As a college student, I’ve found one constant between most of my classes: textbooks.
While college textbooks can have good information, one common trait is that they can be expensive. Whether it’s buying one big book for a core class or 5 smaller books for my classics courses, the prices rack up fast, to the point that I’ve gone out of my way to try to avoid spending money on them.
Fortunately, over my time as a college student, I’ve found a few sources that offer college textbooks for free, so before I graduate and forget all about these, I decided that I’d share those resources here.
As a software developer and a philosopher, however, I am adamantly against piracy of textbooks (though an explanation of this would be a blog post onto itself). As a result, I am only listing legal methods to get free college textbooks. Maybe you don’t have any problems with pirating books, but as I am against piracy myself, I won’t be listing any illegal methods of obtaining textbooks here (though I am sure a quick search elsewhere on the internet could yield a few results).
Here are my preferred methods of finding free or reduced-price textbooks:
Project Gutenberg is the first place I’ll check when looking for textbooks. Recent textbooks won’t be here, but many books for literature, philosophy, or other classics courses can be found here.
Project Gutenberg is a repository of public domain books. Thus, any almost classic book can be found here completely for free. If you want Jane Austin’s works, the writings of Plato, or the poetry of Shakespeare, this is the place to find them!
The downside of Project Gutenberg is that, since they only keep public domain works, any recent textbook will be unavailable there. Project Gutenberg is best for classic books, and doing searches for newer textbooks won’t yield any results.
The Internet Archive
The Internet Archive is probably best known for their Wayback Machine, an archive of website snapshots they’ve made over the past 27 years, but they offer so much more. They legally maintain a massive collection of books, movies, and TV shows online for free.
Some books are available for download, while others are only available to be borrowed digitally. In the latter case, they only lend out one digital copy of a book at a time; however, I’ve never had a problem finding a book when I need it. In addition, they’ll sometimes have digital copies of more than one edition of a book, so you might be able to find a different copy in their library.
If you need a textbook for class or just a fun book to read in your off time, the Internet Archive is a great place to visit!
Sometimes, a local or campus library has just what you need. I had a professor who assigned a few books for a course which weren’t available online, even on the Internet Archive. Fortunately, however, there were a few copies of these books available thru our university’s library. At my university, few people seem to use library books as their textbooks, so it’s saved me quite a bit on a few books I’d only ever need once.
In addition, your university might have a book sharing program with some other universities. My university participates in OhioLINK, which gives me the ability to check out books from other institutions in Ohio. This gives me a vastly increased collection of books compared to what I would have otherwise had. Check if your university’s library has a similar program!
Other (Paid) Options
Say that you can’t find a certain textbook available for free. There’s still a few places you can go to find your textbooks for cheap.
BookFinder.com compares the prices (including shipping) of books all over the internet, including eBay, Amazon, and other sellers. I’ve often found books available for purchase here much cheaper than from I’ve found them at our bookstore, even using the bookstore’s own comparison feature. I haven’t tried out their other services (like textbook buybacks), but they work great for finding books to buy! (Of course, use them at your own risk – I’m just a random guy on the internet to you)
There are a few other ways you might be able to find these books for cheaper and/or for free. Check local message boards or group chats for people who have taken the class already and see if there’s anyone looking to sell off their old copies. Ask your friends if they know anyone who have taken the courses already. If the books are still expensive, see if you can share a copy with someone who’s taking the class with you.
I haven’t tried renting a book myself, but from talking with others who have, this can be a better solution than paying full price for a book. I was told that Chegg, AbeBooks, and Amazon (among others) offer ways to rent books, so it might be worth checking them out before you pay full price for a book.
These are my best suggestions for finding college textbooks for free. Some professors may require you to buy digital books with worksheets built in, and you may only be able to purchase these digitally thru your university. If this is the case, you might just have to bite the bullet and buy them.
For some books, however, it might be worth it to see if you even need the textbook. I’ve had many professors tell my class to buy a textbook, only to have us read it for one or two class periods and then never use it again. One professor even assigned books as “required,” only to say at the beginning of the semester that we won’t be reading the book in class, but that it was a good book for everyone to have on their bookshelf. Keep in mind: just because a professor says a book is “required” doesn’t mean that the book is required.
Also remember: you probably don’t need to buy the most recent edition of a textbook. Often, there will be minimal changes between editions, so feel free to pick up an older version if it’s cheaper!
Usually, I see getting free digital textbooks as a short-term solution. If I really like a textbook, I will buy it after the class; however, I prefer not to spend $100 on some textbook for a core class if I’ll only need it for one semester.
All in all, I hope these resources are able to give you some help finding your textbooks for free!
LibriVox is similar to Project Gutenberg in that it only covers public domain works, but I feel like this site deserves a special mention. LibriVox is full of free, public domain audiobooks. Often, people will contribute their voice to read off parts of a public domain book and then offer this recording for free for anyone to listen to. This way, anyone can enjoy listening to these books rather than merely reading them. Your book may be available there, giving you a different way to prepare for class that you might find more engaging, so check it out if you’re interested!