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The Carletonian

Closure of the textbook library sparks discussions on student financial support

As the new school year began, nearly every student was reminded of the high prices of textbooks. In past years, students have turned to the textbook library for assistance in securing their learning materials. This fall, after the elimination of the library, students face the prospect of going without its support for the first year.

The Carleton Student Association (CSA) Senate once maintained a textbook library on campus. The library was a donation based system that allowed students to borrow textbooks for classes at no expense. 

“The textbook library is completely an initiative of CSA,” said Dean Livinsgton, Carleton’s Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students. “Maybe 3 years ago the textbook library was created by the CSA, completely run by the CSA. The whole thought behind the textbook library was they would ask students to donate their books to the textbook library.”

 It was a crucial resource students could draw on when they required financial assistance obtaining textbooks. This past year, however, the CSA Senate made the decision to phase the library out of existence. The library had become unmanageable for the CSA senate to run given the space allocated for the library, the amount of volunteer work they could draw on and the overwhelming need students expressed for the service.

Quinn Buhman ’24, the CSA Treasurer, said, “The library didn’t receive any direct funding while under control of the CSA. It was all volunteer based, so people would donate their old textbooks and volunteers would donate their time to help manage it and help get students their textbooks. So there was never a financial aspect that went towards paying for the upkeep of the library; it was all donations and volunteer run.”

This transition away from the textbook library took place over the Spring Term of 2022. Throughout that term, a voucher system was created with the CSA and the Dean of Students Office. This system allowed for students to submit specific requests for aid in affording textbooks. This system was only planned for one term and did not continue on into the new school year. 

In the wake of the textbook library’s absence, students and administrators alike are left considering possible avenues to provide support for students.

Livingston said, “President Byerly has appointed a working group that overall looks at financial aid, and there’s a part of that working group that [determines] how much is allocated for indirect costs… Textbook costs are one of those things that this working group will take up.” 

Additionally, there are some systems that already exist to support students financially with textbooks in particular. 

“How do we make [textbooks] a little bit more affordable?” asked Livingston. “One of the things that we did….to combat the rising costs of textbooks [was to create] the rental program for books with Barnes and Noble.”

The CSA Senate also has plans to address the issue. Mariam Zewdu ’23, Vice President of the CSA and Buhman pointed to the CSA senate’s plan for responding to student textbook needs. 

Buhman described the possibility for each department to create their own type of textbook library: “Another initiative that we’re hoping to work on is working with professors and departments to grow individual lending libraries.”

“We’ve already had the geology [department] reach out to us and we’ve already given them access to go into the previous textbook library to get the beginner geology textbooks,” said Zewdu. “Political science also reached out to us. We are encouraging departments to take the books and increase their own department libraries.”

  Even with these changes, however, campus may take some time to adjust to the transition. It is important to consider what prompted this transition to ensure that future  solutions replacing the library can take advantage of the conversations sparked.

Carsten Finholt ’23, a member of Mutual Aid, added perspective on the causes which led to the library’s transformation. 

Finholt said, “Dean Livingston is right; it was a CSA initiative.” He described how the textbook library was “assigned a space that was suboptimal. It had a facilities closet in the back of it and there’s just factually not enough room for all the textbooks within this space. So what ended up happening is each year they would collect new textbooks and the shelves were overflowing; they were unorganized.” 

“The school has funding to create a paid position to manage the textbook library,” continued Finholt. “They didn’t do that; instead they told CSA members it was their responsibility to manage the textbook library which made a volunteer position that the CSA was systematically unable to staff.” 

Thus, while Finholt acknowledged the administration didn’t create or manage the textbook library, he said, “But at no point did [Dean Livingston] pour material resources into sustaining it or, from the jump, give them a space that was accommodating growth, that was accommodating the needs of the space, that was listening to students when said this is what we want from a textbook library.”

Finholt also responded to Livingston’s general assessment of the situation. He said that the administration’s reference to the library as a CSA Senate initiative and thus something for CSA to resolve “ignores the bigger root cause of the problem, which is textbooks on this campus are not accessible to students; there’s no avenue for funding through which to get them.”

There is, however, one avenue the administration currently runs: an Emergency Fund designed to cover any emergency costs that arise for the student body. Livingston has worked closely with the management of this fund.

While the amount distributed to students is sometimes flexible, as a matter of practice, the emergency fund allows first year students to receive up to $200 for their first term and $150 for the second and third term respectively. Sophomores are allowed to receive up to $100 for two out of the three terms, and juniors and seniors are allowed $100 for one term only.

Livingston said, “We distribute about 45k dollars from our emergency funding process in textbooks every year,” and mentioned that, for the Emergency Fund, “we really try to focus on unanticipated cost. Textbooks aren’t necessarily an unanticipated cost but we do know that maybe sometimes the cost of a textbook is [difficult].” 

Livingston further stated, “Personally speaking, as someone who struggled in college getting my own textbooks, that was one of my initiatives, to make sure that we have an emergency aid fund program that helps students get their textbooks….Our communication relies in saying that if you have a need we’re here to support you. And we spend, as a college and particularly through my office, almost a hundred thousand dollars a year in emergency aid.” 

In response to the outcry from the student body about the change the textbook library has undergone, Livingston brought attention to the Emergency Fund.

“Our process hasn’t changed for the seven years I’ve been doing emergency funding. What has changed is CSA has closed the textbook library,” Livingston indicated. “We continue to — and we have all of the time — [have] an emergency funding process where those students who need textbooks [can get them]. But we’ve never had a role in managing a textbook library, that’s always been [the] CSA.”

Livingston reflected further on the breakdown of student and administration cost.

“We know the costs of textbooks are increasing, some of them are more expensive than others, but the college is certainly doing their part and we want to do more. But there are some costs that students must assume and unfortunately textbooks are a part of it,” Livingston said.

Some students, however, argue the Emergency Fund doesn’t adequately provide the support they need, saying that the administration can and should do more.

Finholt thought that students should not be forced to assume the costs of textbooks when they financially are unable to do so. He said when students cannot afford textbooks, the administration needs to stop making them cover this cost.

 “Stop making them pay for textbooks!” said Finholt. “That’s the solution to the problem.”

Finholt also addressed what counts as deserving for emergency funding, saying: “The emergency funding is truly, in [Livingston’s] mind, for emergencies … she doesn’t consider buying a plane ticket to get to campus to be an emergency. If you can’t afford a plane ticket, how are you going to get to Carleton?….[This] definition is very troubling to me.” 

He noted that it does not include factors such as when students have to buy a bus fee to get transportation from the airport to campus, when students with dietary restrictions purchase their own food to better accommodate their needs, or when a student realizes their textbook costs 500 dollars.

“There are a lot of students who are lured to Carleton under the promise that they’ll have their needs met and when they get here a lot of those unanticipated needs start to pop up,” Finholt said.

Thus, Finholt referred to the cap on emergency funding per year as “shockingly low.” 

He said, “when you put a cap on the emergency funding it turns away students with greater need.” 

Jancyn Appel ’23, the CSA President, also spoke on the Emergency Fund and the funding cap: “There being different capped amounts for each class year, that alone does not account for half of the problems people have.” 

“There are obviously benefits and shortfalls to the emergency funding,” said Appel. “The fact that we have anything is great, but I think as a college we do have to do a lot more.”

This considered, all parties seem to agree that more can be done. “On what else will help the issue,” said Appel, “keeping alumni and people tangentially related with the college more aware of what these actual costs to students are.” 

Appel added that, “Enabling and empowering faculty a lot more would inadvertently help students in my opinion.” 

Finholt said, “what I’m going to continue to emphasize is: look deeper! Look at the actual root cause of these issues and all of it falls on institutional responsibility right?”

Finholt proposed three systematic changes he would like to see in funds associated with student support. 

He said, “the first thing [the administration] need[s] to do is be completely transparent: how much money exists in the emergency funding, how much do they spend every year and how much is left. . . the second thing they need to do is put the job of distributing emergency funding into the hands of students. If it’s serving students, it shouldn’t be gate kept by an administrator who makes $400,000 a year. It should be the responsibility of students to decide how that money is allocated. I would think CSA would be a place to go for that… and then the third thing that needs to happen is professors need to know how much their textbooks cost.”

On this issue of awareness, Appel said, “I genuinely do believe that faculty and staff just do not know on some level how deep this issue is and how many students actually need support.”

Finholt encouraged professors to become aware of the expense each textbook they assign carries. Once professors become aware of this, Finholt encourages them to attempt to find textbook versions which are “free accessible online” or write their own materials and draw from their own expertise in the field.

While textbook funding is a complicated issue, it sheds light into some of the pitfalls that Carleton has now, and gives insight into some of the opportunities for future growth to help students cover indirect costs. 

Finholt concluded by encouraging a wider perspective on the issue of student financial burden. 

He said, “why aren’t we pressuring the board to create a more fair budget distribution? Why are we building new buildings on campus when there are students that… can’t afford their learning materials? These are the questions we have to be asking ourselves and we aren’t.”

Currently, students have to cover the financial burden for most of their textbooks and other indirects costs of attending Carleton out of pocket. But, with efforts backed by students, faculty and administrators, Carleton has the potential to become a more accessible college.

Livingston addresses the discourse on the issue at large. “I also don’t want to make this us against them rhetoric, because that’s not really helpful,” she said.

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