Imagine an academic library with abundant digital materials. What would it look like? A bustling commons with hands-on learning experiences? A quiet place where students go to absorb electronic content via their personal devices?

Whatever the future of higher learning may bring, e-textbooks for academic libraries are guaranteed to play a central role--and the pandemic has brought us closer to this reality.

When campus libraries worldwide had to close their doors due to lockdowns suddenly, librarians and faculty innovated their approach, adopting new practices, processes, and technologies to facilitate student success. Many institutions like Santa Fe Community College included building a digital library of e-textbooks (digital versions of textbooks that students can access on any device).

This shift to digital is the acceleration of a trend that has been building steadily over the past decade. Between 2012 and 2016, students using e-textbooks for coursework rose from 42% to 66%. The number one reason for this increase is the additional cost of print materials; many students delay buying a textbook or skip buying one altogether due to cost constraints.

The Most Effective Way to Meet Student Needs with eTextbooks

Many libraries do more than serve as a resource for student and faculty research to alleviate these financial pressures--they loan textbooks to students directly. The availability of print materials for this purpose can be spotty; however, trying to secure digital alternatives can lead to frustrating outcomes.

digital alternatives to textbooks

If universal access to content for all students is a top priority at your institution, this guide is for you. You will learn about the benefits of leveraging a library model for e-textbooks, where to invest in titles digitally, as well as steps to help you pivot to digital.

A Library Model for eTextbooks: Top 4 Benefits

Delivering e-textbooks to students via a library model is a simple and cost-effective way to promote more equitable, effective learning. Here are four key benefits of this approach:

#1. Improved Equity

Covid-19 changed library services forever. When libraries had to shut their doors overnight, making print books unavailable completely or limited by book quarantining time, libraries innovated how they gave students access to books. This included moving to digital, enabling students to access eTextbook reserves from anywhere, at any time. This innovation had the added benefit of widening access to reserve content -- with digital textbook reserve programs, students could access reserves more easily than before.

#2. Broader Access

A significant issue that librarians come up against when building a digital library is keeping in line with copyright laws. Under fair use law, only 20% of a textbook can be scanned and shared, limiting how much a librarian can fulfill student requests. Another challenge is that some titles are simply not available when trying to get an e-textbook due to licensing restrictions.

broader access to content

Advanced e-textbook solution providers allow the library to provide a broad catalog of titles while only paying for the content students actually consume beyond the initial percent of a book allowed “for free” by a publisher. This helps library leaders ensure they can broaden access to reserve material–all while being mindful of their budgets.

#3. Better Student Experience

Switching to digital as a way to relieve content barriers sometimes leads to different kinds of problems. If the course content is complex for students to find and access or is distributed across disparate systems, if the online user interface is clunky, if links are broken, or if students have to use multiple course codes or accounts to access third-party info, student performance can suffer significantly.

However, with e-textbook solutions that can seamlessly integrate with your existing Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or library system, students can access content without creating an account or using an additional application, streamlining the content access process and providing a better student experience.

#4. Meaningful Insights

One benefit of building a digital library for reserve content is that it generates meaningful insights. Analytics and reporting ensure that students access the content they need when they need it while providing valuable usage insights to academics and the library. For example, using the analytics dashboard provided by BibliU, the Edge Hill University library can monitor usage statistics, identify high-usage titles, remove low-usage titles, and determine which texts are core to their digital library. In this way, analytics play a key role in deciding how and where to use the library’s budget.

Getting Started with 3 Simple Steps

Getting started with a digital library can seem like a daunting task, and it’s something many higher learning institutions were recently forced to do overnight. But it’s possible to make this a strategic process. Follow these steps:

Step 1: Determine Frequently-Used Titles

Understanding which books are a top priority for academics and students is key to creating a scalable digital content strategy. Consult reading lists, library records, and academics to help determine which titles you should prioritize digitally. Core courses and courses with higher student enrollments often have the highest textbook usage, so consider starting the process with titles from those courses.

Also, consider mapping out where demand for materials might be changing. Is your institution planning to offer new types of courses in upcoming semesters? This kind of top-down planning will help you determine which instructors will require more of your time when consulting about reading lists.

Step 2: Train Academics to Build Digital Reading Lists

Input from academic staff is crucial to ensuring your digital reserve meets the needs of staff and students. Train staff on building a digital reading list via an application like Talis, starting with core textbooks. Once you have digital reading lists in hand, share them with your e-textbook provider. A good provider will be able to meet most, if not all, of your needs. Don’t worry if you have not attained perfection at this stage--you can refine your approach as students start to access the material.

Step 3: Refine Your Approach

If you have invested in a solution that can tap into the rich reserve of student learning data, you can use these insights to scale your strategy and refine your approach. Because students are the primary stakeholders in their education, you can use student data analytics to personalize and improve the student experience. Leverage data insights into student usage, content effectiveness, and top titles to adjust the content of your digital library.

It’s About the People–Not the Paper

Envisioning a future where the printed word is no longer the only option for students might feel a little strange at first. After all, architects have been striking up some pretty awe-inspiring library designs--all intended to showcase rows upon rows of books--for centuries.

But the needs of staff and students are evolving, and we have already experienced a digital tipping point. With e-textbooks for libraries, organizations can make reserve content--a cornerstone of equitable education--more accessible to a more diverse student population with different learning needs.


Want to learn more about how you can alleviate students’ financial burdens and build a digital library strategically? Book A Demo with us.