Can’t you just buy it online? Challenges with commercial textbooks

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

As we approach the fall 2020 semester, library staff are working hard to provide alternative access to the print course reserves collection. Traditionally, a significant portion of the books on reserve are print copies of required textbooks, and students cannot access these this fall.

To support instructors and students over the next several months, we are developing new approaches to course reserves to ensure that students have access, even in a primarily online, alternative delivery environment.

However, this work is hampered by textbook publishers who do not provide electronic purchasing options for libraries. Approximately 85% of existing course textbooks are simply unavailable to libraries in any other format than print. We have found this to be especially true of materials that support language learning. We did an analysis of spring 2020 course reserves and identified a number of publishers for which an online version is unavailable for libraries to purchase including:

  • Pearson (including Addison-Wesley)
  • Cengage
  • McGraw Hill
  • Oxford University Press (Textbook Division)
  • Nelson
  • Penguin Random House
  • Wiley
  • A variety of language textbook vendors and publishers

We are working with instructors to explore and identify viable textbook alternatives, including:

  • Using an existing ebook in the relevant subject area from the Library's ebook collection or suggest that the Library purchase one. There are many academic ebooks that aren't considered textbooks and are therefore available for the Library to purchase if they fit within collection development policies
  • Adopting an open educational resource (OER). OERs are freely available educational materials that are openly licensed to allow for re-use and modification by instructors. Please search our Open Educational Resources catalogue for freely available teaching materials, sorted by content type and faculty or reach out to your subject librarian for advice
  • Scanning book chapters and excerpts, subject to copyright limitations. Copyright permission will be sought where feasible in cases where the excerpt falls outside of fair dealing guidelines. We use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology to convert scanned content into accessible PDFs
  • Linking to content from the existing collection of electronic resources (ebooks, journal articles, streaming media, and other digital materials) or acquiring new content whenever possible

Efforts will be made to secure online materials that are free from digital rights management restrictions (DRM) in order to ensure unfettered student access. DRM includes limits on the number of users that can access a resource at any one time, as well as limits on copying, printing, and downloading. However, often publishers only offer ebooks with DRM.

Instructors who are reactivating courses in Course Reserves for the fall 2020 semester will be contacted about any print materials on their lists so alternative options can be identified. Any instructors teaching a fall course are also encouraged to contact the Library at any time for support with sourcing their course materials.


Questions about course reserves can be directed to Please reach out to your subject librarian to find or identify digital resources for your courses.

We’d like to acknowledge University of Guelph library staff for their post "Commercial textbooks present challenges in a virtual environment" from which we’ve borrowed some text.

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