Joint Meetings 2014: free and open textbooks session

While it was certainly a good conference overall this year, last Friday at the Joint Meetings in Baltimore was particularly fantastic.  From 8-11 and 3-5, we had about 15 different presenters share interesting and exciting work and opportunities in the world of free and open-source mathematics texts.  Here are a few highlights:

Richard Hammack of Virginia Commonwealth University gave a nice presentation on how to set up on-demand publishing.  I like Richard’s model:  give the text away for free in .pdf format, and establish a print-on-demand setup where folks can buy the book for an incredibly reasonable price (for his Book of Proof for a transitions course, a nearly 300-page book in softcover for under $15, with a modest profit to the author as well).  His book looks beautiful, too.  This spring, I plan to get Active Calculus set up for print-on-demand so that students can order a bound copy, if desired.  The .pdf (and other eventual formats — see the part on David Farmer below) will always be free.

Nicole Allen of SPARC, the Scholarly Publication and Academic Resources Coalition, provided an overview of the free and open textbook movement.  Nicole began her interest in and advocacy for free and open textbooks as an undergraduate student, and now she’s working professionally for this cause.  Among the many interesting things she shared in her presentation to us:  the US textbook publishing business is an $8.8 billion dollar per year industry — nearly comparable to the NFL, which apparently reports in at approximately $10B per year.  Think about it.

– David Farmer of the American Institute of Mathematics gave us a peek at the amazing work he and others (including Rob Beezer and Tom Judson) are doing to enable authors to have their work translated to multiple electronic platforms (including ones that haven’t been invented yet).  For some samples, see http://aimath.org/jmm/, which shows how several different papers written in standard LaTeX code can be turned into gorgeous, easy to browse web pages.  As I understand it, the basic idea is that Rob Beezer and others have created an XML to TeX translator, while David is working on one that translates TeX to XML.  And if you have “good” LaTeX code, one of these brilliant programmer can run your TeX through their machine and produce other formats with nearly no additional effort.  Be sure to take some time to browse the link above, and be certain to click on a few of the links within each web page that appear.

Suffice it to say: I wish that I had seen David’s talk 24 months ago before I started my project.  But I’m optimistic that with a little bit of time and care on my (already decent) LaTeX code, I can eventually have my book translated into not just this great web page format, but also into forms suitable for eReaders and more.

There was, of course, more good publicity for AIM’s open textbook project.  Mostly, it was fun to be in the room with a bunch of creative, interesting, relatively like minded people who were all excited about developing free and open-source texts to make the mathematics learning community a better place.  I got some great ideas and made some new friends … which is exactly what a good conference is for.

I should have at least one more post upcoming soon on some cool people I met and resources that they are developing, particularly a couple of items related directly to calculus.

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