Textbooks and Remote Learning: Challenges and Alternatives

Frequently asked questions about course materials


Textbooks are a source of particular frustration to students, faculty, and librarians in a remote teaching environment. Many textbook publishers, such as Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw Hill, do not make electronic copies of their textbooks available for libraries to purchase, regardless of price. The textbook market is structured around sales to individuals, and the nature of ebook licensing excludes libraries from the digital marketplace. At the same time, textbook costs can be a concern for many students, and the remote environment means that those students cannot rely on the Libraries’ physical copies of the books to meet this need.  

Part of this difficulty is that different rules apply to how libraries can share physical and electronic items. Given the nature of digital content (where making copies is much easier and often necessary to provide access), libraries frequently do not actually “own” electronic items, but rather have to pay to license access to them. These licenses include details and terms that are often more restrictive than for owned items. In addition, many textbook publishers will simply refuse to allow libraries to license their content. They can’t prevent us from buying print books, but unfortunately, they can prevent us from being able to provide ebooks.

Library staff are ready to help MIT students and faculty navigate these challenges. The following FAQs provide more information about remote access to textbooks and other materials required for MIT classes. Please don’t hesitate to ask us for assistance with accessing specific resources or finding alternatives. 


Frequently Asked Questions

Have a question that isn’t answered here? Ask us

Can print textbooks be put on reserve?
The MIT Libraries cannot put print materials on reserve this fall because 1) the Libraries’ physical spaces remain closed; 2) with a large percentage of undergraduates learning remotely, we cannot offer print reserves equitably; and 3) the quarantine period for returned materials makes this service impractical. The Libraries will provide electronic copies of reserves materials whenever possible, and library staff are ready to assist you in finding alternatives. 

Are there additional resources available during the pandemic?
When the pandemic began, many publishers opened up additional access to resources, but for the most part, these offers have now expired and are not available for the fall semester. Content currently available is listed in this guide. Digital copies of books that the Libraries own in print also may be available this fall through several partner programs, and links to these copies will appear in the Libraries’ catalog.

Can the Libraries scan books we own in print?
Users can get digital copies of MIT-owned physical materials by clicking on “Request digital copy” next to the materials in the Libraries’ catalog. If we cannot purchase an e-copy of the item, we will scan a physical copy from our collections. If you need more than a single book chapter or journal article, you may be asked to provide additional information to assess whether we can fill your request within the bounds of copyright law. We’re generally only able to scan whole books in exceptional circumstances or when the book is in the public domain.

What if a student cannot get an electronic copy of a textbook from the Libraries?
Sometimes the fastest or only option for a student to get electronic access to a book will be to purchase it. If purchase costs are a concern, financial support may be available from Student Support Services (s3-support@mit.edu) or the Office of Graduate Education (gradsupport@mit.edu).

Students may also be able to request delivery of physical books through their local public library.

Are there alternative materials that faculty can use for their course reserves?
Yes, and our liaison librarians would be happy to work with faculty to select alternate course materials available electronically. Options include:

  • Open Educational Resources
  • Materials that we have access to, or can purchase access to, online
  • Materials we’re able to digitize from our print collections

From the Libraries’ search tools, you can link to content we already have online or request a purchase or scan. If you have any questions about access to specific materials, contact your liaison librarian or ask us.

Can faculty make ebooks available in their Canvas, Stellar, or LMOD site?
If there is an ebook available through the MIT Libraries, the best practice is to link to the book from the course website, and students can access it directly. Most purchased content allows for posting of single chapters into course reserves sites as well. Faculty can request scanning of portions of books for e-reserves by emailing selected readings to lib-res@mit.edu or filling out the E-Reserves portion of the Textbook Submission form at https://tip.mit.edu/. See more information on electronic reserves.

Why can’t I download this ebook?
Some of the books available electronically have limitations on access either required by the publisher or in order to comply with copyright law. If you are having trouble accessing a book through HathiTrust or Internet Archive, make sure that you are logged in to your HathiTrust or Internet Archive account (this is separate from your Kerberos ID). Books on these platforms can be checked out for digital viewing and are generally not available for download.

I’ve written a book, and would like to make it more available. Can the Libraries help?
Yes! Email scholarlypub@mit.edu; we are happy to help you explore options for this.