November 28, 2023

Unlocking OER for Public Libraries

Open educational resources (OER) are free teaching and learning materials that are in the public domain or released under an open copyright license. These materials can be accessed, repurposed, adapted, and redistributed for free. Rooted in the human right to education, OER gained attention by making information and education more affordable and accessible, especially as tuition at colleges and universities increased. While conversations about their use have focused on academic and school libraries, OER have much to offer public libraries.

OER advocates often cite the sharp rise in textbook costs as a reason for growing interest in open education, and academic librarians now partner with faculty to support the use of open and low-cost course materials to reduce costs for students. However, the talking points academics use may not seem relevant to public librarians or their patrons.

Alex Houff, Digital Equity and Virtual Services Manager at the Baltimore County Public Library, argues OER have a “marketing problem.” In a recent Library Futures learning circle, she explained that people often don’t know what open resources are. Because of this, it’s hard to create an “elevator pitch” for OER in public libraries. Houff believes the critical first step in expanding OER programs is helping people understand how OER initiatives can benefit their communities.

Houff did just that during the COVID-19 pandemic when a team from her library and the Enoch Pratt Free Library received an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to support the Make-IT Place, a virtual maker space for all ages. The project provides openly licensed materials for easy science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) projects as well as resources for librarians and other educators to develop training, programming, and curricula. For example, one lesson in the Make-IT Place provides instructions and learning objectives for a space lesson on making “asteroids you can eat.” The lesson is mapped to the American Association for the Advancement of Science standards for grades 6-8. Other collections provide lessons on 3D printing, machine learning, LEGO® robotics, video game coding, and worm herding.

There’s a public library-sized gap in the ongoing discussion of the many benefits of OER.

These types of OER initiatives provide ample opportunities to collaborate with other libraries. The Make-IT Place is now managed through the Maryland State Library, and librarians from across the state are invited to explore and upload their own STEM projects for others to use. Project materials are hosted in OER Commons, where they can be browsed, downloaded, and remixed by anyone in the world.

The Make-IT Place was one of few public library projects specifically designed to incorporate OER to help working parents support their children with distance learning during the pandemic. At the same time, many families relied on library resources during COVID-19 lockdowns, turning to libraries for Wi-Fi hotspots, computers, and books. While most parents in the United States are still satisfied with their children’s education since the end of the pandemic, many families have decided to continue homeschooling their children. Homeschooling increases the need for more affordable and accessible education options, as traditional textbooks may not be affordable for homeschool families or programs.

Tapping into the potential of OER for homeschooling initiatives can be an outreach strategy for public libraries, and some libraries are already partnering with homeschool educators. For example, librarians at the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL) system in Kansas City, Missouri, developed a Homeschool Advisory Team. The initiative provided an opportunity for homeschooling parents to discuss their curricular needs with MCPL’s youth services librarians. The librarians also led training sessions for parents to learn how to use library resources. Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, MCPL branches offered programming during the school day that attracted 15-40 homeschool students each week and allowed them to develop team building and social skills through STEM and arts activities.

Building OER programs requires growing existing relationships, forming new relationships, and creating a network of people who are willing to learn and experiment with OER in their libraries. Explaining OER to the diverse audiences that use public libraries is a crucial step, but once the connections are made, the elevator pitch for OER begins to write itself! For example, OER are easy to access and can often be downloaded as PDFs, which makes them easy to share and available even without reliable Internet access. For public library patrons in rural areas, as well as those who have permanent or temporary disabilities that limit mobility, this can be a major advantage over commercial materials that require robust connectivity or an on-site visit to the library. 

Additionally, OER can be shared widely at a low cost, making them especially useful for library programs and educators. While libraries often face funding challenges, OER can help them continue to provide services and programs on a budget. Many libraries provide workshops and training on topics ranging from technology basics to media editing, financial and business development for entrepreneurs and job seekers, and genealogical research. Libraries also provide social programs like book clubs, craft circles, and more. Rather than relying on proprietary instructional materials or sinking staff time into developing new resources from scratch, public libraries can turn to OER for their community’s learning needs. Plus, OER can be easily updated to reflect software, policy, and other timely changes in information; to incorporate current or regional issues; or to add other important details like local links, contact information, dates and deadlines, or community stories.

Meggie Mapes, PhD / Speak Out, Call In: Public Speaking as Advocacy
OER book from the Open Textbook Library

For example, Digital Foundations published by Open Oregon provides an overview of graphic design principles alongside practice exercises for learning the Adobe Creative Suite. The Open Textbook Library has an abundance of writing resources that may be of interest to a wide variety of writing groups, including Elements of Creative Writing, which includes exercises for practicing the essentials of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction; Technical Writing, which offers tips from writing emails and memos to proposals and progress reports; and Writing Fabulous Features, which includes a “learning features” framework that could be repurposed and republished to highlight a local writing community. Texts like Chemistry of Cooking could complement food literacy initiatives in public libraries, Game Based and Adaptive Learning Strategies could guide the development of coding camps, and Speak Out, Call In could help community members prepare for public speaking events or supplement resource kits.      

Public librarians may be hesitant to use OER if they think they are the only ones doing so. However, some public libraries already make open resources available to patrons through their catalog, and others are familiar with organizations that digitize and release open content. The Library of Congress, for example, provides rich digital collections of historical and primary source materials that are free to use and reuse. Likewise, Project Gutenberg is a library of over 70,000 out-of-copyright e-books. Other libraries, like the Open Textbook Library, provide MARC bibliographic records for the open textbooks in its collection, which is also discoverable in WorldCat and through Ex Libris’ Alma.

Awareness and use of OER in higher education jumped to its highest levels yet in the latest report released by Bay View Analytics. However, there’s a public library-sized gap in the ongoing discussion of the many benefits of OER. Building on relationships, acknowledging existing work that relies on the commons, and making new initiatives a collaborative effort may help motivate other public librarians to consider OER. These small steps can lead to big change.


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About the Authors

Milo Santamaria is a student research fellow with Library Futures and the webmaster at YouthFacts, a blog dedicated to advancing the rights of youth. Milo is an MLIS student at San Jose State University and earned their bachelor’s degree in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. While at university, they were a fellow with UCSC’s Everett program, a student-led organization focused on using technology to create social change. They co-led youth workshops on prison abolition and helped maintain websites for Everett and its community partners.

Michelle Reed is the research manager for Library Futures. She manages the organization’s research portfolio in support of digital rights and equitable access to knowledge. Previously, Michelle worked in academic libraries at the intersections of technology, education, and intellectual property, including as Director of Open Educational Resources at the University of Texas at Arlington. 

OER logo by Markus Büsges (leomaria design) für Wikimedia Deutschland e. V., CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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