Electronic course banks to be established at seven universities could save students from skyrocketing textbook bills. Course packs will be printed on demand from electronic sources, with publishers receiving payment for each copy.
"The idea is that it is cheaper and more effective than the student buying lots of textbooks," said Chris Rusbridge, director of the electronic libraries programme of the higher education funding bodies' Joint Information Systems Committee.
Demand for textbooks has grown with the advent of modular courses which require students to have fresh books for each module. Teaching methods increasingly rely on the use of documents, and libraries are overwhelmed when hundreds of students want the same books and journals.
The problems are not only technical but contractual. Though the Copyright Licensing Agency runs a rapid clearance system, librarians find it inflexible and hard to use.
"One of the things we hope to do is negotiate not necessarily cheaper, but more flexible copyright arrangements," Mr Rusbridge said.
The simplest schemes will offer students course packs of material chosen by the lecturer.
Later, students will be able to pick items from an electronic reading list, buy them and have them printed on their library's laser printer. In a still more advanced version of the idea, students would receive the documents in electronic form.
The universities involved are Nottingham Trent, East London, South Bank, Liverpool John Moores, Stirling, Oxford and Hull. Most of the course banks are intended for use on one campus or by a group of universities, but Hull's Eurotext project aims to create a national information bank about the European Union.
The seven projects are among 30 electronic library projects announc- ed last month by the funding bodies. A total of Pounds 15 million over three years will be channelled through the Follett Implementation Group for IT, a JISC subcommittee.
Nine of the projects relate to the creation of electronic journals, in fields ranging from chemistry to sociology. Another seven projects will establish databases and gateways on the academic network Janet, giving researchers more access to information in specialist subjects. Three training and awareness projects will help librarians and academics to use networked resources.
With FIGIT funds, university libraries are also competing with the British Library's document supply centre at Boston Spa. Four universities are developing electronic document delivery services. Scanners and laser printers will effectively provide a networked photocopying service.