Open Textbooks — A Study

While most faculty members are still unaware of open educational resources, use in introductory courses nearly rivals that of traditional textbooks, study finds.

Almost half of all respondents (48 percent) said open materials are too hard to find, and that they don’t have access to a catalog showing the open resources available to them (45 percent) or a helpful colleague who can mentor them (30 percent).

Source: Study finds use of open educational resources on the rise in introductory courses

I am sure these are resources that people would like to use. But how easy are they to find? Is there a problem with the searchers or is the problem elsewhere? In any case, it seems to me a perfect chance for creating something–something that people are actually asking for: they don’t have access to a catalog showing the open resources available to them (45 percent). So, to get an idea of the problem, I decided to take a look.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I may have missed something, but that is always the case.

I immediately thought that someone may have already made a separate catalog for open textbooks. I found but this site seems to have much more than textbooks. For instance it has a link to the CIA Factbook, which is useful, but cannot be considered to be a textbook. Plus, I found open textbooks that do not seem to be listed here. In any case, it seems to me that our shared catalogs in Worldcat could and should provide this kind of search. What do we find there when we consider how easy it is to find these items?

A search for “open textbooks” (as an exact search) in Worldcat retrieves 352 records. The first three records are for open textbook projects. If we scroll down, we see some records for single items with interesting headings such as “BC Open Textbook Project” or “OpenStax College”.

A very quick examination of the first four projects gives the following subjects:

Electronic publishing — Textbooks — Web sites.
Electronic books — Web sites.
Textbooks — Web sites.
Textbooks — Computer network resources.
Textbooks — Bibliography.
Community colleges — Curricula — Computer network resources.
College textbooks.
Teaching — Aids and devices.
Curriculum planning.
Digital libraries — Web sites.
Textbooks — Web sites.
Electronic books — Web sites.

Subject analysis for these projects goes all over the place.

When we examine records for individual open textbooks, I found that the subjects will either follow either this formula:

Microeconomics — Textbooks.

or there are no subjects at all.

The directions in the subject headings manual for textbooks don’t provide much help. They discuss how their policies have changed over the years (since 2002) and then:

Also use the subdivision as a form subdivision for individual textbooks at all levels.
Title: Chemistry : an introductory textbook.
650 #0 $a Chemistry $v Textbooks.

So, there is only the subdivision “Textbooks” which is used only intermittently. Concerning the subdivision “Web sites/Computer network resources” the only directive is in the list of free-floaters where we see it is used only as a topical subdivision and there is no subdivision “Web sites”. (By the way, many libraries prefer “Web sites” to the admittedly strange “Computer network resources” which is a term, that, I fear, even an infinite amount of time would not be enough for that proverbial roomful of monkeys to randomly type out)

So, from the subjects, we find that we are limited to $vTextbooks. The next part of the search (i.e. the web part) I presume people will get by limiting to format: ebook or web site. Searching Worldcat for textbooks “openstax college” (one of the open textbook projects), I found that open textbooks can be cataloged as either an ebook or a web site, or even as a print book because open books can be printed out.

Finally, we want to get to the “open” part of the search, i.e. textbooks that are free-to-use vs. paid textbooks. And that information is not in our records. One 856 (the field used for the link) is like any other 856 and (at least at this moment) we cannot distinguish between a link that is free to everyone, vs. a link where you will be expected to pay. For this, you must already know the project you are going to: Openstax College, SUNY Open Textbooks, BC Open Textbook Project, or one of the many others, or even Project Gutenberg or Gallica or the Internet Archive.

So, it seems as if the only search is to find all of the open-textbook projects, search for them and “textbooks” as I did here with only three projects. Of course, the problem with this search is that we cannot assume that all textbooks will have 65x $vTextbooks.

I can’t call this easy in any way at all. Consequently, this seems to be a project that is absolutely screaming to be done. If instructors can find open textbooks easily, they may be encouraged to use them and students could save scads of money. If faculty found enough good in these open textbooks, faculty might decide to write their own open textbooks or contribute to others that are already online.

But the current cataloging rules and options do not seem to be enough. Therefore, the only option would be to make a separate catalog.

Too bad, but at least it is doable.




  1. Kathy Peters said:

    My college library is working with the BC Campus Open Textbooks and we’ve had a lot of discussion about the MARC records provided – are they ebooks or are they websites? The links we have are to webpages containing a variety of content for each title, in different forms, with accompanying materials etc – not really what we’d consider an ebook. My library doesn’t want to use the $vTextbooks subdivision because students search our catalogue for “textbooks” but want what is the current textbook for a course in our collection, not what might be considered a textbook someday or somewhere else – so we deliberately remove the $vTextbooks to avoid a lot of confusion.

    July 26, 2016
    • Thanks for the comment. I agree that any specific item might justifiably be an ebook or website, and I understand your practices, but I was looking at it from the viewpoint of the instructor, for instance, who may be in Rome, Italy, and who would perhaps very much like to use one of the open textbooks in BC Campus Open Textbooks. The problem is, the instructor doesn’t know what textbooks are available or even that the site exists. I think everyone would be in favor of these things being easy to discover–except for the textbook publishers such as the McGraw-Hills and Pearsons who stand to lose quite a bit. (See: The Changing Textbook Industry) Can the catalog itself be of help?

      If instructors already know about the existence of BC Campus Open Textbooks, there is little problem since they can just go straight to the website, but there would also be no need for the catalog. There are lots of such projects too–and I hope there will be lots more–and it will be practically impossible for all the instructors to keep up with all of the projects. It just seems to me to be a crying need for a catalog that will find these materials.

      To repeat my analysis, unfortunately I do not think it can be done with our current catalogs and records and a special catalog would have to be made. It doesn’t have to be difficult to create something that can help. Here for instance, is a tool I made in a few seconds using Google Custom Search which is searching BC Textbooks, SUNY, Openstax and from the University of Minnesota.

      Here’s the link to the page. Search for macroeconomics. A lot more could be done!

      July 27, 2016

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