned to make strides in the student affordability movement.

Jill Morris, Associate Director of the Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium (PALCI), shared critical insights on this subject at the Charleston session, confirming that student affordability has been a hot topic for PALCI and consortia.

“There’s been a vacuum of leadership in this space.  Why shouldn’t it be us?”

With 68 academic and research Libraries in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia, PALCI focuses on maximizing its members’ access to collections by resource sharing and increasing economy of scale. Textbook initiatives lend themselves well to this paradigm and members are actively encouraging it. At the consortium’s June 2018 Member Meeting, there was wide support and requests amongst members that PALCI drive leadership in this area.

“We’re interested because our membership is interested,” says Morris.

In alignment with these objectives, PALCI is exploring direct publisher purchasing programs and considering a pilot in this area. “We see it as a really interesting opportunity,” Morris reflected in response to the presentation on NYU’s e-Textbook pilot.

Plus, entering and executing large group agreements with publishers is already something consortia do regularly; licensing and negotiating access to textbooks would be a natural extension of that.

Economy of scale is another critical advantage that consortia bring to the table, as bulk buying is always more cost effective than individual purchasing. From a financial perspective, an academic consortium like PALCI is also in a much less precarious position than a single institution is since they’re able to spread the risk across a large member base.

“Our members don’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, go it alone.”

What does the future hold?

Experimentation, pilot projects and collaboration among internal and external stakeholders is critical to advancing the student affordability conversation. Publishers, librarians, consortia and campus leaders must continue to work together to find sustainable solutions that enable affordable access while upholding the standards and integrity of world class teaching and learning materials.  After all, student success is counting on it.

To learn more about how libraries are impacting student success, download our recently published white paper, Adapting Academic Libraries to the Culture of Assessment.

Image Credit: Peng GE/Getty Images

About the Author

Morgan Kubelka

Library Services, Wiley // Morgan Kubelka is an Associate Marketing Manager on the Customer and Channel Marketing Team in Wiley's Global Research division.

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