Celebrating a Decade of the Open Textbook Library: Founder Dave Ernst Shares the Library's Story

Published on May 5th, 2022

The Open Textbook Library (OTL) turns 10 in 2022! To celebrate the library’s role in bringing together a community committed to making higher education more equitable, we are featuring authors, faculty, librarians, students, and others who have contributed to the Open Textbook Library through the years.

Dave Ernst is the Executive Director of the Open Education Network and Founder of the Open Textbook Library. For the library’s 10-year milestone, Dave reflects on challenges overcome and the goals ahead. The library’s story has been a decade in the making; first, let’s learn a bit about our storyteller.

Most used app on your phone?
Paprika Recipe Manager

Your favorite drink?
Homemade kombucha

Ever asked someone for their autograph?
Leigh Kamman, when my dad brought me to see a jazz performance when I was maybe 10 years old.

Describe your life in five words?
Very appreciative of caring people

So, the story of the Open Textbook Library. What’s the main takeaway?
I’ll tell you the moral of the story right up front: The success and longevity of the Open Textbook Library is only possible because of the efforts of many, many people. Thousands, in fact. Faculty, administrators, librarians, staff, and many, many others who are doing the work of higher education. And they see the library as a piece of public infrastructure to support making this work more equitable for everyone - in the U.S. and around the world.

Where did it all begin?
The story of the Open Textbook Library starts in 2011 in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. I had initiated a course content affordability project, and so took a hard look at the feasibility of Open Educational Resources (OER) for our faculty. We were specifically looking for options to replace expensive textbooks. Interest in affordability was high, but faculty had lots of questions about OER, like “Where do I find them?” and “How do I know if they’re any good?”

At this same time, the Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Group, which advocates for student issues) had created a listing of open textbooks and were looking for a research university to take it over to increase visibility and credibility. I approached my dean and we discussed how building the Open Textbook Library would benefit our faculty, and as a public site it would also benefit the world. She was very supportive. As IT Director in the college, I had the technical expertise on my staff to build it. So with the support of the Student PIRGs, we got to work.

What did the library look like in its early years?
The library launched on April 23, 2012. It made a splash, with national attention and very positive feedback. It had the dual goals of providing one place for faculty to find a comprehensive list of openly licensed textbooks, and to enable faculty to see reviews of these textbooks by their peers.

It was originally called the “Open Academics” textbook catalog. That branding was an attempt to make it more “academic.” It quickly became clear that the title “Open Textbook Library” was more useful and clear, so the name was changed mid-2013. It also had University of Minnesota branding to tie it to the credibility of a research institution, but I kept getting emails that asked, “Can we use your University of Minnesota textbooks, too?” So that was eventually removed.

Any constants that have remained throughout the first decade?
Our early decision to be a “referatory” hasn’t changed. We simply maintain records of open textbooks that point to where the files are located. This has proven to be a useful approach as it brings attention to the publishers of the books, sending interested faculty off to the publishers’ websites.

What role has the University of Minnesota played in the library’s story?
Soon after the library was launched, I was in a University of Minnesota committee meeting that was being led by our brand new provost. When I introduced myself she said, “Oh, are you the David Ernst with the textbook website?” I asked her how she knew about it, and she explained that lobbyists for the publishing industry had been pushing our state legislators to complain to our president that the Open Textbook Library was “unfair competition.” This was not the way I wanted to be introduced to our new provost, but she laughed and told me not to worry about it.

Now that might seem like a small thing, but it’s not. The library has consistently received that kind of support from the University of Minnesota. It’s been key to the library’s survival and success for the last 10 years.

Can you recall specific challenges to the library?
We’ve been contacted several times over the years with legal threats, mostly from the publishing industry - DMCA takedown notices, cease and desist requests, copyright infringement accusations - all intended to shut down the library or minimize openly-licensed competition for commercial textbooks.

Each time this happened, we were supported by our University Libraries, Office of General Counsel, or executive leadership with educational, legal, or moral support. And with that support, we’ve been able to assert our legal rights and continue to serve higher education through the library. There were others in the open education space that were threatened in the same way and didn’t have the support we did. It made all the difference. The library also had early support from the University of Minnesota Libraries, which helped us think through a potential redesign of the library. And we created our first logo, a flying textbook.

Are there others who’ve stepped up and supported the library?
Many. For example, early on, we realized the need for two supplemental services: (1) MARC records (and other discovery mechanisms) for libraries to include the open textbook records into their library databases, and (2) an archive of the textbooks, in case any of them “disappear” from the internet. We were fortunate that Colorado State University Libraries stepped up and offered both services to the library. They’ve been a great partner to work with, and although we eventually automated the creation of live MARC records for the library, they still host our “dark” archive of the collection.

Can you give us an overview of Open Textbook Library’s traffic trends?
The library has seen significant growth in traffic in these 10 years. In 2012, the library saw an average of 92 visits per day. In 2022 (so far), people visit the library an average of 15,294 times per day thanks to all the open textbook adoptions faculty have made. We now see 100,000 visits every week.

And these aren’t just people from the United States. The library benefits faculty and students from all over the world. In fact, fewer than half of the visits we see to the library come from the U.S. The library has seen visitors from every country.

In fact, on the day after the Open Textbook Library launched in 2012, I received an email from a faculty member at the University of Zimbabwe, who said “This is a boon not only to students in the United States but also in other countries. There is so much potential world-wide that is not realized because of the lack of access to quality study material.”

What influence have higher education faculty had on the library’s success?
The library was really created for these faculty - to help them share their good work, to allow them to review the work of their peers, and to make it easier for them to adopt an open textbook.  

For one, faculty are the ones writing the open textbooks! When the library was launched 10 years ago, it had just 84 textbook records, but now there are over 1,000 titles! Let’s think about these authors for a moment: Many of them spent years writing a textbook, only to give it away for free and openly license it so others can make use of it in their own way. It shows a real commitment to the public good, a trust in colleagues in their field, and a focus on the needs of students. I honestly consider it an honor that the library can play a part in bringing more attention to these good people.

In addition, nearly 5,500 reviews of these open textbooks have now been written by faculty and contributed to the library. (When it launched, the library had eight reviews that I collected from my own faculty at Minnesota.) Writing reviews is a critical service. These reviewers are helping their peers better understand the strengths, weaknesses, and overall quality of these resources.

And, of course, the best way faculty have supported this work is by making the decision to adopt OER in their courses. And they have done just that. By writing the textbooks, reviewing them, and then engaging their students with OER, faculty are truly the brains behind the Open Textbook Library.

And the librarians?
If faculty are the brains, then the staff and librarians who support those faculty are the heart. These are the people who are raising awareness, educating, and engaging faculty in open education daily.

They’re running workshops to start discussions with faculty about OER. They’re running publishing programs; they’re helping faculty change their pedagogy to add student voice to OER. And many of them have done it above and beyond their actual job, committed to the idea of openness and the potential for improving educational equity. I couldn’t be more proud of the impact these people have had. The Open Textbook Library would not be here today without this community of open education professionals.

For example, Open Education Network members have run several hundred workshops over the years, which includes incentivizing faculty to write a review for a book in the library. This is why we now have 5,500 reviews of the textbooks - because of the local programs that are being run by these folks.

Your closing thoughts at the 10-year milestone?
I want to recognize and thank all the people I mentioned earlier - and those I neglected to mention - who have helped the library continue to grow and remain a useful public resource. Specifically, I’d like to call out the amazing Open Education Network community for their thoughtful support, ideas, and engagement over the years.

I’d also like to specifically thank Andy Serhoff, the developer who created and maintains the current version of the library. I’d also like to thank our student worker, Duy Vo, who has been such an important part of the library’s success over the past few years. And I’d especially like to thank Karen Lauritsen, the OEN’s Publishing Director, for the care and thoughtfulness that she puts into managing the Open Textbook Library every day.

Last, I’d like to reiterate the moral of this story: The success and longevity of the Open Textbook Library is only possible because of the efforts of many, many people - people who believe that open education can be a tool to make higher education more equitable. We will continue to need all of you as we move forward - your ideas, your effort, your brains, and your heart - to make the library an even more useful tool in the future.


Thank you, Dave, for sharing the library’s story as part of our 10-year celebration. Cheers to OTL chapters yet to come!  

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