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Free Textbooks: 10+ Places to Get Them

College is expensive, and if you’re a cash-strapped student seeking ways to save you’ve probably wondered how you can get free textbooks. Here are 10+ places to get them, both legitimate and (perhaps) legally dubious options.

Jump to: Your School Library | Open Educational Resources | Free PDF Search Engines | Your Professor | Classmates | FinAid | Textbook Scholarships | Google Search | Book Previews | Bookshare

1. Your school library

There’s a good chance your college library has the textbooks you need – and you can borrow them for free. Many offer both physical and digital versions.

“All good universities these days have free online copies of textbooks available through their online libraries,” says Chris Drew, Ph.D., a professor who teaches study and academic writing skills on HelpfulProfessor.com. “With the rise of online learning of late, most university libraries are making textbooks available for free online for their students so you can access them from home.”

“Go to your library. When I studied, all but a few textbooks were sitting on the shelf, vastly underused. Never paid for a textbook during my degree, and probably used upwards of 50 separate books over the years.”
– Redditor kunstlich

Note that availability might be limited, so it’s a good idea to reserve your textbook copies early. Be sure to return books on time to avoid late fees.

“Most universities give you access to an online library. Check if the textbook is on there. Normally, only one person can view a book online at a time; however, most people don’t take advantage of this.”
– Redditor PurpleFanto

2. Open Educational Resources (OER)

Many colleges have adopted Open Educational Resources (OER), which include instructor-authored textbooks that professors can use and customize for their own courses. OER textbooks are free when delivered in digital formats, and some services additionally offer printed copies at significantly lower prices than you’d pay for a typical textbook.

For example, OpenStax is a Rice University initiative that offers free open-licensed textbooks covering subjects like math, science, social studies, humanities and business.

“OpenStax publishes OER textbooks for major introductory college courses in an array of disciplines, offered free in various accessible digital forms and at-cost for printed textbooks, with a full set of ancillaries for instructors and students,” says Mark Schneegurt, Ph.D., a professor at Wichita State University and Lead Writer for OpenStax Microbiology. “OpenStax textbooks are authored and populated with art by the same scientists, writers and designers that work with established for-profit textbook publishers.”

Some OER books even include interactive features, similar to what you’d get with traditional textbook software access codes.

“My OpenStax textbook is my favorite. And the fact that I can highlight/take notes on it with my phone is amazing. This textbook will forever stick with me…” – Redditor jcoolaa

Though OER books are gaining popularity in colleges nationwide, they’re not an option for every class.

“If an instructor makes use of specific examples in a textbook or uses materials from the end-of-chapter or ancillary resources, then the student likely needs to have the exact book required for that course,” says Schneegurt. “However, if the instructor does not specifically use assignments in the textbook, then any recent textbook in that subject may work, at least in the sciences.”

“Knowledge in an introductory science course is decades or centuries old. F=ma doesn’t change from edition to edition or from book to book, at least not in introductory classes.” – Mark Schneegurt, Ph.D., Wichita State University & Lead Writer for OpenStax Microbiology

If your school hasn’t adopted OER, you can ask your professor if you can substitute an OER textbook for the assigned book. Alternatively, you can search for OER books that cover your course’s subject matter – if it’s a common subject, there’s a good chance you can make the substitution on your own.

Schneegurt offers his students a choice between traditional textbooks and their free OER counterparts. He lists both with the school bookstore and on the syllabus, and encourages students to use the free books.

“Students can certainly advocate for themselves. For some courses, the exact textbook and version are not important,” he says. “However, the student will have to take responsibility for finding the correct sections of material in the book they choose.”

Where to find free OER textbooks

3. Free PDF search engines

PDF search engines like Z Library and Library Genesis (LibGen) are popular among college students, and you can use them to search for your textbooks and download free PDFs.

Though PDF search engines are among the fastest and easiest ways to find free textbooks online, there are some caveats:

  • Free PDFs don’t come with access codes and other supplemental materials you might need to complete your coursework, such as homework assignments and online exams
  • Download files could be infected with malware, especially if you use a torrent site to get textbooks
  • You face potential legal issues if the PDFs are pirated and infringe on the publisher’s copyright

Can you get in trouble for downloading PDF textbooks?

It’s possible, but you probably won’t – unless you distribute pirated textbooks. If you upload your own PDFs or use a torrent site, you could unwittingly share textbooks with other students and invite potential liabilities for copyright infringement.

“A person that downloads a free textbook via a website is not breaking any law by reading content that is freely accessible to the public,” says David Reischer, attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com. “However, if the book is not in the public domain and the person that posted the content did not have legal authority, then that person can be held liable for copyright infringement, which can have significant monetary damages.”

“The best method us freshmen were told by the juniors and seniors is, if possible, just download the PDF for free online on sites like b-ok.org and Library Genesis. Is it a bit unethical? Sure, but so is having to pay a bunch of money for a textbook that we may or may not have to use.”
– Anonymous computer science major, Cleveland State University

Marc Misthal, an intellectual property attorney with Gottlieb, Rackman & Reisman, P.C., says that each site must be evaluated on its own. There shouldn’t be a problem if the site is owned and operated by the publisher; however, that’s not the case with most PDF search engines.

“A website that has no relationship with the owner of the copyright in the textbook could run into claims of copyright infringement if they are posting a copy of the textbook on their website,” Misthal says. “Likewise, students using questionable free textbook sites could encounter legal issues. While I am not aware of any circumstances where a publisher has taken action against a student, this is similar to the case brought by the music industry against users who downloaded music from Napster, Grokster or similar sites/platforms.”

With that warning, here are some popular textbook PDF search engines:

You can also check out Reddit subreddits like r/FreeTextBook and r/textbook_piracy and request PDF textbooks from other students. The same warnings apply.

Some students recommend Archive.org, which is a digital archival site and not a PDF search engine. Archive.org also runs the free book rental site Open Library. Despite its status as an online archive, Archive.org was sued for copyright infringement in 2020.

“(Archive.org) is a free library with every book I’ve ever needed for a class, especially if you’re in the liberal arts. It’s run by the same people who do the Wayback Machine and all it takes is a free account and you can rent books entirely for free.” – Redditor 8Pacifica

4. Ask your professor

Many professors are sympathetic to student plights and understand that some struggle to afford college textbooks. Some professors even lend desk copies to cash-strapped students – though they probably won’t tell you that upfront.

“I have several ‘desk editions’ that I would be willing to loan a student if he or she seemed really desperate. But I don’t advertise that because I don’t want them scooped up by less scrupulous students. So, it doesn’t hurt to ask.”
– Redditor badwhiskey63, a university instructor

You don’t want to abuse your professor’s goodwill, but if you truly can’t pay for assigned textbooks it doesn’t hurt to ask if they have free copies available to borrow. Even if they don’t, they might be able to point you toward school resources you’re unaware of.

5. Borrow from classmates

See if any of your friends have previously taken the same classes and kept their books. If so, they’re probably willing to loan them to you for the semester.

Of course, you’ll need to make sure you return books in the same condition they were loaned in.

“You know what’s worse than losing your textbook? Losing your friend’s textbook that they loaned to you.” – Redditor fishyguy13

You can also check school-specific forums and social media groups to see if any students are willing to loan you the books you need. It’s probably hit-or-miss, though, since many students would rather sell their used textbooks to help recoup their costs.

Read Also: How to Get Cheap Textbooks: 2021 Guide

6. Your school’s financial aid office

Visit your school’s financial aid office to inquire about grants and programs that provide free textbooks for students.

For example, some schools have Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) and Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) that help disadvantaged and low-income students gain access to textbooks.

If you’re an undergraduate student and can demonstrate financial need, you can also apply for a Federal Pell Grant to help cover textbook fees.

“Reach out to EOP/EOPS (for community college). They give book waivers to purchase books from your student store.” – Redditor rabberditscabbern

7. Textbook scholarships

Many schools, nonprofit organizations, churches and even businesses award textbook scholarships. Reach out to local civic groups, companies, unions, foundations, nonprofits and other organizations to see which book scholarships they offer.

Some groups might consider offering you a scholarship in return for completing a small project, even if they don’t have a formal scholarship program in place.

It’s also a good idea to consult your FinAid office, since they might know about local, regional and industry scholarships that aren’t well-advertised. They’ll also tell you how to apply for school-sponsored scholarships.

“The costs add up so quick that I take any available help. I know the financial aid office has a bulletin board outside their office with scholarship options.” – Redditor Sal-Paradise

Find nationwide opportunities that award up to $2,500 on our list of 10 textbook scholarships to help you get free books.

8. Google advanced search operators

Thomas Rhodes, a data scientist who co-founded the test prep website Exam Strategist, recommends using advanced search operators to find free textbooks.

For example, if you’re looking for the textbook Chemistry by Steven S. Zumdahl, you would enter this Google search query:

Chemistry zumdahl filetype:pdf

Google will return all available PDF results across all sites.

“What’s great about this method is that it may provide some safe and free PDF options,” says Rhodes. “I’ve personally had professors suggest this method to find similar, older edition textbooks as a suitable alternative to purchasing the current, overpriced editions.”

9. Book previews

Though it’s hit-or-miss, Chris Drew, Ph.D. suggests exploring book previews on Google Books and Amazon: search for your book, then “preview” or “look inside” to see if the required text is available.

Need Help With Your Homework? Find Help Here

“If you can get access to chapter previews on Google and Amazon, you can usually get all the information you need,” says Drew. “This saves the need to rent a textbook and gives immediate access for students.”

10. Bookshare

Students who have a visual impairment, physical disability or other reading barrier, including dyslexia, cerebral palsy and blindness can access more than 16,000 free textbooks through Bookshare.

“Bookshare is a great resource. I work in higher education and provide accommodations for students that have disabilities. Students request digital books in a range of subjects including psychology, computer science, and engineering that they read on computers and tablets. Bookshare has helped our students to be engaged with their classes immediately. They don’t have to wait for any books and risk falling behind with assignments,” says Chantonette Lyles, Associate Director in the Office of Accessibility Services and Resources at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

You’ll need a professional to certify you meet eligibility qualifications before you can access Bookshare, which is how the service can provide free textbooks in accordance with copyright laws.

The project is an initiative by the nonprofit Benetech and supported by the U.S. Dept. of Education, Dept. of Special Education Programs.