Nobel-winning professor’s life and lessons shared in new children’s book
By Kirk Johannesen
April 27, 2023
Elinor Ostrom overcame personal challenges and societal barriers to become the first woman and political scientist to win the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Now the life of the late, famed Indiana University professor is being told in a new children’s book to inspire future generations.
“Lin’s Uncommon Life,” published by Indiana University Press imprint Well House Books, was written by Scott Shackelford, executive director of the Ostrom Workshop, and Emily Castle, assistant director and librarian of the Ostrom Workshop which was founded by Elinor and her husband, Vincent, in 1973.
“We were interested in what her life was like from an early age, and the obstacles that she had to overcome and what drove her to become the woman and leader she eventually did,” said Shackelford, who is also executive director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research and Provost Professor of Business Law and Ethics at the IU Kelley School of Business.
Ostrom’s story is told through 44 pages of text, color illustrations and photographs. Shackelford and Castle started working on the book in 2019, around the 10th anniversary of Ostrom’s Nobel Prize, and it was published this month, as the Ostrom Workshop celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The authors said they liked the idea of distilling some of Ostrom’s core lessons for young students and teachers to help inspire the next generation. The book is written for students in grades 2 through 4.
“Overcoming some of her early travails showed Lin that success was possible if you pushed hard to overcome a lot of adversity along the way,” Shackelford said.
Ostrom endured a divorce by her parents and felt out of place in the fancy community in which she lived. She also had a stutter. Fortunately, a high school teacher understood Ostrom’s academic ability and encouraged her to join the debate team, which helped her overcome the stutter. She became a debate champion, and participating on the team made her comfortable speaking and formulating arguments, both of which were helpful later in academia, Castle said.
Ostrom loved having discussions and exploring topics, Castle added, including with her beloved husband and fellow political science professor, Vincent. The Ostroms both passed away in 2012.
“She just had this energy and spirit about her, which is incredibly hard to convey in a book, but I think a lot of illustrations convey that,” Castle said.
Ostrom graduated from college at a time when fewer women attended, went through a divorce from her first husband and later returned to college. She had hoped to study economics, but because she didn’t have the required math background, she instead earned master’s and doctoral degrees in political science. Later, though, she taught herself calculus.
“The fortitude at every step along the way was really striking,” Shackelford said of Ostrom’s life.
The Ostroms came to IU in 1965 when Vincent accepted a teaching position at the university, and Lin joined the faculty as a visiting assistant professor. Eventually, Lin and Vincent Ostrom wanted to create a way for people to work together and debate topics, and use their strengths and experiences to address real-world problems. The Ostroms created the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, later renamed the Ostrom Workshop.
Much of Lin Ostrom’s research focused on governing the commons — shared spaces and resources, and how people and communities either share them well or poorly. Her book “Governing the Commons” was published in 1990, and her Nobel was awarded for her research on the commons.
A statue honoring Elinor Ostrom was dedicated in 2020 behind Woodburn Hall; it was the first statue of a woman on the IU Bloomington campus.
To help educators use the book in classes, the Ostrom Workshop conducted a workshop earlier this month for teachers and a social worker from Monroe County Community School Corp. and Bloomington Montessori School. Each received a copy of the book, and they learned lesson plans and games that show how to incorporate the book into curricula and Earth Day. The IU Arts and Humanities Council funded the effort.
Kirk Johannesen is a communications specialist in the Office of the Vice President for Communications and Marketing.