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Opening Libraries to OERs
Volume 43, Number 6 - November/December 2019

Librarians certainly realize the rising cost of books when they develop collections for their communities. K–12 schools and higher education also know about the increasing costs of textbooks, which are still important for instruction and learning.

At the same time, many people, including librarians, support open access to materials and favor public domain and Creative Commons resources. This open education philosophy has been embraced largely in open and distance learning and has global reach as reflected in UNESCO’s contribution to the U.N. 2030 Sustainable Development Goal #4 on quality and lifelong education.

Open educational resources (OERs) constitute a growing trend in instructional materials—they save money for the educational community and facilitate instructor manipulation of the resource. Basically, OERs are educational resources that are freely available to use, adapt, and share. They are typically digital in format and do not require written permission to use.

Several educational systems and states have mandates to make textbooks affordable, largely by selecting and using free and open etextbooks such as OERs. Such directives offer a systematic approach to selecting instructional materials that can provide more equitable educational experiences. In most cases, efforts involve major stakeholders: classroom teachers, students, librarians, and suppliers.

While teachers are the most likely to choose the materials, librarians provide a significant and unique perspective be cause collection development is a core function for them. Furthermore, within educational institutions, librarians work with the entire educational community across the curriculum. Librarians can also recommend other types of OERs and suggest ways to incorporate them into the curriculum.

Textbook Issues

Instructors tend to focus on OER textbooks, reflecting a traditional basis for information. Even within that frame work, some teachers are reluctant to use OER textbooks for a variety of reasons. Librarians are perfectly positioned to address their concerns.

Instructors have difficulty locating OERs. Instructors who tend to rely on sample textbooks from established print publishers may feel at a loss when it comes to searching for relevant OER textbooks, which often include a different set of publishers. Furthermore, instructors complain about the amount of time it takes to locate appropriate titles. Librarians are skilled at locating such resources efficiently and can leverage their knowledge of OER repositories, such as MERLOT ( or Open Textbook Library (, and bibliographies.

Instructors question the quality of OERs. Instructors may be wary of textbooks that are available outside of mainstream publisher venues. Underlying suppositions may exist: The author’s work was rejected by other publishers; the text is just a digital version of an instructor’s notes; or materials have transgressed copyright law. The OER movement has grown and become more established, countering some of those earlier possibilities. Nevertheless, OERs are less likely to be reviewed in mainstream professional journals, and instructors tend not to consider textbook reviews in general; they are more likely to ask their colleagues informally than to seek formal review. However, librarians know how to find peer-reviewed, tested materials, such as the California Open On line Library for Education ( Another underlying issue in determining quality is that few academic institutions have selection policies for instructional materials outside of the library. In this case, librarians can share their policies and help craft them for course use.

Instructors who have successfully used specific titles may well want to keep that textbook, regardless of the cost to students. Librarians may find reviews of OERs that compare the title to similar texts. They may also locate testimonials from the Online Learning Consortium or MERLOT’s academic communities of instructors who have successfully used OERs in their courses and find supporting research about the benefits of using OERs. Librarians can also mention the possible timeliness of OER textbooks in comparison to the long timeline for print textbook production.

Beyond Textbooks

Instructors want supplementary instructional materials such as PowerPoints, worksheets, and quizzes and assume that OERs do not include such items. Increasingly, OER texts do include such supplementary materials, particularly as it makes that title more appealing or reflects the author’s own development of supporting materials for self-instruction.

Even beyond considering course-specific aids, librarians and many instructors realize that no single textbook can fulfill all the needs and interests of all students in a course. Library collections, databases, and the internet all attest to the myriad of relevant information sources and the variety of formats available to support student learning, both to remediate or enrich it. When instructors provide additional resources for students to choose from, especially taking into consideration students’ interests and needs, students can take more ownership of their learning and may be more personally engaged.

Many of these resources are self-contained, not dependent on a specific textbook or course. Such sources may be called “learning objects.” They may be considered as interoperable “chunks” or small units of learning, typically used within an hour time frame, and can be used in several contexts and re purposed for different learning activities. Simulations, presentations, videos, articles, podcasts, tutorials, case studies, illustrations, and datasets may all be considered as learning objects, depending on how they align with a learning objective. Learning objects especially offer many ways to engage students: as an introduction to a concept, as a culturally responsive perspective, as a learning support, and as an enrichment activity.

Several OER repositories include learning objects, and many other digital collections, notably the Digital Public Library of America, National Science Digital Library, and American Memory Project, provide access to reviewed learning objects. In addition, librarians can show instructors tools such as MERLOT, which can locate relevant learning objects through typing in a mainstream textbook’s ISBN, that link to those items.

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Lesley S. J. Farmer is professor of library media, teacher librarian program coordinator, and information and communication technology (ICT) literacy project manager at California State University Long Beach (CSULB).


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