About these textbooks that I cannot afford…

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

When someone asks me how much it costs to go to Waterloo, I usually reply: "About $3800 for the tuition and school fees, and $600 of textbooks." Indeed, this term, had I bought all my textbooks new from the Bookstore, as most of us do, it would have cost me a little bit more than $600 with taxes for 4 textbooks. An average of $150 per textbook! If I could have found all of them at the Used Bookstore, where they sell the books at 80% of their retail value no matter if it is the first or third time that the book comes around, it would have been just a little bit less than $500. Still a very high price I find for about 10kg of paper and ink!

I really respect all authors and the great work they put into creating and writing comprehensive and thorough textbooks, but the price is very high for my student budget. Assuming that I will be using each textbook about 100 hours each or less, depending on their relevance (5 hours per week, 13 weeks of lectures, plus 3 complete days of review for the midterm and final), it is only about $1.50/hour for the intensive use of a textbook, more if I only use it to get the assignment problems and don’t really bother reading the material ahead or if my professor’s class notes are complete enough.

This term, as most of my fellow classmates and friends, I am tight on money and once the tuition and the rent is paid for the term, textbooks represent the third biggest expense on my budget. Just the price of a single textbook is worth 2 months of groceries for me! I could go further with comparative analysis of the cost my textbooks, but I think you get the point, you probably have done the same calculation many times already!

So this term, I cannot really afford many textbooks, and seeing the use that I have been making of them in the past (and the inability that I have to sell them back in the Used Bookstore a few years later because the prof now requires a newer edition or a different textbook), I refuse to buy my textbooks this term. And what will I do when I need to complete the material seen in class and get the assignment problems? Three solutions are offered to me: borrowing the book from a classmate and use it once in a while, borrowing the book from a classmate and photocopy the material that I need, and borrowing the book from the library.

The first solution involves a lot of co-ordination to not disturb neither my classmate’s or my study pattern. It is feasible, but can be tricky in “cram periods” such as before an assignment deadline and before an exam. The second solution requires a bit less co-ordination, a little capital investment, a bigger effort if the prof is an intensive textbook user and hundreds of pages have to be copied (photocopying 300 pages only costs $15 in the Orifice, but it takes more than 2 hours to complete the job!) and, of course, the quality of the learning material might be degraded (for example, photocopies do not pick up all the colours and details of the plots). This is also not quite totally legal and I don’t want to have any bad conscience about it.

The only solution to my problem then, if I don’t want to buy the textbook, is to borrow it from the library when I need it. This sounds like a great idea, but I was not expecting that the library would carry only one copy of a textbook used by more than 100 students this term on campus! Indeed, for my ECE 380 / SYDE 352 Controls class, there are only 2 copies of the textbook available through the library, one in DC and the other one in Guelph, both on loan, and more than 146 students use it this term! It doesn’t beat my ECON 231 course, where there is no copy of the new edition of the International Economic textbook available in the library, needed by more than 250 students this term! Luckily (but is it really luck at this point?), the old edition – bought at the Used Bookstore 2 years ago – sits in Dana Porter Library on a 1-day reserve. For my other engineering textbooks, there is usually only one copy available in Waterloo, already on loan.

I was very naïve when I thought that the university library would have a copy of the textbook available for me. What was I expecting? Probably that at least one copy of each textbook used each term on campus would be sitting in reserve, available to the students for a short consultation (1-hour to 3-days). The Bookstore carries a copy of all the textbooks used for all courses every term, so why can’t the library do the same and have a special section where all the textbooks would be available “for reference only”. This way, I could go and gather what I need from the book without having to bring my bank account to a negative value.

Is it asking for too much? Of course, it requires quite a big investment from the library every term because of the constant new editions published and the changes of textbook when a different prof teaches the same course. It is my understanding that the UW library should at least to provide the students with a copy of their primary learning material! For a few days, I started to believe that I could use the library this term for something more than its quiet study environment. I don’t think it will happen this term.

And just what about these recommended textbooks that I need for my courses but still cannot afford? Well, I just hope my classmates will be generous when I ask them nicely, “ can I borrow your textbook?”

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