As my colleagues and my Twitter followers will know, I am constantly (it must seem - sorry!) complaining about the difficulty of obtaining copies of old, out-of-print material which is still required, sometimes in unobtainable quantity, for the university library where I work. It's a big problem for a humanities subject, where ageing textbooks may still in fact be the most recent, or the most influential, in their field, something not always appreciated by the publishing world. Academic interest lasts longer than commercial interest, and sometimes it grows over time. Lecturers will of course often recommend books they found useful themselves (this is probably true in many subject areas), without realising just how scarce they may have become. It's a problem which has been exacerbated in libraries where there has been a lot of weeding done by people who are not perhaps the best judges of what is or may be wanted in particular subject areas (that's a whole separate subject for consideration!).
I've recently been trawling through reading lists (again) and sighing with exasperation at the sheer difficulty of getting hold of some of the items on them. The really frustrating thing is that I know that somewhere, in a secondhand bookshop which is not online, or even a charity shop, the very items I am trying to find to satisfy students' demands are probably languishing unbought at a low price. If only they could be put together with the customers who actually want them!
You would think that the online listing of secondhand books would provide a perfect solution. A recent search for a 1989 edition of a good, but perfectly ordinary, English language book (of which we already have two copies in stock in the library) produced the startling fact that the only copy currently being offered for sale online comes at a price of between £800 and £900. There are several copies of a 51-page Welsh booklet available - original price £3 - but the cheapest costs £90. These are not collector's items printed on handmade paper and bound in cloth of gold - they are ordinary books! In one rare instance a lecturer planning a new module did a bit of research and realised that the book he wanted to put on his reading list was just going to be too expensive for either the library or the students to afford. It doesn't always happen, though, and it's an immensely frustrating situation for everyone concerned.
I am no economist, but I am deeply suspicious of those gods of modern times, the mysterious "market forces" which are supposed to make everything find its right level according to demand. The market certainly isn't working as far as out-of-print books are concerned (and no, dear students, we cannot simply make copies of everything we want, still less can we "just scan it and put it all on the Internet" - there are laws about that sort of thing. Publishers who consider books not to be worth reprinting are still eager to protect their own interests by not giving stuff away.)
For a more in-depth look at what I am talking about, enjoy this blog post from Michael Eisen. I haven't found any prices quite as extreme as the eye-watering sums he has come across, but I have seen some which are quite bad enough. I cannot see the point of making things unaffordable like this. Dogs and mangers!