Public libraries and OERs

The closest libary to me is the Fairfield County District Library, a public library with one main location and four outlying branches. It is not intended as an academic library per se but as a community library.

As a result of Gov. John Kasich’s drastic measures (shifting the burden of most public expenditures to the local level so he can say he has cut state spending), the local libary has substantially cut services, even closing at different times to furlough its employees. The Main branch is in Lancaster, Ohio, which is a small city of about 38,000, according to the latest Census data. Only roughly 13% of people here have their bachelor’s degree (0.3% have a doctorate; I guess that would be me and 10 other people). The median household income is just over USD$38,000, compared to the state’s median of USD$50,000. Poverty is estimated at about 10%. Luckily, it’s fairly cheap to live here.

Because I’m self-employed, I spend a lot of time at the library, and I see three general types of patrons during a typical workday: mothers with small children, elderly persons, and people using the computers. It’s unclear what the unemployment rate is here, but Ohio’s is about 10.5%, and my best guess is that Lancaster, given the educational levels of residents, may be higher than that.

People in Lancaster need their public library. And the library does a lot more than just check books in and out: it’s part of the larger community, and I’ve seen librarians take an hour helping someone with the online GED materials, for instance. Compared to university systems, a public library is ultra democratic. With the university library, you’re already putting a “firewall” between potential users and the library’s resources: the only way to really access materials is to be a student, faculty member, or staff. Public libraries, on the other hand, only ask that at some point you wander down and fill out a short form to get a card. They ask that you live there, but even that is negotiable. And around here, that card is good for your whole life.

So the Fairfield County Public Library is a repository for mostly physical and some digital materials. Of its limited digital materials, some are housed in collections (mostly photographs) and a few are linked to other sites that might be considered OERs. In the catalogue search, I typed in the keyword “writing” and got 2,943 hits. Narrowing my search to Electronic Resources culled the list down to 507 entries. I further narrowed it by the category Adult Education; the result was a list of 83 resources; here is the top of the list, which contains a link to an online course for high school students:

To go further I had to log in to the statewide Ohio Public Library Information Network, so in this way the Fairfield County library functions as a limited referatory. Here it gets a little more interesting. When I get to the OPLIN, it seems to share more of the qualities of a repository like the ones housed inside an educational institution; clicking the tab Skill Building for Adults gives me the following screen of choices, for example:

This is actually new to me: I have never before visited this site (which brings up a point for me, so what might that mean about other folks using the Fairfield County library, who may not be able to navigate as intuitively?), which contains learning objects called eBooks, Tests, and Courses. As the Educause article  notes, many other respositories such as MIT organize their collections in these familiar ways (p. 5). You can search for a word and a type of resource. Many of the Test resources seem to be preparation for civil service positions, police officer exams, GED preparation, or practice for the Federal Clerical exam (these are the ones under adult skills). Just for fun I took the Diagnostic Writing Skills test; it turns out I’m pretty good at grammar and mechanics.

I chose a public library instead of one associated with a teaching institution because I think there is a huge “repository” potential in truly public libraries to collect helpful learning materials and make them available to all sorts of patrons. I did not expect that it existed in even a sort of limited form as it does in OPLIN. But that seems to be a first step in some basic OERs. Could a next step be for those currently placing OERs in more institutional settings to migrate some of them to public libraries? What kinds of audiences are some of the OERs that are online now (MIT, Open University, etc.) targeting and getting? It seems to me that public libraries could capture more types of people than just the university crowd. I don’t think the folks at my local branch are going to go online to find courses at MIT; I’m not sure that would even occur to them. But they might just start with a search at their familiar, comfortable library that will end taking them into learning experiences they may not have anticipated. And then who knows what could happen with their journey?


3 Responses to Public libraries and OERs

  1. Stu Harris says:

    I agree as well that there is huge potential for public libraries as repositories [and referatories] for/to all kinds of learning content. I also see public libraries struggling to stay current and relevant given limited funds and sometimes limited utilization.

    Thank you very much for the detailed description of the community in which this library resides. The description helps place the institution in context and goes a long way to clarify [for me at least] the value that public libraries carry and the service they provide to those that may not have access elsewhere.

    Your first comment about the “built-in” firewall that exists between the public and university or college libraries [by virtue of the requirement to be a student or faculty member] struck a note for me. I have always felt that even post-secondary institutions should or could be more open. Even though I understand the need to service the paying students first [and faculty] providing a more “public” service would seem to more thoroughly serve the public good.

    I have also always wondered why there is not more of a connection between educational institution libraries and the public library systems. Perhaps there is more of a connection and I am simply not enough of a patron to have noticed.


  2. Thanks for sharing a terrific post. From spending time on It seems that MIT OpenCourseWare is targeting students (of course that is a pretty broad classification so perhaps as you said “the university crowd”).

    I found it interesting how you classified one of the three groups of people who use the library as “people using the computers”. Often debated in the organization I work for is that our learners (mainly below the age of 30) learn better by using the computer. Facilitators have often found is that once you take the course online or use laptops in the classroom (bringing in a self-directed approach) the interest level of the learners increase. The “Networked Learner” comes to mind and access to OERs and allowing the student to develop and recreate the same can greatly enhance the learning. Similar to what we are achieving through this course.

    Stu talked about connecting educational institution libraries with the local public library systems. Perhaps a global library would serve this purpose that would also pull in resources from some of the online OCW / OER. Do we have anything similar to this today?

    Even if this happened, would learners who are not comfortable with online learning access this? I am curious as to what percentage of learners are able (or capable) of accessing online resources. Perhaps in the future organizations will not receive funding for books but instead computers (or ipads) allowing their learners to access the vast amount of learning resources.

    Insightful and thought provoking post and comment!


  3. Ben Akoh says:

    Great post Leah, and interesting comments Stu and Jonathan. I agree with you all, and the questions you pose. Two issues further raise my interest:

    1. The extent to which patrons in the walled communities actually utilize the access available to them. As a student in a walled community, I am constantly finding channels, routes, and paths that guide me to resources that I never knew existed. For instance, I only recently found the online database of graduate thesis and dissertations. I have heard from professors and other colleagues during my classes that have library science components that I have access to this resource and various others that I only get to hear about, such as the walled repositories in other universities. These knowledge seem to reside tacitly with the individuals as I have rarely seen a central location in my university library that directs me to, and shows me how I can access all these resources.

    2. The channels that interconnect community and walled repositories. In one of our courses – Introduction to Emerging Technologies, we tried to make a distinction between the ‘deep’ and the ‘shallow’ web. The deep web being the resources that are only available to those that are permitted access to them, such as intranet sites or library repositories. The shallow web, those that google and other web crawlers offer when we present them with search queries. From Leah’s description above, you would think they is a small window that allows a patron to access deep resources from shallow front ends. One such resource for instance could be google scholar through which you may be able to gain access to academic journals and materials not available to just google. Even then, the patron must provide a unique identity to access content that are behind walls.

    Now, these broadly concern searching for information but could be applicable to accessing OER. Consequently, it all boils down to the skills required to search and retrieve information.

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