Thursday, May 13, 2010

Textbooks on Reserve and Student Retention

Bearded Iris, in bloom on campus

Consistent with a national trend (there was a nice write-up in the New York Times Magazine this past week), our community college is currently engaged with the problem of student retention. Put simply, the college administration is trying to discover the reasons why students drop out of school, in order to encourage them instead to complete a college degree. There is a lot to say about this, and there is a lot of data out there. There has also been a lot of past educational research about the reasons why college students drop out of school. From my position as a librarian, I have been trying to figure out how the library in particular could factor into college student retention and persistence.

The best idea I've come up with so far is to try and make as many textbooks as possible available on reserve at the library. Requests for textbooks are extremely common at the reference desk, and I happen to manage reserves policies, so I seem to be in a good position to work on this. Putting a book (or anything) on reserve means that students must use the library as an access point, whether for a textbook, an article, a calculator, a laptop, etc. With physical objects such as textbooks, use is typically restricted to in-house for 2-3 hours per circulation. At other colleges where I have worked, having access to textbooks in the library has been an extremely popular option for students.

There are plenty of reasons why students use textbooks on reserve, such as forgetting or choosing not to bring their own books, or waiting for postal service or financial aid. Sometimes, students feel they cannot afford their textbooks, in which case having a copy on reserve at the library is a stopgap. The library's usage limitations are usually enough of an inconvenience that students do not spend an entire semester exclusively reliant on the library's copy of a textbook. But this type of support from the library does seem to be welcome.

A relationship between having textbooks on reserve and student retention is only intuitive at this point, and so far I have found no data to support a positive correlation. But I'm willing to try this out. At the least, I hope it will bring positive attention to the library and greater visibility to one of our services. Currently we do have a few textbooks on reserve, but availability varies by department. We have no room in the budget for maintaining an ongoing textbook collection, but we have been told by a number of sources that a spare copy of a required textbook for reserve at the library is something that publishers might supply.

Working with various constituencies -- the book store, department secretaries, and publishers' book representatives -- I hope to have as many of the required textbooks on reserve in the Fall 2010 semester as possible, and then we'll try and find out if the students who used them went on to complete their degrees.

Understandably, the organization and planning of this project has been occupying a good portion of my attention recently...


  1. I've used library reserve textbooks during my time as a student. One reason for this is the over-requirement of textbooks: some professors put texts on the required list of their courses, and then never referred to them all term. This is really frustrating for students, as we all know textbooks are very expensive. After a while, I learned to wait until I attended a few classes, and then order the textbooks if they were really needed. In the meantime, I just used the library's copy.

    Another case where I used textbook on reserve was when I did buy the textbook--but I bought a previous edition. Earlier editions of textbooks are MUCH cheaper, and offer about 99% of the same content as the current edition. However, I ran into a problem where a professor would assign problems from the textbook, and the publisher had changed the problems from one edition to the next. In this case, I used the book I bought for reading and studying, but copied the assigned problems out of library copy for homework purposes.

    In any case, the bottom line is the high cost of textbooks. Community college students are most cost conscious than most, as many of them are paying their own way, so I'm not surprised at the high demand for reserves.

  2. We had something this year called the Textbook Initiative, which provided us with money to buy textbooks and put them on reserve. Not only did it provide a really useful service as you point out, but it also carried a requirement that we track circulation statistics, so now we know a lot about how popular they are and on which campuses students use them the most.

    The only problem is that it's looking unlikely we'll get this money next year. So we've improved our collection (yay!) but I worry a little that we've created expectations we're now going to disappoint.

    Not that that's a reason not to do it, of course. I think it's been a really good program.

  3. Thanks for the input! I'm amazed at how much time it's taking to organize this project, although I'm glad to report that some of the bigger publishers seem amenable to the idea of a complimentary copy for the library.