Textbooks are highly important resources for course work as well as for research work.

Some textbooks are freely available over internet. Some textbooks can be purchased.

Is it true that there exists secret textbooks available only for the students of that particular university and for no others?

I had this doubt because one of my batch mates claimed that there is a university (say X) has its secret textbook for students as well as researchers of that university only and it is a common practice for many top end universities.

Note that I am asking about textbooks only, not regarding teaching material and others.

  • Comments in answers, the discussion about the grey zone between text books and lecture notes, and similar have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Aug 31, 2019 at 7:15

12 Answers 12


I have never heard of a textbook being "secret" in the sense that it was being kept intentionally hidden to give students of one organization an advantage.

I have often, however, encountered draft textbooks that a professor had not yet completed or published, for which students were partly acting as "beta testers." These are often not released for general use (for obvious reasons), and may be in preparation for many years, which could make them act something like a "secret" textbook.

Indeed, as the stage and organization of such documents becomes earlier and less formal, the boundary between "textbook" and "lecture notes" becomes unclear, and there are certainly some professors who are effectively writing a private textbook and just never get around to putting in the effort (or relaxing their perfectionism) to make it public.

  • 55
    I know of a draft textbook that has been complete except for perfectionist revisions for more than a decade, which is only available in the campus bookstore, and only when the author is teaching one particular class. The content and typesetting look exactly like a textbook; the only difference is the spiral binding. The author steadfastly refuses to make his book available to the public, not because it gives his students an advantage, but because he thinks (incorrectly IMHO) that he's not done yet. (Yes, he revises it every term.)
    – JeffE
    Aug 29, 2019 at 19:33
  • 6
    Plus, some professors I've interacted with just plain liked teaching out of books that people had never heard of. I don't know why, but I know that those books were similar to "secret textbooks", because no other universities were using them. Especially when the professor is teaching out of either their own or a colleague's work.
    – user45266
    Aug 30, 2019 at 4:26
  • 2
    I had a similar professor-written text for an undergrad diffeq course. Of course this was long before PDF readers or even laser printers became common, so it was IIRC a stack of mimeographed pages.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 30, 2019 at 4:36
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    @user45266 They are not "secret": in my experience they are clearly noted in the syllabus and everyone with access to the internet can find out that professor X uses book Y in their course. Probably the professor uses that obscure book because they think it is much better than more known alternatives. Aug 30, 2019 at 9:10
  • 2
    I disliked the texts other professors used for ENGL 100 ("You Say I Say" was all about mimicry --- no thanks!) and ENGL 393 (way too expensive and physically heavy - new editions every year!). So I would be the only instructor using the books I chose, but they were all freely available on Amazon, and I resisted version changes when I could to allow students to re-sell texts. This was a State U: when I was at the community college, I had to use assigned texts only - so I started writing my own. Aug 30, 2019 at 13:00

Having attended two top end universities, I can say that I have never seen or heard of a proper textbook that was only for use within that university. Textbooks require a lot of time and effort, and the author (often a professor) expects to be properly compensated, which can only occur if students at many different colleges and universities purchase his book.

I did have a professor at a top university require his own properly-published book as one of the textbooks for the course. Although it was not for use only within that institution, I doubt that any other professors, whether at that university or elsewhere would use that book as a textbook.

However, at an average university, I did have a business law class where the professor had a work that he described as "your Bible", meaning it functioned as our textbook for the course. It was not a properly published textbook printed by a professional publisher, but it was 50 or a hundred pages held together with a heavy-duty staple. This was obviously not for sale to others outside the university. Whether you would consider this a textbook would depend on your definition of "textbook".

  • 1
    Maybe this is something that was done in the 1500's. "Written here and pressed on our printing press, damn it: doesn't leave our library" kind of thing?
    – Kaz
    Aug 31, 2019 at 0:18
  • @Kaz Much earlier than than, many of Aristotle's works are believed to have been originally meant more as lecture notes for his students, and not for wider publication. Sep 1, 2019 at 15:31

The closest thing to a "secret textbook" (apart from draft textbooks) I've encountered were sometimes referred to as 'compendia'. These were often glorified lecture notes, sometimes spanning multiple logically connected courses, tailored to the syllabi at a given institution. Hence they lacked the breadth that would make them useful as textbooks for others. Some of them also contained detailed instructions and information* about lab experiments to be done during the course(s), which obviously is of local interest only. (C.f. lab manuals.) However, they were often maintained over many years by many lecturers, and semi-professionally printed and bound by the university's printing services, and purchased by students in the university bookshop.

*I remember that at least a couple of them included reproductions of component data sheets and excerpts from equipment manuals. Given the limited distribution no one was worried about copyright issues, but a published textbook would be a different question.


I guess it depends on the definition of a text book. For one of the courses I teach, a fellow professor and I wrote the text book for that course ourselves, because we couldn't find anything out there covering the subject properly. However, neither of us wanted to go the publication route, as that would have been a lot of extra work for a rather specialized book anyway.

It is a proper textbook, although it is limited in scope to just the course I teach. But it does fit into your description of a "secret text book", as it is only available for the students following my course. Not that I am trying to hide it from the world though, I just haven't had any great incentives to put in the work required to make it relevant as a general textbook for everyone.

  • 6
    Place it on your homepage. If there is interest, it will be used (and you might get corrections and additions from the public). If not, no loss.
    – vonbrand
    Aug 30, 2019 at 12:23
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    I agree with @vonbrand, -- what subject? Share a link on your profile here to your homepage, which should link to it! You have roused our curiosity! Aug 30, 2019 at 13:03
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    I don't maintain a homepage at the University, and all course stuff is stored in our LMS, which isn't readable by guests. And, the text is in Norwegian. The course is a about networking and server management, including such topics as Active Directory, virtualization, security, routing etc. Part of the reason for writing our own texts was that it wasn't possible to find a single book covering it, and we didn't want students purchasing a lot of books Course description in Norwegian at bit.ly/34dS8kN Book is due for updating, I'll consider putting it some more public after that.
    – Remy
    Aug 31, 2019 at 23:05

The only university that I am aware of, that has "secret textbooks" is the National Intelligence University (university site). The text books are classified. As a facility where all students are required to have a Top Secret/SCI clearance, I expect all of the text books to be classified at least Top Secret.

I expect other service academies and military colleges to have classified texts.

Outside of these situations, or a research project with classified materials, I don't expect any university that you might enroll in, to have "secret texts".

textbooks available only for the students of that particular university and for no others

I've come across text books that were prepared specially for particular universities. They were almost always a version of an existing textbook that had chapters removed for a particular professor or university. This made it virtually impossible to sell the book back after the semester. They had cheap binding and mentioned the university that they were for in huge letters on the cover and spine. I hated those.

  • 6
    I expect all of the text books to be classified at least Top Secret. - Why? They also need to study things that are public knowledge.
    – Kimball
    Aug 31, 2019 at 7:29
  • 2
    It works the other way around: if you have at least one document or information classified at a given level, then you need the staff dealing with it to have the required clearance. But you certainly do not want everything they read or write to be classified as there are significant costs and hassle associated with the handling of classified information. So I would expect most textbooks or documents to be restricted in some way, some to be classified at the confidential or secret level and only very little to be classified at the top secret level.
    – Relaxed
    Aug 31, 2019 at 9:08
  • A national military academy in any number of countries will have restricted textbooks.
    – mckenzm
    Sep 2, 2019 at 2:14

Some universities have their own edition of a few textbooks. Maybe this is what your classmate meant.

For example, this Vector Calculus book used at KAIST, best-ranked Korean university for science and engineering. But, since the book is mentioned in the course syllabus, and you can buy it on an online bookstore, it has nothing secret.

(I had the book in my hands a few years ago, but I forgot what are the differences with the classic edition)


There are a few reasons for restricted resources (not sure if all qualify as text books):

It is quite normal for remote/online universities that some of the course material is produced for a course and only available to payers of the course fees.

This includes printed textbooks, digital text but also multimedia productions.

Some university libraries have archives with historical documents which might be unique, in a bad shape, not scanned or indexed. Access to that is sometimes restricted to staff or with special permission. This is especially true of the material is archived for an owner (like a church or nobel family).

Thesis and diploma works written at a university is archived there. Some of that material has restrictions placed on it because it might be confidential or sponsored work. In that case access is on a permission base.

Some universities publish specific books and instead of having a infrastructure for selling them they might offer them for their own course attendees only.

I am sure there are other reasons. Really secret is most likely only some historic documents in private or church owned institutions.

  • 1
    +1 for material of on-line courses given only to students enrollen in the course.
    – Pere
    Aug 31, 2019 at 12:04

Something I did see: For a large calculus course, the publisher offered to produce an edition of their textbook with exactly the desired chapters in the order specified by the Math Department. This was back in the days when books were on paper, and there were no personal computers to read any other type of book.


A school I attended had "textbooks" which were just selected chapters from several other separately-published textbooks combined and bound into a single book, with the school's own cover applied, often with one or more professors from the school listed as "editors". None of the content (possibly excluding a forward) was written by anyone at the school. While these books were only available for purchase directly from the school, they couldn't exactly be called "secret", since their source material was directly copied from several other books, all of which are available separately for general purchase. I think the idea was this saved the students from having to buy half a dozen different books of which only small portions were used, but it had the unfortunate side-effect that you couldn't look up the books online since there were no other places where they could be legally purchased.


Some publishers do offer customized texts (at least for first and second year gen ed courses) and they may only be provided to that school's book store (or only available online via publisher CMS/LMS) but I'm not sure about the "secret" part. Typically the customization choices are like "well, we have these 48 chapters basic college algebra concepts. Which of them do you want, and in what order?" and "do you want solutions for even or odd problems in the back"

Obviously the instructor prepared lecture notes or "course packs", etc. (are those still a thing) may count, but again I'm not sure about the "secret" part.


Yes, as long as you remove the word "secret."

I remember a few professors who used their own private textbooks for their classes. In some cases, these textbooks were also available to other teachers and students doing another section of that same class at that same institution.

Some of them would offer copies of their own private books to the campus bookstore. Some of them wanted to save the students money and would provide a PDF copy of the book and tell the students to print it out in a computer lab - this caused friction with the computer department who managed the printers, as it drastically inflated the paper usage past their budget for it. Some of them would only make a few copies of their book and would give them to the campus library.

I don't think this practice was a secret, but in all other ways it fits your description.


I had several engineering courses where the professor had written the textbooks and required us to buy them.

The books weren't used at any other universities (with one exception), and the prices were outrageous. It wasn't secret, but it was exclusive.

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