Students who can’t afford to buy textbooks have long relied on reserve copies at their campus libraries. As the global pandemic shuttered colleges and universities, it also cut off access to these print learning materials. Many students and faculty members asked the next logical question: Why can’t the library just provide a digital copy?
It’s not so simple. Many publishers will only sell e-books directly to students – not libraries – and licensing fees have been jacked up. The industry claims that selling digital copies to libraries will cannibalize the e-book market.
“This is an old trope just being packaged in a new pandemic wrapper,” says Kyle K. Courtney, the copyright advisor and program manager at the Harvard Library Office for Scholarly Communication. “Unfortunately, the summer of free, where many publishers gave access, has turned into outright non-sales or pricing that is so exorbitant that there is no way libraries can pay to give this access.”
With the shift to remote learning, the demand for digital learning materials has intensified. Library staff are finding themselves having to educate their communities about the licensing restrictions and some are speaking out about the untenable position in which publishers have put them.
In a shot across the bow, the University of Guelph Library in Canada posted a statement on its website explaining how publishers have limited their ability to serve students in need.
“Approximately 85% of existing course textbooks are simply unavailable to libraries in any other format than print,” the Guelph statement noted. “Textbook publishers have built their profit models around selling e-textbooks directly to students. Despite this, we also know that the cost of textbooks and other course materials represent a major financial hurdle for students.”
Guelph staff decided to name names, listing the publishers unwilling to sell the library e-textbook versions of their publications: Pearson, Cengage, Houghton, McGraw Hill, Oxford University Press Canada (Textbook Division), Thieme, and Elsevier imprints (such as Elsevier Health Science, Mosby, and Saunders).
Ali Versluis, open educational resources librarian at Guelph, says when she and her colleagues were figuring out a sustainable workflow to help faculty find alternative materials, they felt a need to be upfront about the challenges with the entire publishing ecosystem, while being explicit about which publishers were part of the problem.
“We wanted to be transparent and proactive,” Versluis says. Within a couple of days of sharing, the statement got significant traction on social media and Guelph staff were lauded for their courage in calling out publishers. Versluis says she got kudos from library staff at 87 institutions across North America and Europe, with 49 of them asking for permission to adapt the statement for their own campuses.
“It’s been really rewarding for all the folks who worked behind the scenes on this statement,” says Versluis. “Getting such positive feedback and knowing it was helpful to our colleagues at other institutions to begin conversations and push their advocacy forward was really powerful.”
The ultimate goal of the statement was to get faculty to seriously consider using OER or library licensed content and to explain the support that the library would provide in doing so. “We saw this as a conversation starter — to articulate the challenges that faculty members don’t always know about,” says Versluis. “It was an opportunity to raise awareness and let them know about more complex topics like copyright and licensing.”
Scarlet Galvan, collection strategist librarian at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, modified Guelph’s statement to be blunt about publishers’ responsibility for systemic problems. The GVSU statement was an attempt to assert the library was not the problem and rather wants to be part of the solution, she says.
“I hope it centers the library differently than it is,” Galvan says. “We are not as passive actor in the conversation anymore.”
Faculty know textbooks are an issue, but most consider them cost of admission and they expect a certain amount of resilience around it, says Galvan. The assumption that students could just turn to the library for access is no longer an option.
As with Guelph, when GVSU posted its statement on the library website and Twitter, it generated widespread interest and praise for being bold. California State University and the University of Rochester were among the institutions that adapted the statement on their campuses.
“It’s striking to me that discussing the conditions of access and terms of sale is considered brave. Libraries generally forget it’s a business relationship,” say Galvan. “This has accelerated a move away from some of the more egregious, profit-driven content providers. Publishers have had so much time to change their side of the relationship and they have chosen not to.”
Galvan says she would like the statement to prompt faculty to develop a syllabus with open licensing in mind.
This current situation on campuses in the midst of COVID-19 is another example of some publishers trying to box libraries out from carrying out their mission to provide access to works, noted Courtney.
“We saw this a little before the pandemic, but having to buy all new licenses for our previously acquired print materials or to not sell to libraries at all is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” Courtney says. “The idea that if a library buys a book and can lend it a thousand times means less sales is ridiculous because the Copyright Act has that exception built in. That’s the type of market harm that is allowed in order for libraries to complete their mission of preservation and access.”
Among the tools that libraries can use is Controlled Digital Lending, in which a library can mimic the physical lending of an electronic version of a print copy it owns in a controlled environment – one user at a time. “CDL is one answer in a collective strategy to find a balance between the publishers and authors providing this information and getting education materials,” says Courtney. “This is not the time to upend the library’s mission for the sake of publishers’ control and licensing access.”
If universities had developed openly licensed materials years ago, students wouldn’t be facing these barriers now, noted Courtney.
“I hope it has a groundswell to effectuate some change and get higher education as a whole to understand how these textbooks work in the ecosphere of Open Access,” he says. “When the price of licensing is too high, it prevents the library from completing its mission and students from getting access. There has to be a better way.”