By Laura Gibbs
The advent of open access to scholarly work online plus other open educational resources offers all teachers a great opportunity to re-think course content: the time has come to start thinking about course libraries instead of course textbooks. We can now free ourselves of the old textbook model and build course libraries instead. Rather than having the same content for all students in a course, you can make room for students to choose their own materials, browsing your course library to find the materials that best suit their own interests, preferences, and needs. As an example, I'll describe here the Freebookapalooza online library that supports the two courses that I teach — Mythology and Folklore and Epics of Ancient India — at the University of Oklahoma.
The Freebookapalooza is located at Freebooks.LauraGibbs.net. It's just a blog, nothing fancy. Each book has a blog post of its own, with a linkable address. For each entry, I provide basic information about the book (author, title, etc.), along with a link to online source(s), plus the table of contents. The table of contents is there to help students decide just how useful the book might be, and it's also a big help for searching. I try to include an image of the book cover and/or an illustration from the book or, if the book is not illustrated, an image related somehow to the book's contents. When I started the Freebookpalooza in 2015, I put 1000 books on the virtual shelves; I now have close to 1700 books. It's an endless project, especially now that new books are entering the public domain again in the U.S. every year.
As the semester begins, students explore the Freebookapalooza, and the wide range of content helps them to expand their expectations for what they might learn in the class. I organize the books by geographical area, and there is also a search feature. In addition, I can use labels to create custom "collections" based on specific interests. For example, when students want to learn about Hawaii, I have this link — bit.ly/MFHawaii — ready to go. Each semester, I create new collections like this on the fly as I respond to specific student interests.
The Freebookapalooza contains mostly public domain books that I find at Hathi Trust or at the Internet Archive, along with some more specialized sources such as the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature at the University of Florida. In addition, I have found many useful monographs published by Open Book Publishers, University of California Press, and others. I teach General Education courses, which means that not all of the students are seeking a scholarly research adventure. At the same time, I do have some students every semester who are eager to take things to the next level, and these monographs are exactly what they need.
I've found that students value highly the click-and-go access of online books, which are available at all hours of the day and night. Our university library has great hours, but it's not open at 2AM when, indeed, some students are doing their schoolwork. Given a choice between an older public domain book that is one click away online versus a newer book that they can get from the library, my students usually choose the online option, and not just at 2AM. In addition to the convenience of online access, digital books are a boost for those readers who (like me) need extra large fonts, or readers who want/need text-to-voice audio. And for research purposes, being able to search digital texts is extremely useful.
So, if you are thinking that you would like to curate a library of resources for your students, I'd recommend talking to your campus librarians to see what options they can recommend. My university's library is a hub both for open scholarship (find out more at SHAREOK.org) and also for open educational resources. We even have an "Alternative Textbook Grant" to help instructors shift from traditional textbooks to online resources and/or library-based materials. Since 2014, the Alternative Textbook program has saved University of Oklahoma students over three million dollars in course materials. To find out more, visit Guides.OU.edu/atg (OU Alternative Textbook Grant).
I started using public domain books back in 2002 when I began teaching online; it was slim pickings then, but now with each passing year there are more and more full-text books online, both public domain as well as books with Creative Commons licenses or otherwise free to read online. So, just start browsing and bookmarking materials for your own course library (Open Access Week is the perfect occasion!), and very soon you'll have lots of books and other resources to help connect each student with the content they want to read.