Home 9 Blog Posts 9 How Does Your Campus Bookstore Handle Library Ebooks?

How Does Your Campus Bookstore Handle Library Ebooks?

by | Aug 17, 2022 | 0 comments


by Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries

If you’re an Open Educational Resources (OER) purist, you might want to skip this post. For the rest of us who will accept non-OER paths to “textbook affordability”, this post shares some experiences I’ve had of late with our campus Barnes & Nobles (B&N) textbook management system.

The big takeaway is that the less you know about the B&N/Follett system, or whatever system your campus store operation offers to faculty for textbook ordering and sharing that information to students, the greater the likelihood that you are missing opportunities to promote textbook affordability at your institution. How so?

Photo by Ashley Byrd on Unsplash

The chief purpose of bookstore management systems, such as the B&N’s Adoption Information Portal (AIP), is to provide students with information about required and recommended course materials. If students are presented with missing or incomplete information about all of their options, they may settle for a less affordable choice. A systemic failure occurs when students are presented only with the commercial options, from new print to digital rental, even when there is a no-cost option available to them – but the system lacks that information.

The completeness of course learning materials information in these systems depends on instructors providing the necessary details. It is also the weak link in providing students with accurate information about course materials. Instructor failure or oversight in submitting their course material information to systems such as AIP is at the core of the students not knowing if their course requires a commercial text or makes use of OER or other zero-cost course content.

To enhance students’ ability to obtain the estimated costs of learning materials as they go through the course registration process, the U.S. government enacted regulations (Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) in 2008. It establishes requirements concerning the responsibility of colleges and universities to provide students with information at the time of registration indicating the estimated cost of course content. Depending on your institution, compliance with these regulations may be strictly applied or rather lax.

Despite efforts to inform instructors of their duty to provide information about their course content to the campus store far enough in advance to include it in the management system, at many colleges and universities these requests are ignored. There are typically no repercussions. Some instructors intentionally neglect to submit this information because they want students to buy textbooks anywhere but the campus store. They want students to find better pricing at Amazon, Chegg or other textbook sellers. Instructors are increasingly hired at the last minute owing to course schedules shifting to match enrollment needs; sections are dropped and added leaving little advance notice for students wanting to know about their course content obligations. In other words, it gets messy.

Let’s assume the system actually works the way it is supposed to and faculty submit their book orders via the AIP or similar textbook portal. These systems are set up primarily for traditional commercial textbooks. But what if an instructor is using an OpenStax or other OER textbook? What if they want to point their students to a library ebook that is a digital copy of the required commercial textbook? Your campus store’s system may actually be designed to incorporate these materials into the content database where students will search for course materials. Because library staff rarely have access to these systems, they don’t know what they don’t know about its handling of zero-cost content.

How do you find out what you need to know to make sure students are getting accurate information about access to zero-cost course content? The first step is to talk to the bookstore manager. It helps to know and have established a relationship with the manager, which is not as simple as it seems. Followers of listservs and forums dedicated to open education know well postings from frustrated librarians who hit brick walls seeking assistance from their campus store managers. It really depends on the bookstore manager and how committed that individual is to working with librarians to achieve institutional textbook affordability.

If you are new to all this or looking to learn more about your campus bookstore’s textbook database, here are a few tips and questions to ask to help get you up to speed:

  • Educate yourself about course markings as a way to help students identify no or lo-cost learning materials is course registration systems. Start here or here.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of one of your institution’s students and browse the course registration system. What is your experience in getting course materials cost information? If you’re not sure how to access it, check with the registrar’s office.
  • When navigating the student course registration system, do you see a link or icon that students can use to get information about the course learning material? If so, where does it lead to? If not, why not and how are students supposed to get this information during the registration process?
  • If the course registration system leads to the bookstore textbook lookup database, how many steps are involved in finding out the cost of course materials for a single section of one course? How easy or difficult is it to repeat this process for every section to which a student might want to register?
  • If you are aware of courses that currently use OER or library ebooks, how is that information provided in the bookstore’s textbook information system?
  • What can you learn about how your instructors would indicate, if using the bookstore information system, that their course is using OER, library ebooks or some other zero-cost learning materials. For examples, in the B&N AIP there is a note/comment field instructors can use to notify the bookstore they are using a library ebook. Can you ascertain if the average instructor is actually aware of this?
  • Who, at your institution, is responsible for making sure there is compliance with the HEOA regulations? Get to know that person and make them an ally in this effort.

If you’re still reading this post you are probably getting the sense that this is all a bit complicated – and perhaps that is by design. Once you start to learn more about your bookstore textbook information system, you’ll likely have even more questions that need answering, and it may be that only the store manager or textbook coordinator will be able to provide the answers. That’s where having an established relationship with the bookstore can help.

It can also help to enlist non-library colleagues in this effort. You might be surprised to find out how little other academic support professionals and administrators at your institution (e.g., faculty affairs; undergraduate academic affairs; registrar; teaching and learning center; etc.) know about the bookstore’s textbook information system and the extent to which the institution complies with HEOA regulations. This is where having a previously established institutional textbook task force or consulting committee can be most helpful.

Working together with colleagues is a proven approach open education advocates use to advance textbook affordability at their institutions. It may be up to you to take the first step to learn more about the campus store’s textbook information system and what its capacities are for notifying students about courses using zero-cost course content. Hopefully this post has piqued your interest in taking that next step. Then enlist your colleagues to help you create change. Your #textbookbroke students are depending on you.

About the Author: Steven J. Bell is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University Libraries. His past blogs have included The Kept-Up Academic Librarian and Designing Better Libraries. He started the blog ACRLog in 2005 and was its primary contributor through 2011. Between 2009 and 2019 he authored two monthly columns, “From the Bell Tower” and “Leading From the Library” for Library Journal. You can learn more about Steven at http://stevenbell.info or follow him on twitter @blendedlib.


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