An initiative that started to take shape in 2011 when several UCLA undergrads asked campus librarians for help to reduce the cost of course readers has now evolved into a successful campuswide program that benefits not only students, but instructors, the UCLA Library and the general public.

Beyond saving students money, the Affordable Course Materials Initiative, which became official last fall after a pilot phase, has helped librarians achieve a closer alignment between what’s in their collections and what students and instructors are using in the classroom.

“We work one-on-one with instructors to revamp the curriculum to use low-cost or free alternatives instead of expensive course materials,” said University Librarian Ginny Steel, the head of UCLA Library. Instructors are encouraged to use, for example, open-access scholarly resources, library licensed or owned resources, reformatted special collections items, and learning objects and texts they create themselves.

The program has been so successful that, in some cases, instructors have dropped the requirement that students buy textbooks. Instead, the low-cost or free alternatives are posted on class webpages.

Following up on students’ request in 2011, campus librarians took a close look at the course readers, a collection of journal articles or textbook chapters put together by the instructor and reproduced by the UCLA Store or other businesses after paying licensing fees. The librarians realized that many of them used articles in journals that the library had already paid to access. Working with the UCLA Store staff, librarians now ensure that students don’t pay double to access resources already licensed by the library.

This initial project, which lowered the cost to students by as much as 60 percent per course reader, later developed into the initiative. In its pilot phase alone, the initiative saved 1,647 students more than $163,118. So far, 35 instructors, ranging from adjuncts and lecturers to Academic Senate faculty in 25 departments and schools, have participated in the program.

The initiative gained the endorsement early on of the UCLA Academic Senate and UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh, who helped with its initial funding, along with the California Digital Library. The program continues to enjoy their support, said Associate University Librarian Sharon Farb, who came up with the idea for the initiative.

Helping students cope with the high cost of textbooks and course readers has been a priority for UCLA and other UC campuses for years. In 2009, UCLA faculty members were encouraged by leaders of the UCLA Academic Senate and UC Academic Council to do what they could to minimize the cost of course materials and textbooks for students.

The UCLA bookstore has also put together a number of cost-saving strategies for students, who can choose to rent textbooks, buy loose-leaf versions of texts or used textbooks or use e-books. Recently, the UCLA Store added an online feature that lets students compare textbook prices offered by major competitors with the UCLA Store price.

As an incentive to instructors, the library initiative offers awards ranging from $1,000 to $2,500 to help them identify and acquire new resources, adjust their syllabi and modify assignments.

Peter Nonacs, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, took advantage of the program two years ago when he was looking for a way to reduce the cost of materials for his Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 100 course. Because the class covers two subjects, students at one point were required to buy two textbooks — well in excess of $100 each — although they were asked to read only certain chapters.

To help students, Nonacs began using a course reader. But this was also expensive.

When he learned about the library initiative, Nonacs met with librarians, who were subject specialists, to find high-quality learning materials that were already accessible through the library. “It meant taking advantage of a world-class library system, which we really hadn’t been doing before,” he said.

“Faculty care deeply about pedagogy and successful student learning,” said Farb. “But a faculty member may not know about other materials in our collections that can contribute to learning in that classroom.”

Today, all the readings required in Nonacs’ class of 340 students are available for free on the class webpage, thanks to his partnership with the library. After learning about the wealth of journals and materials he had access to, he redesigned and broadened the curriculum. Instead of reading a textbook, his students now read classic journal articles and book chapters taken straight from the research literature, like the writings of Charles Darwin. These are then linked to articles on the latest findings in the same field.

“So students get a historical perspective of what was the base classic work in this particular field and what scientists are doing now,” Nonacs said. “And I can also emphasize what my colleagues and I are doing now,” by including in the readings papers written by department faculty. If students’ interest is piqued by what they read, they can sign up for classes taught by these faculty members or apply to work in their labs.

“The program opened my eyes to the resources the library has,” Nonacs said.

Other faculty have benefited as well.

Getting usage rights to reprint plays, for example, is usually an expensive proposition. But a lecturer teaching a theater class was able to get online access to plays for his students, with the library paying the less-expensive licensing fees. The plays are now available online to all library users.

An English professor teaching a course on children’s literature wanted his students to be able to read early 18th and 19th century books online. To help him find a particular edition of “The Railway Children,” the library tracked down a copy in a bookstore in England, purchased and digitized it because it was in the public domain. “We’ll now add that to the California Digital Library so that everybody will be able to access it online,” Farb said.

“Not only does it benefit our students, but we make it available to the world,” she said. “It benefits the larger library mission about enabling the broadest possible dissemination of knowledge. The program has gone way beyond the goals we initially set for it. In some cases, it’s been transformative.”

Find out more about UCLA Library’s Affordable Course Materials Initiative. The deadline to apply for fall quarter 2016 is April 15.