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College Quarterly
Winter 1993 - Volume 1 Number 2
Textbook Obsolescence
by Roy Buckler

The selection of appropriate textbooks has never been easy; recently, the challenge has become greater still. Not long ago, faculty freely copied bits of books, journals, magazines, newspapers and supplied students with occasional readings or complete "course kits," collated, punched and stapled for easy use. Then, publishers and authors, who had long regarded such practices as theft, began to take action. Politicians were lobbied, more stringent laws were passed and colleges quickly conformed to new or newly-enforced rules. It is now a rare teacher who will freely distribute class sets of popular or professional literature.

This may be as it should be. Meticulous adherence to copyright law is in the interest of publishing companies; it may also be in the interest of writers, though their audiences have surely shrunk. In any case, college teachers are now in a bind. Denied Marshall McLuhan's promise that everyone with a photocopier will become a private publisher, we now worry about what, if anything, professors will be able to present to their students.

To provide texts of value to students, three basic options are available. The first is the hard cover, multi-coloured, glossy textbook with a host of extras including such features as testing software, slide shows keyed to text, instructors' manuals, student guides and any amount of bells, whistles and "teachware." The problems with such volumes are at least twofold. The costs to students may be prohibitive and the money spent may be largely wasted. In addition to high prices, such products cater mainly to a university market that depends upon a full-year term and not a semester system, so much of the book will be either skimmed over or not covered at all. In colleges, traditional texts are becoming anachronisms.

A second possibility is the personally-designed text, normally produced as a book of readings chosen by individual teachers and printed in small enough numbers to be used in a handful of classes over a single academic year. There are plenty of small publishing houses, notably the Canadian Scholars' Press, which can produce anthologies in plastic ring binders or equivalent. Such textbooks have advantages: they are relatively inexpensive, they are tailor-made to reflect particular professors' curricula, and such services are in a position, given adequate lead time, to secure permission to reprint items of interest. Less impressive are the low production values for what are, in essence, photocopies of previously published materials bound inside fresh covers. The lack of standard typefaces and formats presents, of course, mainly a problem of appearance; more serious is the question of content. The value of collections can be no more than the sum of their parts and many a professor learns too late the disadvantages of building upon an uneven and unsystematic body of literature that may not turn out to be suitably related to a standard course outline.

Finally, there are emerging today a number of “non-standard” text formats that accomplish two previously disparate goals. They allow teachers to produce individualized texts drawn from material featuring high quality control, and they also allow for a maximum of flexibility within the confines of a publishing inventory. If, as is often said, the day of the standard text is gone, established publishing companies must recognize the special needs of college educators and move quickly to provide innovative products. One good example of the kind of innovation that is sure to attract a significant number of buyers is McGraw-Hill Ryerson's new Primis system.

Using a database with a considerable and growing number of materials, McGraw-Hill Ryerson lets professors select from an existing and expanding catalogue. Each book is custom-built according to the teachers' specifications from an inventory that is regularly updated. Accounting teachers, for instance, can create a course-specific book using work as diverse as Business Week magazine stories, articles from The Journal of Accountancy, Harvard Managerial Accounting Cases, major corporate financial documents and standard textbooks in the field.

Primis also allows for the inclusion of a professor's own resources including the syllabus, personal course notes and other items for which copyright permission has been obtained. With the list of inclusions in hand, Primis produces a good quality book from durable, die-cut covers identifying the text by course and instructor, to interior pages featuring a clear, legible typeface with distinct design elements to make information easily accessible. Each new book is paginated, assigned its own ISBN, given a title page, table of contents and book-specific index.

Traditional texts, in short, are rigid, made to a standard and not to order, quickly out-of-date and apt to include material that students will never use. Current innovations present the opportunity for teachers to provide students with learning resources that are flexible, well integrated into the curriculum, timely and of excellent value. And these innovations are no more distant than the publisher's representative, no further away, that is, than your phone.


Roy Buckler received a B.A. in philosophy from York University and a diploma from Durham College in Oshawa. He is a small business proprietor in Sunderland, Ontario with an enduring interest in education.