Library Ebook Affordable Content Programs

Chapter 7 – Textbook or Not: How Library Ebook Purchasing Power Aligns With Curricular Content Trends

Niamh Wallace and Sara Filion

by Sara Filion and Niamh Wallace (both from the University of Arizona) (bios)


Within the broader public discourse on the rising costs of higher education, the issue of textbook prices seems to have struck a particular chord[1]. This spotlight on the textbook—and on the publishing models that drive its production and sale—has opened a conversation on possible alternatives to costly course materials and prompted interest in a larger-scale look at what faculty assign (or could assign) as required reading at the college level.

Enter academic libraries, which have long supported the research content needs of their campus users, and are now beginning to put effort behind curricular content as well. Situated as they are within the ecosystems of scholarly publishing and higher education, academic libraries have substantial ability, and incentive, to align collections with course content. Beyond advocating for the use of digital library content—such as journal articles, ebooks, and primary sources—in place of print textbooks, librarians have also been involved in campus open educational resource (OER) efforts—all in service of ensuring that students have equitable and affordable access to the materials they need for academic success, and proving value in doing so. Collaborating with institutional partners, such as campus bookstores, to implement and support affordable course material programs is a key factor to their success[2]. These partnerships provide an opportunity to redesign how required course content is delivered to students, and what form that content takes.

At the University of Arizona Libraries (UAL), we are fortunate to have such a partnership with our bookstore, and, like many fellow academic libraries, we take a multi-pronged approach to supporting affordable textbook initiatives. Our Open Education Librarian coordinates campus-wide efforts on the creation and adoption of OERs. We also work with the bookstore on a different initiative, though one with the same goal: Rather than focus on supplying print textbooks or course reserves, we chose to put effort into providing ebook access to as many course-assigned texts as possible. In this way, we’re able to supply students with free and universal access to course content, offsetting some of the costs associated with enrollment. Over the duration of this program, our library has maintained the ability to make multi-user ebooks available for an average of 20% of the materials that faculty submit to our bookstore as course adoption titles.

Drawing on several years’ worth of textbook adoption data, this chapter examines and discusses curricular content trends at the UA, including trends in content reuse, adoption of scholarly monographs for course use, and shifts in the types of materials that appear on UA’s textbook adoption list over time.

Equally important, this project has allowed a glimpse of the kind of materials that constitute required course reading on our campus. Rarely, in conversations about affordable textbook alternatives, is the type of content for which we’re championing alternatives made explicit. What are faculty actually including in their syllabi? Drawing on several years’ worth of textbook adoption data, this chapter examines and discusses curricular content trends at the UA, including trends in content reuse, adoption of scholarly monographs for course use, and shifts in the types of materials that appear on UA’s textbook adoption list over time. We wanted to understand the types of publications constituting the 20% of texts we’re able supply as multi-user ebooks, as well as the 80% we aren’t able to include in our scope of acquisition. What universe of ebook content is not available for licensing at the level appropriate for course use?

We use the term “course material,” rather than “textbook,” to refer to any title that faculty require their students to purchase. Our areas of analysis include publisher type (scholarly press vs. “traditional” textbook, for example), ebook platform, and license model. We also look at the titles that see repeated use and/or use by multiple courses, and highlight the disciplines that benefit the most from this program. Our hope is to deepen our understanding of the course content landscape and, with this understanding, better position ourselves to offer instructors the broadest range of options for free, or low-cost, textbook alternatives.

Our Program: Partnership with the Bookstore, and Process

Six years ago, we approached our bookstore (which is campus-owned) to see if it might be possible to view textbook adoption lists. Aware of the rising costs of textbooks, and curious about the overlap among our ebook collections and the adoption lists, we hoped to work with the bookstore to provide access to course materials through the library. From these initial meetings, we established an agreement to share textbook adoption lists prior to the start of each semester, as well as data about available library ebooks. The bookstore was a willing partner, cognizant of the burden that high-cost textbooks place on students, and already offering lower-cost options to students (used copies, rentals, marketplace options, etc). The Higher Education Opportunity Act provided another incentive to collaborate: At the campus level, we recognized the benefit of sharing information, encouraging faculty to submit on-time adoption requests, identifying materials available as OERs or library licensed ebooks, and promoting their use.

The bookstore was a willing partner, cognizant of the burden that high-cost textbooks place on students, and already offering lower-cost options to students (used copies, rentals, marketplace options, etc).

Our process has been refined along the years, but essentially follows the same steps. Before each semester, the project manager receives a spreadsheet from the bookstore listing textbook adoptions. The spreadsheet is then sent to acquisitions staff to determine whether the library already provides digital access to individual titles and, if not, to determine whether a title can be purchased or if a better license can be acquired (in cases where the existing license would be too limiting to allow for usage by an entire class). Acquisitions staff search the library’s catalog and discovery tool to identify already-owned ebooks and their respective licenses. They look at both subscription packages and licensed ebooks, and determine whether the library’s current access is appropriate for course use.

At UAL, our overarching acquisitions policy is single-copy, preferred-digital, and thus our required course materials program fits nicely within this strategy. Ebooks in our collection include those purchased through demand-driven acquisitions (DDA) plans[3]; firm orders based on faculty, student, and selector requests; and those accessible through large publisher ebook packages from publishers such as Oxford, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and Sage, among others. Our criteria for suitability for course use includes a license that allows for multiple (though not unlimited, although that is certainly preferred) simultaneous use.

When reviewing the provided textbook adoption list, the license and access information for each ebook, along with the permanent link to the catalog record and bibliographic record number, are recorded on a master spreadsheet which is later distributed to liaison librarians and used to update links in the course management system and generate emails to relevant faculty. If the licensing/access level that the library currently provides is lower than the unlimited simultaneous users level or if the library does not currently have electronic access to the title, staff search OASIS, ProQuest’s ordering interface, to determine if there is an appropriate ebook license available for purchase. In cases where an ebook with a low-access license is owned, acquisitions staff determine if a more generous license option is available to purchase or if the version owned has the potential to upgrade to a higher license based on our auto-upgrade programs with Ebook Central and EBSCO. UAL is set up to purchase ebooks on the Ebook Central (previously EBL and Ebrary), MyiLibrary, and EBSCO platforms through OASIS. If time permits, staff also search an additional major ebook vendor, GOBI Library Solutions, for the remaining titles that the library does not have access to and was unable to purchase through OASIS. UAL has contracts to purchase Ebook Central and EBSCO licenses through GOBI, and can also purchase licenses for individual ebooks on additional platforms such as Cambridge University Press, Project Muse, Wiley, and De Gruyter.

Once ebooks are identified and/or purchased, we generate emails to notify relevant faculty that an ebook is available, and place links to the ebooks in both the course management system and in the bookstore’s student booklist portal. We aim to accomplish all of this by (ideally before) the first day of classes. The turnaround time is often quite tight, and leaves little time to notify faculty and students before they’ve made textbook purchases. Hoping to solve this, we are working with the bookstore to share adoption requests and determine access options earlier in the process, as the requests come in.


Until now, we haven’t taken a comprehensive look at the publishers and platforms of the ebooks we’re able to license in support of this program, focusing our efforts on improving communication and workflows, developing new points of access to the ebooks, and piloting new licensing strategies.

One note about our data: Although our course materials program has been in place since Fall  2012, due to inconsistent data collection practices in the early stages of the program, we have only included data from Spring 2014 to Fall 2017 in our analyses below. One inconsistency in the current data is that of varying license descriptors. Non-linear (Ebook Central), concurrent (EBSCO), and access (MyiLibrary) licenses, for example, which all allow for multiple simultaneous users with limitations (a set number of total allowed uses per year that is reset at the beginning of each year), are sometimes categorized as unlimited user licenses. While these license types do generally act like unlimited user licenses from the user’s perspective, for very large classes or for popular titles, we’ve seen that the set number of uses has the potential to get used up quickly and can cause access problems and frustration for users. We thus no longer label these as unlimited use, and are careful to notify instructors of this potential problem if these are the highest available license options for ebooks for their classes.


Perhaps not surprisingly, for the 20% of requested course titles that we’re able to license as multi-user ebooks, academic publishers and university presses are the two most common publisher types. Combined, they represent the vast majority of available ebooks.

Percentage of available ebooks by publisher type
Figure 1: Percentage of available ebooks by publisher type


Under the academic label, we’ve included publishers such as Elsevier, Sage, Springer, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley. For our course materials program, ebooks from these publishers are acquired through individual firm orders from our two main vendors, GOBI and OASIS, or are already owned through DDA plans or previously purchased large ebook packages from publishers including Oxford, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, and Sage. Titles in these ebook packages, on the publisher platform, are largely unlimited use and DRM (digital rights management) free and thus offer a better user experience than the aggregator platforms (EBSCO, ProQuest Ebook Central, and MyiLibrary), which often require multiple account creations to view, download, or print portions of the ebook and sometimes create access challenges once multi-user limits are reached. The majority of the university press ebooks, with the exception of those from Oxford University Press, are licensed through OASIS or GOBI and are available on aggregator platforms.

Clearly, our purchasing ability has not extended far into the “traditional” textbook market. In fact, since 2014, we’ve been able to provide access to only 44 ebooks that would fall into this category, with publishers that include Cengage, Houghton Mifflin, F. A. Davis, and McGraw-Hill. This did not change in the four years for which we have data: In Fall 2017, the proportion of academic publisher, university press, and textbook content we were able to purchase remained the same as in Fall 2014.

By understanding the types of texts commonly assigned as course readings, we can be better prepared to offer affordable alternatives to faculty, such as OERs and/or library-subscribed ebooks and journal articles, in an effort to chip away at the prevalence of high-priced textbooks currently in use.

Traditional textbooks often carry the highest price tag for students, and publishers have so far been unwilling to license these books for purchase by academic libraries. Locally, because we don’t offer a print textbook course reserve service at our library, our inability to purchase these titles in digital format impacts student access and underscores how critical it is to find alternatives to these materials. By understanding the types of texts commonly assigned as course readings, we can be better prepared to offer affordable alternatives to faculty, such as OERs and/or library-subscribed ebooks and journal articles, in an effort to chip away at the prevalence of high-priced textbooks currently in use.

Top Disciplines

The disciplines that have benefited most from the required course materials program are within the humanities and social sciences (Table 1). History class titles appear most often on the lists of texts to which we’ve provided access—241 times, with 206 unique titles. Outside of the humanities and social sciences, our top-ten list also includes the departments of optical sciences and nursing.

Discipline Times it appears on purchased lists (out of 2,976 total titles accessible) Unique titles we provided access to
1. History 241 206
2. Philosophy 146 91
3. English 124 105
4. Africana Studies 120 73
5. Optical Sciences 116 52
6. Sociology 104 74
7. Anthropology 101 82
8. Political Science 89 77
9. Nursing 84 51
10. Religious Studies 81 49
Table 1. Disciplines that have benefited most from the required course materials program.

Ebook Platforms and Licenses

We have provided access to the majority of requested titles through three major ebook platforms: Ebook Central (formerly EBL and Ebrary), EBSCO, and MyiLibrary. While most titles on these platforms are acquired title-by-title in response to a need as a required text, others were already available through our DDA programs, ebook subscription packages, or, sometimes, from a previous purchase request.

Major ebook platform graphs
Figure 2


In Figure 2, “unlimited licenses” and “other licenses” have different definitions in our data, depending on the platform. For the Ebook Central and EBSCO platforms, “unlimited licenses” refers to both unlimited licenses and sometimes non-linear (Ebook Central) or concurrent (EBSCO) licenses. MyiLibrary “unlimited licenses” always refers to access licenses (the highest license level provided, which acts similar to Ebook Central’s nonlinear or EBSCO’s concurrent licenses), while “other licenses” are generally three-user licenses. From Spring 2014 to Fall 2017 we provided unlimited user access to approximately 1,100 unique requested titles, either through subscriptions, ebook packages, or placing firm orders for unlimited user licenses.

For most of the program’s duration, we have purchased the licenses for each title that would provide the most access, ideally purchasing unlimited and multiple concurrent-user access level licenses when available. As of Spring 2017, UAL has participated in auto-upgrade programs through ProQuest and EBSCO for ebooks purchased on the Ebook Central and EBSCO platforms, which initially influenced our purchasing strategy for all ebooks. With these programs, licenses for ebooks on the Ebook Central and EBSCO platforms are automatically upgraded based on use. If a title is simultaneously in use by more users than our current license allows, the license is automatically upgraded to the next highest license available on the platform. If no higher license is available, an additional license on the platform is automatically purchased until certain caps are met. Auto-upgrades are limited to $1,000 total per title and auto-purchases to an additional nine single-user licenses (making the title allow for 10 simultaneous users) or $1,000 per title, whichever comes first.

Since this change, when investigating purchase options, acquisitions staff now purchase the access license on either of these two platforms with the lowest cost, which is generally the lowest access license option—usually a single-user license. We then rely on the auto-upgrade program to either upgrade to higher license levels or auto-purchase additional licenses based on use. This is a cost savings measure; if an ebook is highly used, it will automatically upgrade to the next license level until the highest available license is purchased. For texts that are not used by students, the licenses will stay stagnant, as there is no need for a more costly higher license. This way, resourcing for course texts is spent on titles that are actively being used by students.

In the first two semesters since the auto-upgrade/auto-purchase license model program began (Spring and Fall 2017), we purchased or provided access to 287 single-user license titles. Some have higher license levels available to which they can auto-upgrade, while others are titles to which we previously wouldn’t have provided access due to single-user licenses being the only license option available. In many cases, where a single-user license is the only option available, it is possible that these licenses can auto-purchase an additional nine single-user licenses, allowing access to up to 10 simultaneous users at a time, depending on price and whether enough users access the ebook at the same time to trigger the auto-purchase. In the future, it will be important to look at how the auto-upgrade program has impacted the success of the program, including cost savings, upgrades initiated vs. licenses that stay stagnant, and access issues (turnaways, particularly for fiction/popular titles), especially related to downloading ebooks.

Beyond the major ebook aggregator platforms, large publisher ebook packages have allowed us to provide access to 150 titles that have no DRM. Titles available through these publisher-hosted platforms have been most likely to benefit STEM fields, with 65% of these ebooks used in STEM courses.

Recurring Titles

Of the course-adopted titles to which we’ve been able to provide access, 30% appear on multiple semester lists, pointing to a certain amount of  reuse in curricular content within a four-year range of data. This recurrence also underscores the impact this program can have in terms of return on investment: Licensing an ebook that will be used in multiple semesters or courses can result in significant cost savings for students. Table 2 shows a few examples of titles we’re able to license that have appeared on more than one semester’s list.

Title/author or editor Publisher/ publication date Ebook platform Courses using No. of semesters in use Approx. cost of new print No. of students impacted
A History of the Modern Middle East / Cleveland, William L. Westview Press/2013 EBC History, Middle Eastern Studies, Political Science 5 $45 188
Advanced Optical Communication Systems and Networks / Cvijetic, Milorad Artech House/2013 EBC Optical Sciences 6 $145 159
The Disordered Mind: An Introduction to Philosophy of Mind and Mental Illness / Graham, George Routledge/2013 EBSCO Philosophy, Psychology 8 $150 1,034
The Economic Development of Latin America Since Independence / Bértola, Luis and Ocampo, José Antonio Oxford University Press/2012 EBC Latin American Studies 3 $50 60
English Words: A Linguistic Introduction / Harley, Heidi Wiley/2015 EBC English, Linguistics 6 $50 182
Mathematics for Physical Chemistry / Mortimer, Robert G. Elsevier/2013 Elsevier Science
Chemistry 3 $55 230
New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction / Marstine, Janet Wiley/2008 EBC Anthropology, Art History 6 $150 152
Table 2. Examples of recurring required course materials available as library ebooks.

Unavailable Content

Although our course materials program provides students with free access to required course content, most titles on the course adoption list (80%) are not available to license as multi-user ebooks. Initially, we wondered if this proportion largely encompasses those books produced explicitly for the educational market—“traditional” textbooks, with titles such as Introduction to Heat Transfer (Wiley), or An Introduction to Human Services (Cengage), for example. A targeted scan, however, revealed a mix of content: Textbooks appear frequently, but they are listed alongside novels, such as Their Eyes Were Watching God (Harper Perennial), and university press books, such as Is the Goddess a Feminist?: The Politics of South Asian Goddesses (NYU Press). Unfortunately, because the publisher and publication date for course-adopted titles are not included on the spreadsheets we receive from the bookstore, we weren’t able to produce a comprehensive analysis of the types of titles that are consistently out of our reach. But in looking at the most frequently appearing titles among those we cannot provide, we do get a sense of the critical gaps in content. Table 3 lists a few examples of the most frequently appearing titles.

Title/author or editor Publisher/ publication date Courses using Number of semesters in use Approx. cost of new print
Film History: An Introduction, 3rd ed. / Thompson, Kristin, and Bordwell, David McGraw-Hill/2009 Film studies 9 $160
Modern Latin America / Skidmore, Thomas E., and Smith, Peter H. Oxford University Press/2013 Spanish, Latin American Studies, Political Science 8 $80
Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, 2nd ed. / Griffiths, David Pearson/2004 Physics 7 $170
Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 5th ed./ Ashford, Jose and LeCroy, C.W. Brooks Cole/2012 Family Studies, Social Work 6 $230
Language Development / Gerken, LouAnn Plural/2008 Linguistics, Education 4 $85
The Economics of the Environment / Berck, Peter, and Helfhand, Gloria Pearson/2010 Agriculture, Economics 6 $210
Table 3. Examples of recurring required course materials that are not available as library ebooks.


What do the data tell us about our cumulative efforts to supply our students with ebook versions of required course texts? Perhaps what we might have already assumed: Most of the ebooks we can acquire are from university presses or academic publishers. Most are assigned to courses in the humanities and social sciences. Most are accessible on ebook aggregator platforms that do not always support a positive user experience. A good percentage of the titles reappear on textbook adoption lists year after year. And, finally, most titles on the UA’s textbook adoption lists are not available for multi-user ebook licensing at all.

Ironically, if the percentage of ebooks available to purchase were to increase much higher in the future, the costs associated might render our current program unsustainable. But this only underscores the importance of implementing such a program in conjunction with other collaborative efforts around textbook affordability and student success, such as OER outreach. Academic libraries, as both consumers and suppliers of scholarly content, are well-positioned to influence the makeup of curricular content in a way that encourages equitable access to higher education. The first step toward this goal is to examine the types of materials currently being used in college courses.


Bell, S. J. (2017). What about the bookstore?: Textbook affordability programs and the academic library-bookstore relationship. College & Research Libraries News, 78(7), 375.

Cramer, C. J. (2013). All about demand-driven acquisition. The Serials Librarian, 65(1), 87-97. Retrieved from

Hill, P. (2016). Students are spending less on textbooks but that’s not all good. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Weissmann, J. (2013). Why are college textbooks so absurdly expensive? The Atlantic. Retrieved from


Author Bios:

Sara Filion is a Library Information Analyst at the University of Arizona Libraries, where she focuses on collection assessment, analytics, and active management. Her background is in library acquisitions, cataloging, and metadata.

Niamh Wallace is an Assistant Librarian in the Research and Learning Department at the University of Arizona Libraries. She is a social sciences liaison and has worked with the library’s required course materials program since its inception.

  1. The high cost of college textbooks, as well as the impact on students who forgo purchasing them, has received substantial media coverage in the past few years. See, for example, Weissmann, J. (2013). Why are college textbooks so absurdly expensive? The Atlantic. Retrieved from, and Hill, P. (2016). Students are spending less on textbooks but that’s not all good. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from
  2. See, for example, Bell, S. J. (2017). What about the bookstore?: Textbook affordability programs and the academic library-bookstore relationship. College & Research Libraries News, 78(7), 375.
  3. DDA plans allow libraries to purchase ebooks only after a user has demonstrated a sufficient level of interest in a particular title (usually by viewing a certain number of pages). For additional information see All About Demand Driven Acquistion (Cramer, 2013).