Web developers unleash code in hopes that students will take on bookstores

College students lauded the release of TextYard's code.

The creators of a popular online textbook service are arming college students with open source code that might give rise to low-cost textbook sites and create competition for campus bookstores.

Ben Greenberg and Rui Xia, co-founders of the site TextYard, announced Feb. 14 that they are moving on to another project, and that their last action at TextYard would be making their code open source – a move that large bookstores are expected to combat with new security methods.

Making the code public means even students with “rudimentary coding skills” can create their own online textbook stores that pose a challenge to campus bookstores, TextYard said in an announcement.

The TextYard duo used “scrapers” – internet extraction programs that pulled information from bookstores’ websites – to compile the best prices for college textbooks that can cost as much as $400 apiece. The code to those college bookstore scrapers is now available for anyone who wants to build their own version of TextYard at their school, bringing together book options from retailers, book rental sites, and student sellers.

“It’s a Johnny Appleseed thing, trying to get everyone to start their own site and completely take down this monopoly that the [campus] bookstores have,” said Greenberg, who started TextYard as an Indiana University (IU) student in 2008. “I think of the textbook industry as a broken system and an out of date business model that is afraid of new technology. … You’re going to see a real change because instead of building up our own solution, we’re giving people the framework to create their own.”

TextYard, along with sites like SwoopThat and SlugBooks, has made searches for good deals on textbooks more convenient for students who once had to peruse a dozen or more websites individually, hoping to find a low-price option. All of these sites use web scraping to compile the book information.

Greenberg said scraping for textbook information has proven reliable because almost every campus bookstore in the country uses one of six online storefront systems, leaving little guesswork for programmers who run operations like TextYard, which has textbooks for students at more than 1,000 campuses.

Open sourcing the code that allows for scraping of major bookstore sites could be a blow to stores that have agreements with colleges and universities, the TextYard cofounders said.

“College bookstores dominate the textbook market because of their monopoly on the course-to-book data – they are the only ones with a database of which books go with which courses,” Greenberg wrote in a blog post.

Within an hour of TextYard making its code available online, Srini Kadamati, a junior at the University of Texas (UT) Austin, had examined the code and said it would save him more than a month of programming for a low-cost textbook site he’s building for UT Austin students.