In economics, a textbook would be called a highly inelastic good — each new generation of students inevitably needs it and, generally, each student will acquire it (often regardless of cost). Though the University's libraries have sets of these high-in-demand goods, they often sit on the shelves, unused, instead of being utilized by the students who need them the most.
With each new semester comes a new list of textbooks to purchase for classes. Course books hardly come cheap, and some can cost upwards of hundreds of dollars, even for a used copy. Some professors will admit that the textbook they list on the syllabus is merely a “recommended” tool to be used for personal reference, but for other classes, the book is a required element that ties in indelibly with the material being taught, which raises a difficult dilemma: Drop big bucks and get the books, or save money and try to get through classes without them.
For some students, the problem has a seemingly simple solution — borrow the book from one of the many libraries on campus. After all, the libraries hold several copies of the books required for many courses on its shelves. Most of the libraries' books can be borrowed for spans of weeks (or even months, if a student renews it), but course books are highly restricted and can only be borrowed on three-hour reserve.
There is very little that can be done in three hours. Maybe a student could finish half a problem set (a very industrious, efficient student might even be able to get a bit further). Or a student could read a chapter or two. But his or her work will inevitably have to reach an end — the student could, upon returning the book, attempt to immediately check it out again for continued use, but the process is disruptive at best. Moreover, for (most) students who study over long periods of time (stretching days, weeks and months), the three-hour policy hinders the ability to study at their leisure.
The cap is ostensibly well-intentioned — it gives students a chance to glance through a course’s textbooks (most likely during the first week of classes), allowing them to have a more rounded overview of a class they may be shopping. Also, because it is held on reserve, all students can have equal access to it — no single student can monopolize the book by borrowing it for weeks at a time.
Well-intentioned as the policy may be, the three-hour textbook reserve is still highly inefficient. First and foremost, there are clearly some students on campus who can more easily afford to buy their own textbooks, and then there are some who may face greater financial difficulties in doing so. Instead of leaving these books on reserve, then, perhaps libraries could make them available for long-term borrowing by students who are on significant financial aid programs from the University. Or, if libraries decide to allow students to check out course books normally, perhaps the same group of students could be given priority on account of their need (for instance, students on significant financial aid could be allowed to check out course books a day or two before the same books become open to the general student body at the start of each semester).
Alternatively, libraries could treat course books as no different than regular books. They will likely be in high demand, but as in any efficient market system, the students who truly value the ability to borrow a book instead of buying it will be the first ones to retrieve it from the libraries' shelves. Some may argue that this system is inherently unfair because it prevents everyone from having equal access to the books, but in principle, this system of lending books is no different than the way in which the Frist Campus Center currently handles ticket sales.
In either case, simply having the books out of libraries and in the hands of the students who need them would be a much better use than having them lie on the shelves, waiting for students to borrow them, three-hours at a time.
Ultimately, libraries should not discriminate between textbook or not. The current three-hour reserve policy hinders libraries from fully achieving one of its most basic functions — lending out books to students — and is just an inefficient system that should be modified to more accurately represent student needs.
Jason Choeis a sophomorefrom Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.