Where Are the Open Humanities Textbooks?

Textbooks on the ShelvesTake a look at this list of free and open textbooks. (Found this page a couple of clicks away from a helpful post at Peter Suber’s Open Access News.) Now note the stark imbalance between the number of science textbooks listed here and the number of humanities textbooks. Why is this?

It seems to me like there is a great opportunity here for funders, with potentially an incredible return on investment. Texas alone spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on textbooks like the U.S. History survey. For less than a million dollars a high-quality free and open textbook could be produced, with print on demand producing paper copies where needed and with a slight markup on those printed versions possibly covering ongoing expenses for updating the work.

[More on open source textbooks from Inside Higher Ed today.]

[Creative Commons image credit.]


Have you thought about getting your own Digital History listed on that page?

Is it because humanities scholars actually make money from writing textbooks? I have no idea, just guessing.

I can think of a few reasons:

* Rights clearance on humanities textbooks (literature or art especially) can be murder.

* Whether authors make money on textbooks or not, textbook publishers make a mint. There’s a whole marketing structure there for getting textbooks into courses. THAT is something an Open Textbooks initiative might address.

* A lot of humanities textbooks (e.g. foreign language) have very high production values. Text artisanry is expensive!

* The humanities still tend to distrust the digital. The free and digital is even more poorly-perceived.

Dan Cohen says:

@Lincoln: Yes, I told them about Digital History being freely available online.

@Jonathan: It is indeed true that textbook writing is one of the only well-paid publishing opportunities for humanities scholars. Thus my thought that the amount of money a publisher provides could be replaced by a grant.

@Dorothea: Good point about rights. It would be good to know what percent of a textbook’s cost is due to this, though I think it’s very minor. And surely there are public domain images that could be used for a history textbook, at least. Math textbooks, with many equations, are at least as expensive as foreign language textbooks to produce. Yet there are a number of open ones. Agreed about the distrust of digital among the humanities; I’m writing another post about that right now.

Nicole Allen says:

I’m the director of the open textbooks campaign referenced above – a friend sent me here to comment.

Dan – Good work getting Digital History on the web for free. I am currently revising our list of books. I am splitting them into 2 categories – free online textbooks and open textbooks (free in more ways than price).

Dorothea – The strategy of the project is essentially that – to generate awareness of open texts among faculty. Instructors will always choose the best book, so the trick is to get affordable books on the table.

Thanks for the post!

Joe Phelan says:

Let me put in a word for EDSITEment a high quality free educational resource from the National Endowment for the Humanties. We have over 450 lesson plans ready to go in history, social studies, literature and arts and culture. These lessons all use internet resources and involve students in active learing and critical thinking. We also create student interactives, and review websites. We have over 200 lesson in U.S. History alone. These resources consitute a valuable supplement to any textbook, digital or otherwise. http://www.edsitement.neh.gov

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