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Library Statement on the Use of Commercial Textbooks in Classes

The University of Guelph has long recognized that the cost of course materials, particularly commercial textbooks, pose a financial barrier to student success. But textbook affordability has consequences that go beyond finances, and can also impact student wellness and mental health, academic achievement, and educational equity.

In 2016, the library’s Textbookbroke survey revealed that 57% of students did not purchase a textbook and 87% of these students report some level of concern over this fact. Even when not purchasing all their textbooks, students are still spending a significant amount of money on course materials; in 2016, 40% of students reported spending between $251 and $500, and 28% of students spent more than $500. With inflation rapidly rising, these numbers have likely increased in the last few years.

Students report that without a textbook they often fall behind in classes and miss important information, that time management becomes difficult when seeking alternative options, that it leads to increased stress and anxiety, and that it can make them feel socially disconnected from peers. The survey has been conducted since 2016 and the data remains consistent. It is necessary that students have access to the course materials they need to thrive in an academic environment.

To help mitigate the inequalities posed by commercial textbooks, the library ensures that one copy of each required textbook for all undergraduate courses is purchased and put on reserve for students to access; however, this solution is not always sufficient for students and the library faces several challenges in trying to acquire these textbooks for student use.

Print reserves can be difficult for students to access in larger classes where there are many students trying to use the limited copies of the book. What’s more, many textbook publishers do not provide electronic purchasing options for their textbooks to libraries. In the 2021/22 academic year, approximately 76% of the textbooks placed on reserve at the university could not be purchased in electronic format. When they can be purchased, these textbooks often have significant restrictions, such as a limit on the number of users who can access the textbook at a given time, a lack of access to any bundled content that requires an access code (such as test questions or other support materials), and the inability to copy, paste or print content. The electronic copies of textbooks are often more expensive than their print counterparts, with some costing six to seven times what the print version would cost. The library has now begun receiving requests for textbook titles that are born-digital and provide neither library electronic purchase options, nor any print purchase options at all, making library access impossible for students.

The following is a list of publishers that currently do not give libraries the ability to purchase electronic copies of their textbooks:

  • Pearson

  • Cengage and their imprints, including Nelson

  • Houghton

  • McGraw Hill

  • Oxford University Press Canada

  • Elsevier imprints Elsevier Health Science, Mosby, and Saunders

  • Thieme

  • Wiley

These practices that large commercial publishers have adopted are business decisions made in service of these corporations’ financial goals. These are not decisions that are made in service of maximizing students’ education access, academic success, or financial well-being.

To properly address this issue, it is important to seek out open and affordable alternatives where possible. Immediate and open access to course materials will reduce the financial barrier to education for students and ensure students enjoy greater equity of access to education, and more positive student experiences at the University of Guelph.

Further Resources

The library is committed to ensuring that members of our user community with disabilities have equal access to our services and resources and that their dignity and independence is always respected. If you encounter a barrier and/or need an alternate format, please fill out our Library Print and Multimedia Alternate-Format Request Form. Contact us if you’d like to provide feedback: lib.a11y@uoguelph.ca