Shelf Life

Students create and support a textbook library that helps low-income peers access required materials

By Asha Meagher ’21

Illustration by Jerome Corgier

Motivated by staggering statistics and camaraderie, students established the Barnard FLIP Library, which lends textbooks to first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students who might otherwise be unable to afford them. Students know firsthand the accuracy of reports that show textbook costs rising 88% from 2006 to 2016 (four times the rate of inflation) and how the average student spends $1,250 per year on books and materials, with two-thirds of those surveyed having skipped buying or renting some required course materials because they couldn’t bear the cost.

The product of campus collaborations and student initiatives, the FLIP (First-Generation Low-Income Partnership) Library housed on the fourth floor of the Milstein Center is run by students in cooperation with the Barnard library. To date, 414 students have signed up for the program.

The idea originated in the Inclusion and Equity Committee of the Student Government Association (SGA); its proponents had taken note of a similar program in Columbia’s Butler Library. Barnard Library staff embraced it, including Vani Natarajan, a research and instruction librarian involved in the process. Before the FLIP Library came into being, “every semester, the first questions we’d get related to strategies and tools for accessing textbooks,” she explains. Staff often felt dismayed by how limited options were, with scant course reserves available for a short, two-hour checkout.

“The FLIP collection has expanded options for students,” she says, “and it’s great to see this is starting to make a difference.”

Identifying as a first-generation or low-income student often carries a stigma. To protect users, student organizers examined floor plans before the Milstein Center opened for where best to situate the collection, which now includes more than 600 books. They decided that it should be in regular circulation to make the checkout procedure as easy and unobtrusive as possible. They also chose the location where the books are now shelved. The spot “makes you feel like you have more privacy — not everyone is looking at you,” says Kaoutar Afif ’21, the FLIP Library’s student manager.

FLIP enjoys widespread support on campus. The Barnard library provides significant financial support, underwriting the student staff position and purchasing of books. Barnard EcoReps, a student group that leads environmental initiatives on campus, ran a book drive at the end of the fall semester to provide hundreds of textbooks. And the Class of 2019 donated more than $5,000 through its Senior Fund.

While the library is off to a strong start, there is still a way to go before the needs of every low-income student can be met. Many can’t afford required textbooks’ expensive, online components that are accessed through codes publishers won’t release to libraries. Associate Dean for Student Success Jemima Gideon has been working to obtain these codes, but additional funds are still needed. Also in demand are STEM textbooks.

Barnard offers need-blind admissions and has a long-standing tradition of encouraging equity in education and student mobilization; the FLIP Library is a prime example of both those traditions in action. “It’s exciting to see students so involved,” Afif says, “to know that we have a voice, and to see our struggles at Barnard be taken seriously.”