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In Harvard Square, a war over words

Student website battles the Coop

Harvard students Adam Goldenberg (in back) and Jon Staff (center) handed out fliers in Harvard Square yesterday protesting the Harvard Coop's policy preventing students from copying book identification numbers.
Harvard students Adam Goldenberg (in back) and Jon Staff (center) handed out fliers in Harvard Square yesterday protesting the Harvard Coop's policy preventing students from copying book identification numbers. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

A battle over book prices is raging in Harvard Square between student leaders and the Harvard Coop, the book store created by students 125 years ago to cut down on costs.

Amid a national furor over rising costs of college texts, Harvard students say they want the Coop to hand over the list it creates each year of books required for Harvard courses, so they can be listed on crimsonreading.org, a student-run online bookstore that offers alternative sources for texts, often at lower prices.

The Coop has refused, and students working for the website have spent hours in the store copying names and identification numbers of books. Last week, the bookstore summoned police when three students working for the website refused to leave.

Store managers decided not to pursue any action against the students, but the confrontation has sparked a wave of indignation on campus, where some students say the Coop is unfairly preventing students from finding alternatives for buying textbooks.

"We're not out to be at war with the Coop," said Jon Staff, director of crimsonreading.org, who passed out fliers advertising the site outside the Coop yesterday. "It's sad that students have to choose which classes they take based on the overall cost of the textbooks."

Coop president Jeremiah Murphy said the store's reading list is proprietary information. The staff spends considerable time compiling the list, collecting the names of books required by professors and sorting books by course, he said.

"The issue is, why should we give it out to anybody, particularly the competitors?" Murphy said.

"The Coop has never professed to be the cheapest price in town," he added. "If you spend enough time on the Web, you will find something cheaper somewhere. We take the point of view that the books are all here, and we offer a fair price for it."

Murphy said the bookstore sets prices based on those established by publishers and views itself as a part of the solution for reducing prices. He said he worked with Harvard deans last school year to encourage professors to complete book orders earlier so the store could get the best deals on prices and get the word out to students to turn in used books for resale.

Harvard is trying to get all professors to post their book lists online well before classes start, said Georgene Herschbach, associate dean of Harvard College. She said the university has been working with the Coop to develop a secondhand book market to reduce prices.

"We all need to help our students reduce the cost of the textbooks to them, and there are a number of ways to do it," said Herschbach. "It requires cooperation and collaboration."

Prices of college texts have spiked so severely across the country that since January, 86 bills to make them more affordable have been filed in 27 states, including Massachusetts, according to a national college bookstore group. College students on average spend $700 to $1,000 a year on textbooks, according to a May 2007 report by a congressional advisory committee, which also recommended various solutions to reduce prices, including creating online book databases easily accessible to students.

Staff and Ryan Petersen, the Undergraduate Council president and crimsonreading.org founder, said they would like to work with the Coop and the university to create a database of book information on Harvard courses. The students said any profit they make from the website goes primarily to charity.

Harvard students shopping at the Coop this week said they used several techniques to reduce their expenditures on books; some said they simply didn't buy them.

Jessie Jiang, a freshman, said she discreetly wrote down book information while at the Coop so she could later buy a few books cheaper online.

She said she expected that she will spend about $500 each semester on books, including about $100 she spent on one book at the Coop.

"I think it's unfair," Jiang said of the Coop's refusal to let online site workers copy down information. "The Coop is having a monopoly on books at Harvard."

Roy T. Willey IV, a junior, said he found a used book online for 75 cents, plus $5 for shipping, and would have had to pay more than $40 for the same used book at the Coop.

Rather than arguing, the Coop, student government and the university should work together to provide information to students so they can make price comparisons, Willey said.

Wertheimer can be reached at wertheimer@globe.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, a story in Wednesday's City & Region section on the rising cost of college texts misstated the number of legislative bills filed to make them more affordable. Since January, 86 bills have been filed in 27 states. In addition, the caption for a photo accompanying the story misidentified two Harvard students handing out fliers, Adam Goldenberg and Jon Staff.

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