Students assess new fin aid textbook buying policy

With the first two weeks of the semester came the trial of the new textbook purchasing policy at Water Street Books. Now that class schedules have been secured and the rush to buy books has settled, students have offered varied appraisals of the new system.

Logistical differences

The new policy, in which students swipe their College ID cards to purchase books instead of paying in cash, has eased former logistical difficulties in acquiring books from the 1914 Memorial Library. High among that list is the elimination of the long lines in which students waited to borrow books. “I got all of my books the Saturday before classes started and the whole transaction only took about 15 to 20 minutes,” Tyisha Turner ’12 said.

Lily Reeder ’13 echoed Turner’s thoughts about the reduced waiting time. “Only having been here one semester, I was already dreading seven more semesters of standing in line at the 1914 Library for hours in order to get what may have been just a few books,” Reeder said.
Jamie Havlin ’10 agreed that the new policy streamlined the operation. “The entire process has also been simplified incredibly: just one swipe of a student ID instead of dealing with lines at the 1914 Library, book vouchers and multiple trips across campus,” Havlin said.

According to Richard Simpson, senior store manager of Water Street Books, the new policy has generated an increase in textbook sales.
Students highlighted other concrete improvements brought forth by the new policy. As all students now buy books rather than borrow books, they have the option to write on the pages and retain the books for future use. Havlin pointed out that the ability to annotate is especially beneficial with workbooks and other textbook accessories.

Before students bought books through the new program, confusion about the process related to the origins of the $400 that showed up on financial aid bills – that amount was previously credited to students’ financial aid packages (“New financial aid textbook system triggers confusion among students,” Jan. 20). Despite information sessions held by the Office of Financial Aid, some confusion remains.

According to Felicia Pharr, former director of the 1914 Library who now works in Office of Financial Aid, she and fellow financial aid employees have been fielding questions throughout the past few weeks. To alleviate confusion, Pharr emphasized that for financial aid students, the College will pay for “required” course books but not “recommended” readings and that course packets are also included in the program.

Joey Kiernan ’11 also said that a different timeline could have prevented much of the puzzlement. “It seems like the whole switch was very sudden,” Kiernan said. “There would have been less confusion if it were a longer process.”

Kiernan is the founder of Spring Street Books, a nonprofit Web site that offers students an alternative to Water Street Books by posting course reading listings and providing links to online vendors such as Amazon and eBay. He noted that the new textbook program also broadens students’ options.

However, although the fact that students can keep their textbooks has obvious benefits, students also worry about its subsequent potential for waste. “At the end of the year, there will be lots of books that [students] don’t necessarily want,” Tanvir Hussain ’10 said. In previous years, students could donate to the 1914 Library books they did not plan to re-read.

Changes in ethos

Some students also voiced less tangible worries about the new system. Hussain, who volunteered at the 1914 Library throughout his time on campus, conducted research during Winter Study about the library’s past as well its closing and the transition to the new textbook policy. According to Hussain, for the duration of most of the 20th century, it was the only library where students could borrow free textbooks.
“I ended up being the last student worker at the library during the last week of the library, and while packing up all the books and sorting them for sale or donation, I had a very strong feeling of being a part of a unique moment in the long history of the 1914 library,” Hussain said.

For Hussain, the context of this long history adds another dimension to the new textbook policy and the library’s closing. “I feel like maybe not enough consideration was given to the fact that we’re losing a part of culture,” Hussain said. “[While packing up the library], I came across books dating back up to several decades, books that had been literally handed down from one generation of Ephs to another…these books have uniquely Williams scribbles.”

Due to the finite capacity for the number of books – which reached 35,000 before it closed – and the changing dynamic of the textbook industry, in which new editions to the same books are published more and more frequently, he views the new textbook program as largely beneficial. “In a sense, that was the ultimate goal of the 1914 Library… used books are not loaned but instead new books are permanently given to students,” he said.

Potential changes

As with any new program, students see room for improvement in various aspects of the textbook policy. A main complaint heard around campus arises from the $400 automatically allotted to textbooks from financial aid packages, which obviously benefits students whose books cost a higher amount but has made those who spend less feel as though they wasted money.

“Perhaps the college should give the balance of the $400 back to students who do not spend their entire allotment on books,” Bobseine said, noting that he himself feels that the new policy is generous even though $400 comes from financial aid grants.

Hussain stressed that the new program and the old concept of the library do not have to be mutually exclusive. He proposes that at the end of the year, students could “have the option of keeping or loaning their books…maybe the library can come back as a better system, not necessarily called the 1914 Library, but people at Williams should have the first priority to the books because they’re part of the culture and the books should be able to stay on campus,” Hussain said.

Although students do not currently have the option of donating their books back to the College, they can keep them within the campus community. Spring Street Books has begun to facilitate this process. While the site originally listed course listings and linked students to resources including Amazon and eBay, many students now use it as a way to sell their own books to their peers. According to Kiernan, Spring Street Books saw a slight drop in sales this semester, though exact numbers are not yet available.

When he designed the Web site, Kiernan planned to donate the profits to the 1914 Library. Now, he foresees donating each semester’s profits to different needs; $1500 from last semester was donated to Partners in Health for relief work in Haiti.

Some students and professors have turned to other alternatives for buying books this semester. For the class “Narratives of Violence,” Spanish Professor Sonia Perez Villanueva chose to have her students order class materials online because “the materials for the course are varied and not easy to find,” she said.

Some students choose to buy all of their books online, and others are turning to companies such as Amazon when Water Street Books runs out of a particular text. For students who are not on financial aid, purchasing books online may be the cheapest option. “Water Street Books charges $129 for [one particular] new textbook,” Victoria Kalman ’10 said. “Since they were sold out when I got there, I went to Amazon and bought a brand-spanking-new one for $50.”

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