Down the chute

End of semester brings return of more than 33,000 textbooks

December 21, 2016

Bob Butterfield checks a “Stress Management” textbook as another book comes down the chute.

In a small, windowless room in the Robert S. Swanson Library and Learning Center at University of Wisconsin-Stout, Bob Butterfield was surrounded by a pile of books Tuesday, Dec. 20.

Every few minutes, it seemed, the pile grew when a metal slot clanged opened, a hand appeared and more books slid down a chute into the room, landing with a soft thud.

Armed with a bar code scanner to electronically check in the books, Butterfield dutifully looked over each book for damage or leftover items inside. When he filled a cart with several dozen books, another staff member took them away for reshelving.

One book came back with an endorsed paycheck inside. The student was emailed and was asked to pick it up.

Textbooks pile up at the Instructional Resources Service book drop room.Tuesday was the last day of final exams, so textbook returns were peaking. More than 8,200 books were returned Monday. “I went home last night and kind of collapsed,” Butterfield said with a chuckle. “I must be getting old.”

Thanks to technology, he knew that 9,379 books rented by 2,564 students still had to be dropped off as of midday Tuesday.

The textbook return slot, on the west side of the building, isn’t the only place students can return books. They also can drop them in the library entrance or in person at the Instructional Resources Service.

In all, 33,255 books were scheduled to come back for the fall semester. That total includes about 2,500 books returning in the mail from online and distance education students.

Butterfield, director of Instructional Resources Service and assistant director of the library, says the return rate typically is 95 percent. Students who don’t return books are notified by email and have a one-month grace period before they are charged for what’s not returned.

“That bill can go up rather quickly,” Butterfield said, holding up a $185 paperback textbook.

The textbook rental permanent staff is aided by 15 student workers along with another 15 students who work elsewhere in the library to help with the flood of books. Some students work through the holiday break to make sure the job is done before the next semester begins Monday, Jan. 23.

“If we didn’t have good people, we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Butterfield said, pointing to employees busily reshelving the books in a large room.

Books that are torn or slightly damaged are taped, repaired and reused.

A student drops off a textbook through a book return slot.The end-of-the-semester job would be even bigger if it weren’t for the new wave in textbooks, e-books. Just under 50 percent of UW-Stout’s textbooks now are digital books. 

UW-Stout is one of the leaders in the UW System in using digital textbooks. Four years ago the university started with a pilot program, 189 students, and the move to digital has been growing ever since, Butterfield said.

UW-Stout will hold a “textbook affordability summit” with other universities in March to see “how we can work together to drive down prices for students,” Butterfield said.

Textbook rental, as opposed to buying textbooks, saves students several thousand dollars when they attend UW-Stout, Butterfield said.

To Butterfield and his co-workers, getting all the books back and checked in simply is part of a cycle. Already, students who are taking Winterm classes Jan. 3-20 and spring term classes beginning Jan. 23 are checking out books.

“It never really ends,” Butterfield said, as he scanned another book while three more came down the chute. “We’re always working on the next semester.”



Top: Bob Butterfield checks a “Stress Management” textbook at UW-Stout’s Instructional Resources Service book drop room as another book comes down the chute. Students will drop off more than 33,000 books to end the semester.

Middle: Textbooks pile up at the Instructional Resources Service book drop room inside the Robert S. Swanson Library and Learning Center.

Bottom: A student drops off a textbook through a book return slot.