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The Expensive Lack of Textbook Information

MIT has a stated commitment to the dissemination of knowledge. The Institute has pioneered the adoption of OpenCourseWare and the faculty has adopted a policy that all journal articles are open access by default. The MIT community is known for being hyper-integrated electronically, and with the increasing capabilities of Stellar and other online platforms, it is becoming ever more so.

The great difficulty in getting textbooks and reading list information for classes is a glaring exception to the Institute’s standards. Before the semester starts, it can be nearly impossible to know what books you will be expected to have for a class — the only organization with access to this information is the MIT Coop. Lacking a good source of book information and corresponding cheaper alternatives, we find ourselves each semester back at the Coop.

The Coop collects reading lists from the professors themselves, and they manage to do so early enough to stock their store appropriately. However, the Coop has decided to restrict open access to the overall book lists. MIT Libraries (with the Online Textbook Information Project) has tried for years to collect the same information. However, poor faculty response means that most of the data is not available or is entered only at the start of the term, which is too late for students to take advantage of.

The MIT community suffers because information on required textbooks is not available. The libraries are unable to stock the necessary books and put them on reserve and students are unable to browse and purchase books at competitive prices. Shipping delays and the information advantage give the Coop a quasi-monopoly on the textbooks needed at the start of term.

The resulting difficulty in shopping for textbook bargains further increases the cost of an MIT education and should be changed. Faculty should be encouraged to give their reading lists to MIT Libraries early. We should have a single system that collects this data and makes it available to whoever needs it, including the Coop.

However, as a community, we can do more: we can collaboratively track which books are required for different classes. We have recently developed BooksPicker.mit.edu, a system that attempts to do just that, using a combination of student-submitted and professor-verified data to build class reading lists. BooksPicker simplifies reading list submission for faculty; if required books have not changed from the prior term, there is an easy one-step verification of this term’s reading list. Information from MIT Libraries and reading lists of past semesters is integrated in an attempt to have the most complete collection of reading lists available. Of course, getting book information is only half the challenge. Using its data, BooksPicker searches across multiple online stores to find the cheapest book bundle for your classes.

We hope that this letter and BooksPicker stirs a discussion within MIT that will change the way readings information is being collected and improve the options students have when purchasing books. Colleges across the U.S. will soon be forced to disclose textbook data by the Higher Education Act; by acting in advance, MIT will remain a leader in information openness and help its students along the way.

The BooksPicker team

Jonathan E. Goldberg G

Rodrigo E. Ipince G

Sinchan Banerjee ’11