Integrating Affordable Learning Solutions (AL$) and Course Reserves during COVID-19

by | May 17, 2021 | 0 comments


By Sandra Bozarth  (Interim Dean, Stiern Library, CSUB) 

and Amanda Grombly  (Collection Development and Management Coordinator, Stiern Library, CSUB) 

Against the Grain Vol. 33 No. 2

California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB) has actively participated in the California State University Affordable Learning Solutions initiative (AL$) for the last seven years.  The initiative is aimed at driving down textbook costs.  Support was provided at the system level to each campus with annual funding opportunities, training, and faculty support.  In that same time, the Walter W. Stiern Library at CSUB transitioned several of their traditional library services with the aid of 21st century technologies.  The last great stand was course reserves.  When the pandemic hit California in March 2020, the library was faced with migrating over 500 physical course reserves, mostly books and videos, into an online format.  At the same time, publishers from around the world made their content available digitally to colleges and universities for the remainder of the spring semester, free of charge.  At CSUB, this perfect storm pushed staff and librarians to reinvent how they provided course reserve service and how to sustain it digitally throughout the pandemic. 

In preparation for fall, the library contacted faculty to offer support in identifying existing library resources or Open Educational Resources (OER) content to support continued instruction.  In addition, collection development and subject librarians identified subscription and Evidence Based Acquisition (EBA) content to bridge the gaps.  The goal has been, and continues to be, to provide faculty reasonably priced alternatives to print textbooks and supplementary materials while maintaining academic freedom, textbook affordability, copyright compliance, and stewarding the library budget.  

The California State University (CSU) Affordable Learning Solutions (AL$) initiative began in 2012.  It consists of three main student-centered goals regarding textbooks:  provide quality materials, reduce prices, and offer a choice of print or electronic access.  Estimated student savings from the 23 campuses participating in the initiative have been over $40 million (Reports, 2019).  Since the CSUB AL$ team began their efforts on campus in 2013, the total textbook savings for CSUB students are over $1,520,000 (Affordable, 2020). 

Affordable learning initiatives began at CSUB with the establishment of an advisory team, the CSUB AL$ team.  The team is led by the library on campus and includes the bookstore manager, the campus disability services manager, one administrator, one student, and one faculty member.  The team applied for funding each year to help continue to drive the CSU initiative.  The team provided workshops, presentations, competitions, and stipends while also attending meetings with faculty and vendors to spread the word about the AL$ initiative and to show faculty and students how they could actively participate.  Team members from the library and the bookstore worked with other librarians and a library student worker to assist faculty in selecting library owned materials, Open Educational Resources (OER), creating course materials, or identifying low-cost bookstore alternatives to provide students with low or no cost options.  

Once faculty selected materials, library staff added those materials to the AL$ website.  When the pandemic began, the library was able to incorporate the AL$ textbook list on the AL$ website into the print course reserve list using ExLibris Alma.  This integration was something the library had been wanting to do for years but had been unable to find the resources to devote to the project.  Staff and faculty at the library worked together to integrate textbook affordability workflows within course reserve, collection development, and electronic resources workflows to enhance the course reserves web page.  Library staff accomplished this using Primo, and it generated a finding aid for staff and librarians who were assisting patrons.  Students were now able to more easily find out if their textbook was available in the library without having to search two different lists on the library website. 

In addition to adding materials selected by faculty, a library student employee manually searched all required textbooks listed with the bookstore against our library catalog to determine if the library owned any of the required textbooks.  If a match was found with electronic, simultaneous user access, the faculty member was notified and the material was added to our AL$ list, and the course reserves list as well.  Prior to the pandemic, if a print or older version was found, a team member would email the faculty and ask if they wanted it added to the lists.  During the pandemic, the library did not allow print course reserves to be checked out.  The print course reserves list is now called the “course reserves list” as it includes both print and electronic titles.  

In the traditional print course reserves model, students were granted short-term access to these frequently used items in 2-hour, 24-hour, 3-day, and 7-day intervals.  Two-hour access was the most frequently utilized loan period for these materials, and most course reserves are books.  As textbook affordability became a priority on campus, course reserves evolved to focus more and more on access to textbooks rather than supplemental readings and media.  In a pandemic, however, it is not practical or safe to lend textbooks out in two-hour intervals, and most of the textbook access initiatives provided by publishers at the onset of the pandemic have ended.  Staffing and copyright restrictions limit what can be facilitated with document delivery, and the library is not yet able to offer controlled digital lending.  Print or physical course reserves were finally integrated with AL$ workflows as a result of the pandemic.  The availability of these materials is determined by faculty participation whereas the AL$ program is more library-driven.  

Each year participation in the AL$ initiative at CSUB has looked different.  The AL$ team established a friendly competition for departments to try to adopt the most course sections with low or no cost textbooks.  This worked well, with two of CSUB’s smallest departments emerging as leaders in the effort.  Newer faculty members often seem to the be most excited and willing to adopt or change their textbooks.  One oddity that has come from the initiative is that because it is led by the library, faculty participating in the initiative assume that the library will purchase the required textbooks for those wanting to participate.  Even prior to the initiative the library did not purchase the required textbooks on purpose.  This happened naturally at times but not by request;  sustaining textbook purchases for all courses is not within the means of the library budget.  By chance, when we purchase for a research area or curricular need and/or an eBook package, we may happen on acquiring textbooks.  

It is part of the library’s collection development policy not to purchase textbooks to support classroom instruction.  Selectors can purchase titles used as textbooks if they are scholarly and serve as research sources like those typically used to supplement the textbook.  Titles on the course reserves list that were not explicitly textbooks and that were available for purchase at a reasonable cost in DRM-free, unlimited, simultaneous use were purchased.  

However, it is well known amongst libraries that DRM-free, unlimited, simultaneous use textbooks are rarely reasonably priced, if they are available at all.  As a result, the library began investigating alternatives like demand driven acquisition programs with vendors and publishers who are most commonly placed on course reserve.  The library found that the textbook publishers most used at CSUB did not offer affordable solutions: the most commonly utilized publisher does not offer their textbooks as eBooks, the second most common only offers personal licenses of their textbooks, and eBooks from the third and fourth most common publishers are known to be some of the most expensive on the market.  One course reserve title has a three-user license cost of over $600. 

As a result of the obstacles faced by instructors, the library has amended collection policies during the pandemic.  The library purchases all faculty requests for supplementary texts and streaming video licenses that can be accommodated by the library budget and market availability, thereby allowing faculty to use textbook alternatives.  The library is also providing Open Access materials, as they become available in the library’s discovery platform.  This provides instructors with cost-free alternatives for their courses which students can easily access via the library.  All full-term library courses at CSUB are also zero-cost textbook courses where library faculty utilize existing library resources, OER materials, and archival content available on the web. 

While the goals may have been high to reinvent how the library provided digital course reserve service, using AL$ and the system already in place, and making it sustainable, with no increased funds during a pandemic, it was definitely worth the efforts.  A new way of thinking has begun and different approaches to old practices and services will allow for changes and improvements as the plan continues to move forward. 


Reports and Research.  Affordable Learning Solutions.  (2019).  Retrieved Feb 1 2021, from

Affordable Learning $oultions.  (2020).  AL$ Annual Campus Report.  California State University, Bakersfield.  Unpublished.  


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