Free Educational and Research Resources

This is a list of free ed­u­ca­tional re­sources that are fre­quently over­looked or some­what ob­scure, but still con­tain a large trove of in­for­ma­tion. The se­lec­tion cov­ers soft­ware, les­sons, re­search pa­pers, and refer­ence ma­te­rial. I will skip cov­er­ing on­line things that I think most peo­ple know, like Wikipe­dia, Pro­ject Guten­berg, or Khan Academy. Where pos­si­ble I will sug­gest tax-funded, pub­lic do­main, or FOSS op­tions. Some of these are easy to use while oth­ers, like Zotero, re­quire more of a learn­ing curve. Please re­ply if you have any sug­ges­tions to add to the list; I will add them if they meet those crite­ria.

Table of Contents

In-Person

Library Card: Every­one should have one, or even mul­ti­ple; at least have your lo­cal branch, and con­sider find­ing a way to get a card in a ma­jor city, which has more lend­ing op­tions. They’re very easy to get, and open up a lot of digi­tal re­sources, like Libby, RBDigi­tal, and Kanopy, listed be­low.

Com­mu­nity Col­lege En­rol­l­ment: Yes, even if you went to an Ivy League. The only rea­son not to is if you are cur­rently af­fili­ated with a larger col­lege or uni­ver­sity. Why? By tak­ing even a sin­gle com­mu­nity col­lege course a year you can get longterm ac­cess to a lot of stu­dent dis­counts on soft­ware and schol­arly jour­nals, not to men­tion mu­se­ums and such. Not only are the classes cheap or free, but the cur­ricu­lum qual­ity and even the in­struc­tor qual­ity is of­ten com­pa­rable to lower-di­vi­sion courses at state uni­ver­si­ties and pri­vate col­leges, pos­si­bly even bet­ter, if the equiv­a­lent courses would be taught by a sea­soned in­struc­tor in­stead of an over­worked grad stu­dent. You can fill in gaps in your aca­demic ed­u­ca­tion or satisfy a hobby by tak­ing some sort of evening-class elec­tive. Depend­ing on your com­mu­nity col­lege, maybe you can even qual­ify for these benefits sim­ply by tak­ing an on­line course.

Some soft­ware that you can get with any valid .edu:

Don’t for­get that a lot of peo­ple like to help stu­dents. If there’s some­thing you want and you can’t get, try emailing the au­thor or de­vel­oper, ask­ing if they would make some­thing available to you. If you know any­one who can buy the thing for you, don’t be ashamed to ask them (make sure to re­pay your fa­vors ei­ther in kind or in kind­ness).

On­line Education

MIT OCW: This is some­what well-known but not in the top ranks. Frankly I don’t even see how Coursera et al can even make any money when MIT just makes an ab­surd amount of its courses available for free on­line. You can even ask for home­work help.

Open Cul­ture Free On­line Courses: A list of about 1,500 courses as of May 2020, spread across var­i­ous stan­dalone web­sites and Mas­sive Open On­line Course providers such as Coursera. Covers many dis­ci­plines, in­clud­ing many hu­man­i­ties and prac­ti­cal sub­jects. Thanks to Noah Blaff for this recom­men­da­tion.

Youtube: Okay, I said I’d skip ob­vi­ous things. But are you aware of how much ed­u­ca­tional con­tent is available on YouTube, and what kinds of things you can learn? Samo Burja’s es­say The YouTube Revolu­tion in Knowl­edge Trans­fer (1100 words) is worth a read. For ex­am­ple, I sub­stan­tially im­proved my cod­ing work­flow by watch­ing YouTube videos on the topic, some­thing pro­gram­ming courses usu­ally don’t cover. Here are some ed­u­ca­tional chan­nels I like:

Pod­casts: As with YouTube, so with pod­casts. It’s quite for­tu­nate that au­dio, due to lower host­ing re­quire­ments, has so far man­aged to avoid be­com­ing as cen­tral­ized as YouTube while re­main­ing just as dis­cov­er­able. Un­for­tu­nately, most pod­casts, even most that I con­sume, are edu­tain­ment or talk shows. While many can give you in­sight and ex­pand your wor­ld­view, few provide ac­tion­able les­sons or ac­cess to pri­mary sources. If I started to enu­mer­ate the former I’d have to give an un­end­ing list. Two I know in the lat­ter cat­e­gory:

Multimedia

In­ter­net Archive: It’s been com­pared to the Library of Alexan­dria, and cer­tainly de­serves that com­par­i­son: this is the sin­gle largest source of raw me­dia you can find. Many peo­ple know it for the Way­back Ma­chine, which archives web­sites and serves snap­shots of URLs as they would have ap­peared on the date of archival. But it also con­tains his­tor­i­cal news­pa­pers, ra­dio broad­casts, books, and much more. I’ve found it use­ful for ac­cess­ing all man­ner of pri­mary sources in the course of re­search.

RBDigi­tal (for iOS, for An­droid): An on­line lend­ing ser­vice for books, mag­a­z­ines, and mul­ti­me­dia. Car­ries all the usual mag­a­z­ines your pub­lic library would carry, like Vogue, The Economist, and Scien­tific Amer­i­can. I haven’t ex­plored the other offer­ings too much.

Books and Audiobooks

Cal­ibre: Cal­ibre is an open-source tool for man­ag­ing a library of ebooks. The main benefit to me is that I can sync the 200-plus books that I have down­loaded from Library Ge­n­e­sis to my Kin­dle, by­pass­ing Ama­zon’s walled gar­den (and fee struc­ture). It has a highly ex­ten­si­ble plu­gin sys­tem and many in­te­gra­tions such as with Goodreads.

Open Library: a fron­tend main­tained by In­ter­net Archive speci­fi­cally ded­i­cated to bor­row­ing ebooks. It serves files in a time-based en­crypted for­mat, ac­cessible for that lend­ing pe­riod. The sys­tem is un­for­tu­nately cur­rently (2020) fac­ing a law­suit due to a re­cent ques­tion­able de­ci­sion by the site main­tain­ers to tem­porar­ily al­low un­limited lend­ing dur­ing the COVID crisis, with­out the prior con­sent of au­thors.

Free eBook Foun­da­tion: Re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing a cou­ple im­por­tant github re­pos mak­ing pro­gram­ming books and Pro­ject Guten­berg ma­te­rial more ac­cessible. Recom­mended by lsusr.

Faded Page: Pro­vides digi­tized ver­sions of books that are out of copy­right in Canada, which has a shorter copy­right du­ra­tion than the av­er­age in Western coun­tries. This makes it le­gal for them to host works like F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s The Great Gatsby and Ste­fan Zweig’s The World of Yes­ter­day, but some­what du­bi­ous for non-Cana­di­ans to ac­cess them.

Library Ge­n­e­sis: This is the eas­iest way to steal books. Quite frankly, I’ve made an Ab­bie Hoff­man-es­que virtue out of pirat­ing in­for­ma­tion, es­pe­cially text­books. It’s pretty easy to use, but you should click a mir­ror link rather than the ti­tle to get to the down­load faster. The stuff on it is mostly what techie-liber­tar­ian types like to read, though—I’ve had some trou­ble find­ing a lot of good 20th cen­tury non-SF fic­tion or so­cial sci­ence writ­ing.

Librivox: This is my sin­gle fa­vorite thing on the list. A bunch of vol­un­teers have recorded countless pub­lic do­main works—in­clud­ing most of the Western Canon—as au­dio­books, also in the pub­lic do­main. I use the RSS feed url to load these into my pod­cast app and take them ev­ery­where. Among other things I’ve listened to Thucy­dides, Mary Wol­l­s­tonecraft, John Stu­art Mill, and William James this way in the past year.

Libby /​ Over­drive: It’s a neat wrap­per for in­ter­library digi­tal lend­ing ser­vices. They provide both ebooks and au­dio­books; I mainly use it for the lat­ter. The se­lec­tion at my lo­cal library is atro­cious, but it might be bet­ter at oth­ers. It’s where I can get au­dio­books of more re­cent books, and the hold times and re­newal policy are rea­son­able.

Research

Sci-Hub (link changes oc­ca­sion­ally): Pro­vides Open Ac­cess to re­search liter­a­ture. It uses donated ac­counts to pirate re­search pa­pers from be­hind pay­walls. Weirdly, its ac­cess to var­i­ous cat­a­logs seems to be un­even. It’s most ori­ented to­wards the hard or log­i­cal sci­ences, but so­cial sci­ence and hu­man­i­ties can also be found on here. There’s a browser ex­ten­sion called Sci-Hub Now! (for Chrome, for Fire­fox) which can be used to im­me­di­ately re­trieve pa­pers from be­hind pay­walls.

Direc­tory of Open Ac­cess Books and OAPEN: con­tains peer-re­viewed aca­demic books and ar­ti­cles whose pub­lish­ers have de­cided to cre­ate open-source copies of. They pos­sess a com­par­a­tively small se­lec­tion of ma­te­ri­als, but are a more le­gi­t­i­mate source than Sci-Hub.

Zotero: An ap­pli­ca­tion to keep track of schol­arly ma­te­rial for fu­ture refer­ence, and make cita­tions easy by down­load­ing meta­data. Re­mem­ber­ing is as im­por­tant as learn­ing, so be­ing able to offload some of that men­tal effort onto a pro­gram will save you a lot of re­search time in the long run. Has a bit of a learn­ing curve. It is free and open-source.

Con­nected Papers: Vi­su­ally links pa­pers to those which it cites and those which cite it. A rapid way to nav­i­gate the liter­a­ture on a given topic. Recom­mended by Romeo Stevens; I haven’t used it.

Videos

Kanopy: The eco­nomic value of older films that were never big hits is neg­ligible, so Kanopy has figured out a way to provide these on-de­mand, no-loan to pub­lic library card hold­ers. Most no­tably it con­tains much of the Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion, and many in­de­pen­dent small-bud­get doc­u­men­taries. My library gives me 10 ti­tles a month, which is about enough for me. I also like that the ser­vice streams to Chrome­cast.

Film Grab: Stills from most live-ac­tion films you can name and many more be­sides, about 50-100 stills per film. Really good for vi­sual refer­ence. Un­for­tu­nately the site is not lightweight and takes longer to load than it re­ally needs to.

An­i­ma­tion Screen­caps: Same thing as Film Grab, but fo­cused on an­i­ma­tion in­stead. The col­lec­tion images 10,000-20,000 shots per film, which is a con­fus­ing num­ber: too many to be use­ful if you are seek­ing a syn­op­tic view of the en­tire work, but too few to be use­ful if you are an an­i­ma­tor try­ing to work out how to time an ac­tion. It doesn’t seem to cap­ture keyframes, seems to be run­ning on a timed script to cap­ture N frames a sec­ond.

Art

UBUweb: Archives a lot of mod­ern, con­cep­tual, and avant-garde art from the late 20th cen­tury. I like the clean de­sign of the web­site, and the fact that this min­i­mal­ist fa­cade hides an enor­mous repos­i­tory.

Smith­so­nian Digi­tal Archive: This con­tains a lot of mu­seum-wor­thy art, records, and ar­ti­facts. Espe­cially no­table is their re­cently-available Open Ac­cess ser­vice, which pro­vides works which can be used and remixed with lit­tle or no re­stric­tions.


This ver­sion of the post re­moves a piracy site whose typ­i­cal use case is not ed­u­ca­tional or re­search ori­ented. This post also ap­peared at blog.rachelshu.com/​free­learn­ing.