Research for writers, world builders, and other types of nerds

Over the weekend I had the great pleasure of presenting at Emerald City Comicon with a panel of librarians (new bffs Erin Fields, Melanie Cassidy, and Samantha Mills) on open access research tools for writers and world builders. You can view our very helpful presentation website here: 

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My section of the panel covered open access and public domain images that can be used when creating comics, graphic novels, or as visual references for written stories. These are the kinds of resources I rely on when creating comics like The Adventures of Eleanor Twitty, Librarian.

  • NYPL Digital Collections – 194,570 public domain images and items, including letters, photographs, illustrations, maps, and more. Looking for lots of images you can use freely? You can browse just the items that have no known U.S. copyright restrictions.

The Property Tax – LC-USZC4-6859

  • The Digital Comic Museum – Thousands of public domain, easily downloadable golden age comics. A great place to look at layouts, structure, and cover design. All comics listed are copyright free and in the public domain. Users must only register for a free account to download. Also a good resource for war time propaganda, early 1900s newspaper comics, sexism and racism in early comics, and much more.
  • Flickr Commons – The Commons  is a catalog of the world’s public photo archives. The key goal of The Commons is to share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives. A large number of worldwide museums, archives and community collections participate. You’ll find historical photos of people, animals, nature and architecture from all over the world, from the whole history of photography.
  • Digital Public Library of America – The Digital Public Library of America brings together the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums, and makes them freely available to the world. It strives to contain the full breadth of human expression, from the written word, to works of art and culture, to records of America’s heritage, to the efforts and data of science.


“Katherine Stinson preparing biplane for takeoff,” 1908. Courtesy of the Missouri History Museum via the Missouri Hub. SOMEONE PLEASE MAKE A COMIC ABOUT EARLY 20TH CENTURY LADY PILOTS!

  • British Library – As one of the world’s greatest research libraries, the British Library’s collections and expertise are used daily by authors, scientists, TV and film producers, businesses, genealogists and academics. With 150 million collection items the potential for product development and licensing is limited only by the imagination.
  • Google + LIFE’s photo archive – Search millions of photographs from the LIFE magazine photo archive, stretching from the 1750s to today. Most were never published and are now available for the first time through the joint work of LIFE and Google. Public figures, notable events, cultural touchstones, iconic places..



Vintage Idaho – Great Fire of 1910

During the August of 1910, a massive wildfire destroyed three million acres of land in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The Great Fire of 1910 is believed to be the largest, although not the deadliest, forest fire in U.S. history. Smoke from the fire was said to be seen as far east as New York and as far south as Denver, Colorado.

Seven small towns in Idaho and Montana were completely destroyed by the fire, and one third of Wallace, Idaho burned to the ground. The Big Burn Collection, a digital exhibition of materials related to the Big Burn fires of 1910, contains many startling images of the destruction.

Horrifying and poignant comments from students about textbooks

(Note: These comments were made publicly on a petition created by the Associated Students of the University of Idaho. The petition and comments can be viewed here.)

These are the voices of the students of the University of Idaho:

Reducing the cost of textbooks would save my life! I spend way too much on books and school itself. I am a single mom and it is so hard paying for school, paying for my daughters, food, living, and bills.

Idaho is a low-income state. We have a low minimum wage, a struggling state economy, and an isolated geography. Nearly half of Idaho K-12 students are from low income households and Idaho is ranked last in the nation for average wages, per-capita income and wage increases.

I’m signing because students that come from low income families struggle to even pay for college let alone buy textbooks. The amount of money students pay for textbooks could equate to the amount of buying groceries for up to three months. At times, professors barely even use the textbooks.

The affordability of higher education is one of the most critical, and talked about, issues in academia today. As state and federal support for colleges and universities, as well as student financial aid, have declined sharply over the past ten years, institutions have accordingly increased tuition and fees. Additionally, over the past decade textbook prices have increased by 82%, three times the rate of inflation (GAO).

My text book cost for this semester alone was over $1,000.00. As a student who has to pay this out of pocket, this is outrageously expensive and I have found in a majority of my classes that we never even crack open the text book.

According to the College Board, the average student spends $1,200 per year on textbooks and other course materials. As a result, students are choosing to go without. In a 2013 survey, 65% of students reported that they had decided not to purchase a textbook due to cost.

I can’t afford both books and food. I have to choose to either eat or pass my classes right now.

As a librarian trying to convince faculty to consider using open textbooks, I spend the majority of my time demonstrating the efficacy of the materials, highlighting the easy customization of open textbooks, and pointing to studies that show both students and faculty enjoy using these alternatives to traditional print textbooks.

Looking at these comments, however, I think perhaps simply letting the students speak about their experiences could be the most effective strategy. The students are really the experts here.

If there are alternative versions that will teach us just as well, and that are free, why the hell are we not already using these?


A summary of trends in student comments

After a significant amount of time in this expensive textbook environment, students learn strategies and make their own decisions about whether to purchase required books:

Textbook costs are ridiculous. I have to bend over backwards to avoid spending 500 dollars a semester on textbooks. This semester, a teacher told us the first day of class that he would not be assigning problems from the listed textbook, so I purchased an edition outdated by six years. It is identical, down to the text and diagrams, and cost me 30 dollars with shipping. The listed book cost over 200 dollars. This is absurd!

They are cognizant of the role big academic publishers play:

$200 for a semester’s access to an online homework code can’t be called anything but a rip-off.

At times textbooks change minimally and yet get priced way over the price of an older version when only a few changes have been made.

I’m signing because text book prices are outrageous. Access codes are overpriced and don’t add much value. Text books sometimes cannot be reused because they have one time access codes printed in them. I do not like that professor’s team up with companies and receive commissions for us choosing their book and having us buy it. Textbook companies know they have us cornered and that we have to purchase the materials, therefore they price gouge us to death. This needs to stop.

And some take issue with their professors:

Teachers should put together their own courses like they are paid to do, not just copy-paste part to all of the course from the textbook publisher.

Many students made economic arguments about the affordability of the books:

Spending high amounts on textbooks can be hard for some people when they already to struggle to pay for school. I have been in a place where I couldn’t afford to buy the $200 textbook and my grade suffered because of it.

Textbooks should not be a reason I have to take out a loan!

I prefer to eat a decent amount of food every day rather than buying overpriced products that aren’t beneficial.

The textbooks I buy end up sitting on my shelf gathering dust and I end up wasting hundreds of dollars. If I removed even a hundred dollars from the cost of my book, I could have spent ten more hours studying or in the lab researching instead of working to make the money to buy something that I don’t need.

The price of textbooks (on top of ever rising tuition prices), makes day to day life difficult for many college students. The decision between going hungry and buying a textbook for class should never be one a student has to make.

The cost of tuition is high enough… we don’t need to be putting ourselves into further debt just to be able to read textbooks!

Additionally, students are frustrated with how little required texts get used:

It’s ridiculous how expensive these books are for how little use they actually get, and how little we get back when we are finished with the class.

Textbooks are far too expensive. I have spent so much money on ones I barely ever opened.

$235 is far too much for a textbook I will never use.

It is difficult to buy textbooks when and if you only use half the book for a class.

Some books are outrageously expensive for an often one time use.

I’ve bought too many “required” textbooks that I never had to use.

One of my textbooks cost $600…used and I’ve opened it twice. This is ridiculous.

I’ve spent around $900 on textbooks for two semesters, some of which I never used or were expensive rentals that I opened only a handful of times.

Sometimes buying textbooks feels like high-way robbery. Particularly considering how little you use them for some classes.

I spent way too much money on text books while I was at the U of I and honestly didn’t use half of them. They are so expensive to buy, yet when you try to sell them back you only get $5-$20.


And, they have solutions in mind:

There are many solutions to reduce these costs including open textbooks, and intentionally recommending an older, but comparable version.

Experiencing the open source format in Statistics has made me wonder why more Professors aren’t using them. $9.94 for a paperback copy printed by Amazon seems like a no-brainer to me.

It seems like a no-brainer to me, too.

Vintage Idaho – Textbook costs in 1983


This nostalgic look at textbook costs in the early 1980s is brought to you by the 1983 Gem of the Mountains Digital Yearbook.

A Pain in the Pocketbook

As the cash register beeps away, a nervous student stands clenching his checkbook, hoping he’ll have enough money to purchase a semester’s worth of textbooks. Finally, the cashier pushes the final button and the verdict appears on the register.

“That will be $134.50,” the clerk says.

Grumbling to himself, the student fills out his check and leaves the bookstore – mourning the new low in his checking account. This scene is repeated thousands of times each semester as students flock to the bookstore to purchase required textbooks.

According to Peg Goodwin, textbook manager, the average student spends roughly $100 to $150 per semester on textbooks, with the average hardbound edition selling for about $22.

Students often receive a false impression about the textbook business, however. The bookstore’s 20% mark-up barely covers the cost of selling the books, stated Goodwin. Shipping charges and employee wages are among the costs which must be covered by the mark-up. The bookstore also loses money on the books that aren’t sold.

“Generally, it’s not textbooks that make money at a university bookstore,” Goodwin said.

Many students also think the bookstore selects the textbooks which are sold, but, according to Goodwin, faculty members make the decision.

At the end of the semester, students can return their texts for a partial refund. If the university plans to use the book the following semester, the student receives 50 percent of the current market price, even if the book was purchased used.

Books which have been discontinued by the UI, however, are purchased by the textbook company representative at a substantially lower price.

As the dilemma of expensive textbooks continues, it is (at least) comforting to know the financial burden only strikes twice a year.

The importance of self care in scholarly communications 

When considering a career in the field of scholarly communications, there are a few important things to remember.

  1. No one likes being told what to do.
  2. People will be openly hostile about your ‘revolutionary’ ideas.
  3. You are your own support team.

Most of the time it’ll be worth it. It will be worth it when, because of your determined and persistent efforts, a faculty member changes their mind about open access. It will be worth it when a professor, unprompted, praises your institutional repository, your copyright knowledge, or your publishing platform.

There will be times, of course, when the struggle doesn’t seem worth it, when the institutionalized apathy you’ve been fighting against looms a bit larger than usual. These rough times can be difficult, as it can feel as if no one actually cares about what you do, what you’ve earned a degree in, what you feel strongly about.

And with a mental illness, these rough times can be debilitating.

As someone with depression and anxiety, my brain will often take one small part of my job that feels impossible and play it on a loop, like a terrible mix tape stuck in a car cassette player.

And this is when self-care becomes incredibly important.

Self-care refers to actions we can do that restore balance in our personal and professional lives, and it can also be a preventative tool to keep our mental illness manageable. Self-care can be anything we do that helps us feel better in a healthy way, whether that’s puzzles or mindfulness meditation or aggressive running. You do you.

Things I consider self-care in my life:

  • Small indulgences. I keep my favorite kind of tea on hand in my office, with sugar and cream nearby. I will also sometimes grab a bagel from the coffee shop if I need extra deliciousness in my day.
  • I keep a small coloring book with colored pencils nearby in case of anxiety emergencies. I know the adult coloring book fad can be kind of annoying to some people, but research has shown that coloring pretty pictures of trees and flowers actually makes you feel better and calms you down. Just like watching cat videos.
  • Short walks outside. I often take 10 minutes to walk around the arboretum when my stress levels get too high. I have also been known to practice public speaking with the trees. They’re a very non-judgmental audience.
  • Exercise can do wonders for mental health. For a long time I was able to spend my lunch breaks at the gym, which always improved my mood. Just try going to a Zumba class and not smiling! My university has a great drop-in wellness program, and I’d encourage you to see what your university offers. But even just a simple 5-minute yoga routine could help, and you can do that in your office.



Vintage Idaho – The Canine Candidate


This nostalgic story of a nearly successful political campaign is brought to you by the 1983 Gem of the Mountains Digital Yearbook.

He wasn’t your ordinary ASUI senatorial candidate: he had four legs, a wet nose, and was able to catch Frisbees flawlessly in his mouth. He had no political affiliations or living group loyalties, but was extremely affectionate to strangers in public.

His name was Dook and his master and campaign financial director, Bill Malan, organized a write-in campaign for the three-year old Springer Spaniel and Lab. Their slogan was “Write in DOOK… because every dog has his day.”

Although Dook didn’t win, he did “have his day.” The canine candidate attracted 815 of the 2319 votes, and some students said they participated just to cast ballots for Dook. Counting Dook, there were 13 candidates for the senate, and the dog came in seventh. There were only six open senate seats.

According to Malan, Dook was qualified to become an ASUI senator, but there would have been drawbacks if he were elected. “I think Dook would make a good senator, but he probably wouldn’t show up for any of the senate meetings.”

“A lot of candidates say their job is mainly to listen to students,” he continued. “Well, Dook’s ears are about three times bigger than any of the senators. He also had twice as many legs, plus I don’t think he could do worse of a job. It would also save the students some money because he wouldn’t accept any pay.”

Malan and campaign director Kirk Nelson accompanied Dook as he campaigned throughout the UI dormitories, with good response. Nelson said, “He’s got Upham Hall solidly behind him, plus he’s got a large portion of the women in the Tower on his side. The girls, especially, went for him.”

Malan reported spending about $10 on Dook’s campaign, most of it for glue used in sticking up posters and flyers.

While some people considered the campaign a mockery of student government and questioned the motives behind it, Malan said he took it seriously, and questioned other candidates’ motives for running as well.

“I think the ASUI is mostly used as something to pad peoples’ resumes,” he said. “It’s used for their personal motives, and while I don’t mind that, I do mind it when they try to pass it off as doing students a favor. At least they should be honest about it.”

By voting for Dook, Malan said that students would be sending the ASUI “a clear mandate to cut the fatheads out of the senate.”

If Dook had been elected, he wouldn’t have accepted office according to Malan.

Dook, himself, didn’t particularly care one way or another… he’d probably just as soon catch Frisbees on the Ad lawn.

Open textbooks – benefits and challenges for universities

(Note: this is a summary of sorts for a presentation I gave at the 2015 Idaho Library Association Conference.)

Copyright was invented at a time when ideas could only really be expressed in physical objects, like books. Today we are not just dealing with physical items anymore. Think of the newspaper. It used to be that you could only access a newspaper in physical form. You could give that newspaper to your friend to read, or they could read it over your shoulder. Now, newspapers can be delivered through digital means. And now everyone (with an internet connection) can view the NY Times online at the same time. This sets a different state for the sharing of information. I can share things without giving them away. Everyone gets a copy. This is a very different kind of situation from when copyright was created.


This photo, “Classic OPTE Project Map of the Internet 2005” is copyright (c) 2009 Mike Lee and made available under a Attribution 2.0 license

This big, beautiful interconnected thing that is the internet makes it much easier to share things. But copyright is designed to put barriers around information so creators can keep creating.

Creative Commons licensing alleviates this situation a bit. CC licenses are copyright licenses that use the power and strength of copyright law to enforce sharing rather than putting barriers around sharing. CC licenses indicate that you WANT this material to be shared in this way. They provide a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to creative work. They cover permission, attribution, commercial use, and future sharing. There are a variety of flavors in CC licenses:

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Open educational resources (OERs) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, texts, software, and any other tool, material, or technique used to support access to knowledge.


How many of you know students that don’t have equal access to learning materials for one reason or another? It is one of our most common questions at the reference desk, right? There’s a whole spectrum of reasons why students’ wouldn’t have access, although money is the most common.

Textbook prices are high. Since 1985, textbook prices have risen at a higher rate than medical care and gas. Nationally, the average student pays around $1300 each year for textbooks. 65% of students regularly don’t purchase books and 35% will register for fewer courses due to cost. It’s rather clear that the high cost of these books is impacting our students.

Idaho currently ranks 50th in the nation for high school graduates going on to college. According to the National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) Center for Public Education, the #1 reason for not attending college is the cost.

Nearly half of Idaho’s K-12 students are from low-income households. The U.S. Department of Education found that a young person in a low-income community has a 9% chance of completing college.

Screenshot 2016-01-11 13.21.21

And while 24% of Idahoans currently have a college degree, 61% of Idaho jobs will require a college degree by 2018. (Source: National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (2008), Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce, “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018” (2010))

Open educational resources present an alternative to the traditional textbook, one that could save students thousands of dollars. Based on data from pilot OER programs across the country, a student will save $128 on average per course. If every full-time undergraduate had just one of their traditional textbooks replaced with an open textbook each year, it could save students nationally almost $1.5 billion in textbook costs. (Source: studentPIRGS)

Open textbooks are the solution

What happens if we start dramatically lowering the cost of required textbooks?

Equality of access. Lowering or removing textbook costs can have a powerful effect on the affordability of a college education and has the potential to improve retention and graduation rates.

Aside from the finances, OER materials are improving student engagement and success. After Mercy College switched over it’s section of college algebra to open textbooks and materials, they noticed a visible increase in passing grades in all OER sections of the course.

This trend is true across all institutions that have adopted OER materials. Students increase their grades and completion rates and will take on more credit hours.

Students increasingly need and expect mobility, flexibility, and ease of access to course materials. Digital media literacy continues to rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.

Faculty members are looking for alternatives to one size fits all textbooks. Many OER resources and platforms present the opportunity to build one of a kind materials for your courses and students.

Any move towards reducing textbook costs would also be an excellent PR move for university administrators.

And, open course materials can lead to open pedagogy, transforming disposable assignments into renewable assignments. Instead of an assignment being unimportant in the grand scheme of the class, renewable assignments provide lasting value. The students see value in doing them, faculty see value in grading them, and the assignments live on to contribute to the greater good.

One example of a renewable assignment is this collaboration, where a University of British Columbia class completed a class project on Wikipedia. Their collective goal was to bring a selection of articles on Latin American literature to featured article status. By project’s end, they had contributed three feature articles and eight good articles. Visit the project page here.

Each time this professor teaches Project Management for Instructional Designers, a graduate level course, the students revise and remix and improve the course textbook. Class assignments directly relate to creating new content for the textbook or editing current content. At the end of the class, their names are added to the growing author list of collaborators.

Using OER the same way we used commercial textbooks misses the point. In order to best engage students and yourself with the new material, consider taking these steps

  1. OER as worked example – Help students understand the design of the OER you’ve assigned
  1. Remix OER – Assign students to organize and transform OER to teach more effectively
  1. Provide feedback on remixes – Offer multiple types of feedback on student remixes and require revisions
  1. Reciprocal teaching – Have students teach each other using their remixes
  1. Continuous improvement – At end of term, engage in data-based formative evaluation of the course. Incorporate student work in new version as appropriate
  1. Create clarity – Students should understand what their remixes should contain, how they will be graded, and how they potentially will be used
  1. Create trust – Establish relationships with students that demonstrate your confidence in their abilities to create great OER remixes


Real-life Application

Imagine you are teaching Biology 101 next semester. You have a list of learning outcomes your students should be able to demonstrate by the end of the semester, right? One of the best ways to incorporate open educational resources into courses is to map your course learning outcomes to open materials.

For Biology 101, let’s use these two learning outcomes:

  • Demonstrate understanding of cell structure and function
  • Demonstrate understanding of transport into and out of a cell

Then, let’s search for some open textbooks in biology. This one from OpenStax looks good.

Looking through the table of contents, it is easy to spot the sections that would best work with our learning outcomes.



Like the journal publishing industry, it has become clear that something in the system is broken. Open textbooks are not out to get textbook publishers, they are about trying to intervene in an unhealthy process in order to best serve students.

Because this is a student issue. The costs of a college education are rising, including tuition and fees, but textbooks are the one thing we can control in the cost of education conversation.

Idaho needs this. And Idaho can do this. All we have to do is try.