Affordable Content Models

Chapter 20 – University of Wisconsin – River Falls: A Textbook Rental and Hybrid Approach to Instructional Content

Amanda Moeller and Cory Whipkey

by Amanda Moeller and Cory Whipkey (both from University of Wisconsin-River Falls) (bios)


The University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF) is part of the University of Wisconsin System, which, as of the fall of 2017, consists of thirteen comprehensive universities and thirteen smaller campuses that primarily provide two-year programs (Campuses, 2017). UWRF currently enrolls approximately 6,000 undergraduates and 400 graduate students.

UWRF has several unique programs and facilities that attract students, including the second-largest dairy science program in the country. The university places a strong emphasis on undergraduate research, internships, and practical applications of classroom learning. Students in the dairy science program, for instance, work on two campus farms to train service animals, provide milk products for ice cream (created on campus by our Food Science and Technology students) served in the cafeteria, and prepare horses for public sale. Teacher education, business, and the sciences are other popular majors on campus.

Instead of purchasing textbooks, students at UWRF pay a textbook fee each semester.

Since its inception in 1874, UWRF has approached affordable instructional content in unique ways. Instead of purchasing textbooks, students at UWRF pay a textbook fee each semester. For the 2017–2018, academic year, the fee is $80.64 per student (the original textbook fee in 1874 was $1.00 per semester). This allows students access to the textbook library, which contains about 2,500 unique titles and 100,000 items. Here they can check out the instructional materials they need for each class they take. Students’ savings could reach as high as $4,500[1] during their time at UWRF. This figure does not factor in additional interest on student loans they might need to repay after they graduate, as many students use loan funds to pay for books. It is because of this historical legacy that the program can continue to grow and thrive. Our current inventory is valued at over $7,000,000.

Given the unique and diverse student populations at UWRF, saving students money on textbooks is an important effort in supporting academic success. Nearly half of UWRF students are first-generation college students, and three-fourths receive financial aid. It is rare to meet a student who is not working in some capacity, and it is not unusual to hear of students balancing multiple part-time jobs in order to meet their financial need (an average of $8,826 per year). Many students work on the family farm during weekends and academic breaks or commute to campus from a farm (Knowledge Powers, 2017). By paying $80.64 per semester for access to textbooks, UWRF students are saving an amount similar to what they would earn through a $1100 student work study position salary each year. Financial concerns are a major factor influencing student retention; one-fourth of students do not return for their second year (Drews, 2017).

The UWRF textbook program is also unique in that it is administered through the library rather than the campus bookstore. The primary mission of our bookstore is to provide texts for graduate classes, lab manuals and other supplies for undergraduate classes, and merchandise. The Textbook Services Manager reports to the Library Director and works closely with the Director and librarians to increase affordable access to instructional materials for students. This collaboration with the library allows the textbook program to evolve to meet the needs of today’s students while keeping the textbook fee low.

In the past, the textbook rental program was able to stay viable through the purchase of used textbooks and through instructors using the same textbooks for multiple years. However, with increased inflation on textbooks along with changes to the forms in which instructional content is delivered, the low textbook fee is becoming stressed. The need to stretch budgetary dollars, and the new management of Textbook Services, have created opportunities for us to partner with the library to take content that has already been acquired and licensed and make it available for instructional use. This chapter examines the positive outcomes of this partnership for both Textbook Services and the library through increased savings, increased use of licensed library resources, and the use of Textbook Services to connect instructors to other library services. It also examines the challenges our program will face in the future, and approaches we will take to keep it solvent, saving students thousands of dollars during their course of study at UWRF.

Building Collaboration

The first step taken by Textbook Services to begin a closer relationship with the library was to simply express the need for such a relationship. When the new manager started in June, 2015, he recognized the lack of integration between the units. Prior to working at UWRF, he oversaw course reserves and collection management at the College Library at UW-Madison, working with a heavily-used course reserve collection of over 1,500 titles. This experience prompted him to integrate our library in new ways, creating better communication and opportunities for librarians and library staff to work more closely with Textbook Services. Several strategies were implemented to create closer collaboration, and the need for more integration and cooperation was stressed to the Library Director, who understood and agreed. One of the struggles in creating a stronger relationship was space—more specifically, the lack of shared space., as the library and Textbook Services are located in different buildings, limiting the opportunities for day-to-day interactions.

Also, in the past, only librarians and the Archivist performed liaison work with academic departments. In the new environment of collaboration, the Textbook Services Manager became the library liaison to two departments, with duties that included ordering library materials, instruction, and specialized reference consultations with faculty. He was eager to learn the procedures, practices, and faculty needs in taking on these duties, and also worked an occasional weekend reference shift. An appointment on the Communications and Activities Committee provided him greater insight into library operations and created several opportunities to work with the library to promote open educational resources (OERs). The library also supports Textbook Services through involvement on the library Strategic Planning process and support for conference attendance. These liaison interactions helped build relationships and more effectively communicate the needs of Textbook Services to other librarians, and helped change the perception of the Textbook Services Manager from a person who simply orders books to one with knowledge and expertise regarding instructional content.

Increased integration has also occurred as library staff have become more involved with Textbook Services and with instructional content. The librarians have benefited from the manager’s expertise working with publishers, from his insights into the academic needs of students, and from his knowledge of changes in academic emphasis that impact the ordering of materials for the library collection or for department outreach. Library staff, including the Director, have also worked at Textbook Services during book issue and return, taking shifts to help students check out textbooks at the beginning of a semester and return them at its conclusion. Finally, several librarians attended the manager’s presentation at the 2017 E-ffordability Summit at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where he described his experiences working with faculty to educate them on open resources and the opportunity these resources present.

The second phase of the increased collaboration between Textbook Services and the library has been the increased use of licensed library materials for instruction. A new Electronic Resources librarian started in July, 2016, and immediately began to partner with Textbook Services in the promotion and use of licensed library resources as instructional content. This partnership focuses on two areas: the use of library ebooks as either core or supplementary instructional material, and partnership between the library and Textbook Services to purchase additional licensed content that gives instructors access to more materials for use as textbooks.

Starting in the Spring 2016 semester, the Textbook Services budget was under extreme pressure. As requests for new books came in and costs mounted, the manager looked to the library to help alleviate some of the cost. Many of the requests were for scholarly or popular monographs already held by the library in ebook form. Working with instructors and the library, Textbook Services was able to save thousands of dollars that semester by using library ebooks. Only ebooks available for purchase with an unlimited simultaneous user license were considered for course use.

Two electronic resource collections already available to UWRF Library users greatly reduced overall costs. The first, Badgerlink, is a state and federally funded collection for Wisconsin residents that includes important resources for college students such as the Academic Search Premier database. The University of Wisconsin System also licenses and manages a set of databases that are available to all institutions in the system. Known as the Shared Electronic Collection (Library Program, 2017), it reduces costs to institutions by taking advantage of cooperative purchasing and licensing opportunities. A handful of resources are even available to UWRF students at no cost due to licensing agreements made by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in individual campus purchases. The Shared Electronic Collection currently includes ebooks by Wiley, Taylor and Francis, and Project Muse.

Utilizing library ebooks in the Textbook Services program reduces costs for students, but not only because we no longer have to pay for each individual copy of the book. Print items carry the additional expenses of ordering, processing, circulation, and, in the case of our distance students, postage. Ebooks eliminate these costs, creating savings that can be transferred to other purchases.

Utilizing library ebooks in the Textbook Services program reduces costs for students, but not only because we no longer have to pay for each individual copy of the book. Print items carry the additional expenses of ordering, processing, circulation, and, in the case of our distance students, postage. Ebooks eliminate these costs, creating savings that can be transferred to other purchases.

These efforts toward increased integration and collaboration between Textbook Services and the library represent a strong start, and we see two additional areas as opportunities for promoting Open Education: using the library liaison program to promote open education principles to faculty, and identifying faculty who are receptive to integrating OERs into their courses.

Collaboration (Internal)/Open Ed in the Library

In addition to collaborations between Textbook Services and the Libraries, there are opportunities at UWRF to collaborate with collegiate departments to promote OERs. The availability of OERs, for instance, allowed the Libraries to review an existing but dated K-12 Textbook Collection through a new lens, leading to an innovative solution for an ongoing problem. The Textbook Collection, wholly separate from Textbook Services, was the result of a community collaboration that has long since ceased to exist. Primarily between 1998 and 2007, a nearby school district donated sample and withdrawn textbooks. Although they were quality materials, by the time the collection was weeded, the great majority of items were more than 17 years old. The cost of purchasing newer editions was prohibitive, and finding single copies of current print-only editions from the major textbook publishers (without single-user electronic licenses or access codes) was more difficult than expected. In addition, each of the major K-12 publishing houses with whom the librarian spoke was unable to provide a licensing option for electronic textbooks in a higher education environment.

With Teacher Education students having access to a department collection of print textbooks within a computer lab housing teacher education resources, the collection also duplicated existing resources. When presented with the costs to improve the Textbook Collection, the acting Teacher Education Department Chair agreed that the expense was too great to make replacements worthwhile since it would have restricted the purchase of other materials.

These considerations led to the promotion of open textbooks as replacements. The librarian placed posters in the collection’s remaining stacks, providing the URL for a collection of open education textbooks, and created a LibGuide with a list of other organizations that have created Open Textbooks for the K-12 age group. The library estimates a savings of more than $5,000 by not replacing the obsolete print textbooks, not including the additional savings of future replacements. Funds were instead used to update nonfiction materials and increase the number of books reflecting diverse perspectives. Since these new items have already circulated more than the textbooks, it has clearly benefited students and faculty to look at open alternatives to this collection.

This is one example of how liaison librarians can integrate OERs into work with their academic departments. We look forward to identifying additional innovative approaches in the future.

Purchase on Demand/Integrating ebooks into Courses

While OERs will continue to be an important part of our strategy, the incorporation of existing resources and purchasing models will be necessary as well.

While OERs will continue to be an important part of our strategy, the incorporation of existing resources and purchasing models will be necessary as well. The library currently uses a Demand Driven Acquisition (DDA) program to provide users with content when they need it and save money by avoiding unnecessary purchases. A user is given immediate access to an ebook, but if he or she views only a few pages, the book is not purchased and the library saves money. DDA programs provide library users with access to a broad array of content, and libraries only purchase those items that are really useful to their users. The program not only reduces the time and expense of tracking down enough copies of a book, but eliminates unnecessary purchases that are based on speculation regarding what users will find useful. Since UWRF programs are incredibly broad and are focused around the sciences, we save significant amounts of money by not purchasing books that can run into the hundreds of dollars without being certain of their potential for circulation. Results of inevitable changes in class enrollments, such as rush purchase expenses due to a sudden increase in enrollment, or unused extra copies due to a smaller than expected class size, drive up acquisition costs. Using DDA, a copy is simply purchased when it is used in the ebook format, and in the case of titles purchased under the unlimited use purchasing tier, one copy covers a course’s needs.

Another area of increased collaboration on instructional content has been the licensing of additional resources, like streaming video. UWRF subscribed to Films on Demand for many years to supply access to video content for instruction. Traditionally, Textbook Services paid for this access. This past year, however, due to faculty demand, it became clear that we needed additional streaming video options. In conjunction with the library and the Division of Technology Services, Kanopy was identified as a resource that would benefit campus. After a trial and investigation, the purchase was approved and the cost split between the three departments. This was the first partnership that added a third party to the library/Textbook Services partnership, and we view it as a model that can be used in the future, especially as online and distance education continue to grow.


As discussed earlier, our textbook program has been very successful for our students, saving them a significant amount of money during their course of study at UWRF. As it moves forward with a hybrid approach to instructional content, however, the program faces several challenges . This year, for instance, the Textbook Services budget will receive only a minimal funding increase, which will keep the program operational but will not allow for any investment for creative new services. We are also caught in the middle of the print-to-digital transition, feeling pressure from publishers to move to a fully digital program, but lacking the budget, staff, and administrative support to do so. And finally, the library made major cuts to our database’s budget line in the 2017–2018 fiscal year due to rising costs of existing subscriptions (most notably in the resources we are committed to renewing through their inclusion in the Shared Electronic Collection) and to the lack of new funds available to the library.

Financial/Budgetary Challenge

The first challenge is budgetary. As mentioned, our students paid $80.64/semester during the 2017–2018 academic year for access to their books. With a normal textbook model, that amount would barely buy one book. But the rising cost of textbooks has hit our program hard. As textbook prices rise almost 6% annually (Bureau of Labor, 2017), each adoption of a new textbook for our large 100- and 200-level classes costs us more money. Because we are administered by the university and through the library, our rules for faculty are as friendly as we can make them. Most textbook rental models require a minimum of three years of use. We let faculty switch a book after two years, or earlier if there is a specific need. We allow for more than one book per class, and do not put a minimum or maximum cap on the cost of books. However, with the rising number of adjunct instructors being hired close to the start of the semester, we are at times scrambling to get the correct books for classes at an affordable cost. We give faculty complete academic freedom, but work with them to find the most affordable solution for their instruction needs, especially in the case of late hires. While these faculty-friendly practices are an important part of our service provision, they can have a negative impact on the final cost to students each semester.

Print-to-Digital Challenge

Another challenge involves the move from print to digital textbooks. Our textbook program was built on the foundation of print texts. We have built our inventory and instructors have designed courses with print texts in mind. As we received new book requests this past year, we found that publishers are increasingly selling only an e-text version or, possibly, an e-text and loose-leaf version. Books that are available only as e-texts affect our budget because we have to purchase access to them every semester rather than purchasing print copies that can be reused for multiple semesters. This greatly increases our costs and puts additional pressure on our budget. We have handled this extra cost with special course fees for classes that use an e-text, but this is not sustainable, and we are adding additional costs to students. The loose-leaf format is also not ideal; we either have to pay extra to bind books (this is also time consuming) or purchase three-ring binders for the pages. Pages get torn out or ripped much more easily, and students have to carry a large three-ring binder if they need to take their book to class. Loose-leaf texts are generally cheaper than hardback or paperback versions of ebooks, but the lower cost does not make up for the additional processing costs, time, and text damage. As publishers continue to push all-inclusive digital textbook models to instructors and to campuses, that pressure hurts rental models like ours.

Using ebooks as part of a textbook program presents additional difficulties. Many of the monographic books requested are not available in ebook format, and others are spread across several publishers. For library ebooks to serve as a true replacement for print copies, more ebook vendors would have to be used by the UWRF library to get the selection that faculty expect. As an example, our textbook library inventory contains many technical titles by O’Reilly Publishing, which are available as ebooks through the Safari database. Safari is too expensive for either the Textbook Services and the Library budget, so we continue to purchase the print books.

Real-world use of library ebook titles has also proved difficult. Certain requested titles are not available under an unlimited model or a non-linear purchase model, which allows for multiple simultaneous users but triggers the purchase of another copy after a pre-established number of check-outs. This understandably creates frustrations for students when they are unable to access titles with simultaneous user limits. In general, based on feedback provided during instruction and reference sessions, UWRF students express a preference for print books, citing the ability to read them without a device, especially on breaks at work or in other situations where a laptop or computer would not be immediately at hand, and frustration with using the ebook vendor’s interface. Some instructors also require the use of print books for certain assignments, which creates a demand for print-only book titles at our institution. In one case this fall, the Textbook Services Manager worked with an instructor on access to three ebooks for a special topics class. Unfortunately, after about three weeks of class, students were unable to access the ebooks because of difficulty with the books’ discoverability in our discovery tool, and were frustrated by the experience. We eventually purchased physical books to avoid further frustration for both instructor and students.

Additional training is needed to show students how to maneuver and make full use of ebooks and, more importantly, to help faculty gain familiarity and comfort with them as a legitimate format to be used in academic projects.

Additional training is needed to show students how to maneuver and make full use of ebooks and, more importantly, to help faculty gain familiarity and comfort with them as a legitimate format to be used in academic projects. Restructuring library instruction to include time for ebook demonstrations is an important first step, yet difficult due to the number of different ebook interfaces. We have also considered creating a LibGuide to serve as a resource for classes using ebooks, providing training to new faculty and instructional staff, and training our own librarians and staff on best practices for use and the full array of features available through our ebook vendor. The long-term success of integrating library ebooks into the classroom will depend on how successful UWRF is at training its campus community to embrace their potential.

Journal and ebook Price Increase Challenge

When analyzed in the winter of 2016, price increases for single-journal purchases at UWRF averaged five percent per year; this amount is also the average yearly increase for our largest journal package. Although this rate of increase seems reasonable, it is unsustainable in light of the recent budget cuts in the University of Wisconsin system. As more instructional content moves to formats outside of the textbook, journal cost increases affect the amount of content instructors can access.

A large percentage of our serials and electronic resources budget is committed to purchases for the Shared Electronic Collection and large package deals. Not only do price increases and additions to the collection make it difficult to acquire new resources, but it is increasingly likely that other resources will need to be cut in order to preserve these existing commitments. New academic programs do not receive additional funding for the new resources required to support them. UWRF has coped with this budget situation by severely restricting the purchase of new resources and cutting single-journal title purchases based on cost per use analysis. Open access and open educational resources are a bright spot in a difficult budget situation, providing new resources that would not otherwise be available.

Campus Perception Challenge

Having begun when the school opened in 1874, the textbook rental program at UWRF is a part of campus culture. While high cost of textbooks and instructional materials have been discussed in higher education for years, the issue has not affected UWRF faculty. They have been good stewards of the program and have used books for multiple years, changing only when needed and not when publishers push a shiny new tool or edition. Given this context, however, the growing discussion and use of OERs and library resources for instructional content is not met with the same urgency at UWRF as at other institutions.

The Textbook Services Manager has given two separate faculty presentations on OERs, one before the start of the fall 2016 semester and one before the start of the 2017 spring semester. Both were minimally attended and the main reason for attendance was a separate item on the agenda, not the discussion of OERs. As requests for new books are received, he advocates the use of OERs and ebooks already in our system; helping faculty understand the need for these changes, however, will take time. The collaboration between Textbook Services and the library will be essential in this process. The budget pressures faced by Textbook Services are real and, in order to keep our program thriving, we will need to incorporate the use of OERs and library materials to continue providing a low textbook fee to our students. Both Textbook Services and the library also need to advocate with the students themselves for lower-cost instructional content. Our students appreciate the service but, unless they have transferred from another institution that does not have a textbook rental model, they may not fully realize their savings. Pressure from students may also help instructors move to lower-cost options for textbooks and instructional materials.


This semester our analytics revealed an unprecedented rate of increase in the use of ebooks accessed through our library discovery tool, showing that instructors and students are finding and using ebooks as instructional material for classes. We will be investigating to see if this increase is tied to specific classes, assignments, or instructors (at least two faculty have used library-provided ebooks for courses in the spring of 2018 without requesting them through Textbook Services) or to the attention given to ebooks during library instruction sessions.

Support for OERs is growing in the University of Wisconsin system, especially after the Madison campus identified it as a priority in their Educational Innovation Initiative (Open Educational, 2017). The E-ffordability Summit is expanding its target audience beyond libraries, adding an additional day to the 2018 conference. Discussions regularly take place between librarians on other campuses about how to promote OERs to faculty. The push for overall higher education affordability within the state of Wisconsin does, in spite of other budgetary difficulties, provide momentum to discover and promote OER options to administrators and faculty. As campuses restructure, it becomes necessary to find options that can be easily and inexpensively used across multiple campuses. OERs may in time become a financial necessity to keep our textbook program viable at UWRF. Promoting them now may ease any possible transitions and create goodwill with faculty. By starting the investigative process now, UWRF sets itself up well for the future.

In this chapter we have highlighted how our textbook program saves each student thousands of dollars during their time at UWRF. The increased cooperation between Textbook Services and the library has breathed new life into efforts to connect instructors with ebooks and other digital content. As cooperation and integration with the library grows, the program will remain stable for years to come. The addition of OERs into the mix will further allow us to keep our student textbook fee down and also give faculty more flexibility to update and create content. Our textbook program does, however, face challenges. Our budget, the print-to-digital transition, increasing journal and ebook costs, and campus perception will cause us to continually refine our program and advocate to our faculty about the changing landscape of instructional content. We believe that our hybrid approach to affordable instructional content provides value now and flexibility for the future, allowing us to keep our program strong and saving students significant money during their time at UWRF.


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Author Bios:

Amanda Moeller is the Electronic Resources Librarian at UW-River Falls. Prior to working at UW-River Falls Amanda worked with serials and government documents at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN. Her professional interests includes working with first-generation students and learning more about their information-seeking behaviors.

Cory Whipkey has been the Textbook Services Manager at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls since June of 2015. Cory has worked with instructional materials for over 10 years. He is the former supervisor of Collection Management for College Library at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. One of his duties there was to oversee course reserves, which included over 2,000 different items each academic year.

  1. Using the College Board estimated cost of $1,200/year for Instructional Materials, $1,200 minus $161.28 for the textbook fee equals $1,039.00/year’ this number, multiplied by 4.7, the average time to degree, equals $4,883.30