Friday, February 23, 2007

The Trouble with Textbooks, Part 1

People often ask me what got me started on my somewhat quixotic quest to tell the world about free textbooks. The real answer is probably that I’m slightly crazy. Rooted in some deep unanalyzed recess of my brain, next to the squeaking wheel that’s responsible for my constant ire about Boston’s underperforming public transportation system and just below the room full of angry gnomes who keep a torch burning for the lost cause of copyright reform, there is a ball of anger that I’ve decided to throw at the textbook industry. Of course, even a moderately crazy fool like me knows better than to mention a room full of angry gnomes with flaming torches during an interview with US News and World Reports or NPR. Instead, I tell the story of Giancoli’s Physics.

To start the story, I have to backtrack to 1991, when I was a junior at Billings West High School (official motto: “Failure is Not an Option”). I took two full years of physics at West High under the tutelage of John Linn, an irascible Korean war vet with a pocketful of great stories and a firm grasp of how to teach physics to fifteen-year-olds. I loved that class, even though I didn’t really get a good handle on vector addition until years later when I learned how to operate marine radar. I still have the 3.5” x 5” notecards we were allowed to make to hold the formulae we needed on tests.

Fast forward to 2003. After misspending my youth in the Caribbean, I found myself enrolled in a program studying geology at Northeastern University (official motto: “We’re # 98!”). After spending hundreds upon hundreds of dollars during my first year on textbooks that I barely used, I was beginning to wise up to the textbook racket. My degree required that I take two semesters of Physics, never mind that I’d already had two full years in high school. I took the first semester with a friend, and we both balked at the cost of the text, around $130 for Giancoli’s just-released 5th edition.

I was incensed. I’d taken this class once already, in 1991, with a well-used book that was probably printed in the mid-1980’s, and as far as I could tell nothing in introductory algebra-based physics had changed in the intervening years. Newton’s Laws still reigned. Force still equaled mass times acceleration. Gravity still pulled objects earthward at 9.8 meters per second squared. I couldn’t for the life of me understand what could justify a brand-new edition of a physics textbook when there were so many existing books that could have explained the concepts just as well.

Searching online for a more affordable alternative, I found a link to Ben Crowell’s Light and Matter series, a set of physics textbooks available entirely free online. My interest was piqued, but this wasn’t the book assigned for my class, so my friend and I ended up splitting the cost for Giancoli. I was consoled by the fact that at least the book would last me through both of my required physics classes.

Still, I was intrigued by the whole concept of free online textbooks. It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, like an inherently practical idea to publish books online. I started digging around and found more and more free books. Then, in January of 2004, the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign unleashed their report RipOff 101, which confirmed what I had begun to find out on my own: the textbook companies were playing students like a pickpocket at Mardi Gras. I decided I had to do something, while I was still a student, to try to get professors to start using these free books. So out of frustration with Giancoli and my chance encounter with Crowell, Textbook Revolution was born.

Several years and several thousand hours of work later, Textbook Revolution is a thriving site with a couple of hundred thousand visitors a year, links to hundreds of free books, and plans to grow even larger over the coming year. I’m finishing my senior year of college. I’m midway through the final class on my list of requirements, which just happens to be Physics II. My friend lost the copy of Giancoli’s 5th edition we shared in the fall of 2003, but it doesn’t matter because since I took Physics I the field of introductory algebra-based physics has advanced enough to merit a new and improved 6th edition, only $153 at Amazon!

This time around, I didn’t even bother to go to the bookstore. Instead, I headed for the library to see if I could grab one of the two copies of the sixth edition available. I was too late to get either of them, but there on the shelf, I found copies of the second, third, and fifth editions. What I found out when I compared them will be the subject of part 2 of The Trouble with Textbooks, coming soon.


Dan said...

Interesting post Jason. One thing that still amazes me is how professors require you to go buy copies of plato, machiavelli, etc at the bookstore for $20 a pop. Doesn't anyone remember that copyright dies out after 80 years or so? You can get all that for free online now @ project gutenburg - so why bother paying up?

Profesora said...

Hi, I'm wondering if you know what's going on with textbook revolution. It was one of my favorite sites, but now it seems to be down. I hope this is just temporary!

I thought if anyone would know what's going on, you would.

Jason Turgeon said...

Hi Profesora-

My old webhost managed to destroy my site, and reconstructing it has proven to be far more difficult than I'd hoped. Not to fear, Textbook Revolution will be back in the near future. Thanks for your concern and sorry for the delay in connecting you to the free books.

Profesora said...

Hi Jason,

Glad to hear that TR will be back! Thanks for the reply and for the work that you do.

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