Library Matters / Libraries Matter: Textbooks and Interlibrary Loan

Posted on September 27th, 2017 by

As part of the Library Matters / Libraries Matter blog series, we’re covering some of the pressing issues and concerns we consider on a regular basis. Today’s topic is borrowing and lending course reading materials across libraries.

The price of textbooks – and course reading materials in general – can be considerable, especially on top of other expenses. The Gustavus Book Mark offers several options for students to reduce their costs. Understandably, some students also turn to the Library to borrow course material from our library and others.

Often, students and some faculty are met with disappointment or surprise that we don’t purchase library copies of every textbook assigned for a course. Mainly, we’ve chosen to spend our book budget (which isn’t huge) on materials to support research students conduct related to their course content.

Students will sometimes place interlibrary loan (ILL) requests to borrow materials from other libraries, only to be met with our policy, which states that textbooks and other required reading are not available through ILL.

It’s jarring, isn’t it? If libraries are supposed to help patrons access materials, why are textbooks and other required reading materials excluded?

There are reasons for the policy, of course. Here are the main ones:

  • ILL depends on good relationships with other libraries. Too often, we’ve had patrons who choose not to honor due dates. They keep ILL materials for the entire semester, wrack up fines from the lending library, and jeopardize our lending and borrowing relationships with other libraries.
  • Many libraries won’t lend course materials to other libraries, so even if a request went through, it is unlikely we’d be able to get the item itself. Libraries who do purchase textbooks for their student use are reluctant to lend those materials to students outside of their own community.

This raises an important question, however, one which we are studying at our library: What is the Library’s obligation in providing textbooks and other required course materials to students? What is the College’s obligation in doing so? How can we best erase obstacles to information access while working within policies set by our own and other libraries?

We are convening a task force to study these questions, as well as look into the feasibility of textbook rental programs. We’ll report on our findings as they arise.

But for now, what do you think? What is an academic library’s obligation to provide access to course material? What is the obligation of the entire institution? Comment below (either in the blog or Facebook).

This post is part of the Library Matters/Libraries Matter blog series




  1. Melissa Eighmy Brown says:

    We have done some extensive studies at the University of Minnesota and have found that in a typical semester, 14% of our filled ILL borrowing requests are textbooks. We have also compared data with the bookstore and found that we are able to fill 87% of textbook requests by borrowing, providing access to multiple use ebooks within our collection or placing holds on our patron’s behalf. Consortia agreements of longer loan periods are really key to borrowing, but I think it would be great if more libraries looked into how they can fulfill textbook requests through advocacy of open textbooks and licensed ebooks that are unlimited use. Through a partnership with the University of Minnesota Bookstore, we now provide access to over 500 unlimited use ebooks each semester:

    • Julie Gilbert says:

      Thank you for this perspective, Melissa! These are some excellent initiatives. We’re also huge supporters of open access textbooks and have made a note to discuss these issues with our faculty and the book store. Seems like this is an issue that many academic libraries face.

  2. Cindy Blanding, Clark Library, Univ. of Portland says:

    We don’t place borrowing requests for textbooks for all of the above reasons, plus fairness; I can’t borrow one for everybody in the class even if I am lucky enough to borrow one for one student. And, on the lending side, I am tired of receiving up to 10 requests per day for each of the 5 or 6 most popular/expensive current textbooks. No exaggeration. Sometimes we get 3 in a row for the same book from the same library. If it’s not on my reserves shelf because it is a current textbook at my institution, it is a current textbook at one of the institutions in my consortium. It’s already checked out and won’t be available for ILL. I know how attractive Direct Request is for high-production ILL units, but when you toss textbooks into the mix all you’re doing is putting a sure-to-fail request out there for other libraries to spend their time on. It would be wonderful to be able to held students keep their costs down by borrowing textbooks for them, but we have an agreement with our bookstore that we won’t cut their profits by borrowing course materials. I may not agree with it but I am required to honor it. I’ll bet there are a lot of such agreements out there.

    • Julie Gilbert says:

      Thanks, Cindy! It’s helpful to know more about practices at other libraries wrestling with these same questions. That’s a really good point, too, about fairness and the challenges of providing access to everyone in the class. The bookstore agreement is interesting (“interesting” is a Minnesota term for “WHAT?!?!”). We just formed our course material task force and will talk more in depth with our bookstore about these issues and how they address barriers to access.