July 30, 2005  ·  Sid Srivastava

I love public libraries. As a kid, I spent most of my lazy Saturday afternoons inside one of the various branches of our library system, delighted at the idea that, wherever I looked, there would be stories, magazines, or books on virtually any subject to capture my attention. The feel of the library was no less captivating. An ethos of learning and relaxation definitely hung in the air, bringing together people of all ages — from pre-schoolers to senior citizens — into the midst of a Renaissance-like mesh of scientific thinking and artistic expression.

At any given moment at a library, there are probably kids oohing and aahing over gross bugs, budding young authors writing the next chapters in their stories, and students collaborating on their research assignments. Quite simply, libraries represent a bastion of culture and knowledge, a source of creative inspiration (for me, and almost undoubtedly, for many others).

The free culture movement fosters a similar sense of learning and sharing and creating, which is probably why I was drawn to it in the first place. On a very fundamental level, the collective body of works created by scientists, artists, and thinkers (who want to share their ideas) deserves a place for public consumption, and the online community seems to be a natural extension of the borrowing-and-creating concept epitomized (in my view) by public libraries.

When I entered college, I was somewhat surprised, and disappointed, to discover that many of the institution’s libraries were closed to the general public (for security reasons or otherwise), and that a significant percentage of classroom materials were available only to enrolled students. Granted, students may be paying for the education, but knowledge is, well, knowledge and deserves to be free (an oversimplification, perhaps, but my views nonetheless). Therefore, I was pleased to learn about MIT’s OpenCourseWare, a “free and open educational resource for faculty, students, and self-learners around the world”, or as I like to think about it, an effort combining the openness of a public library with the academic intensity of a university.

Naturally, I started wondering about ways in which students could convince their own universities to embrace initiatives like OpenCourseWare, or at the very least, make small changes that could increase the openness and accessibility of knowledge created by professors and information kept in the libraries. What sort of hurdles need to be overcome for this to happen? Is talking to professors and administrators enough? As a student, what can you do to make classroom content more readily available?

For me, this issue is important for the same reasons I feel thrilled to step into a library and read, learn, and explore to my heart’s content. Initiatives that contribute to a truly global repository — or, more fittingly, library — of ideas almost always bring about about public good.

  • Corey

    “What sort of hurdles need to be overcome for this to happen?”

    When I was at USC in the mid-90s, the decision was made to
    close off access to the cinema library and its massive collection of films. Only FILM majors were allowed to view the movies. I was paying $20K in tuition, but my major was EE. No matter that one of the world’s greatest film schools and libraries was a major attraction to USC even for non-film majors.

    Why did they do this? Because representatives of a major studio observed undergraduates watching films in the library and freaked out. The studio threatened to pull all permission on all of its content. The only way for the film school to protect itself was to limit access. They couldn’t teach classes without being able to show any movies from Studio X.

    You can decide for yourself if Hollywood benefits from limiting access to film studies to the small and insular world of people who are willing to devote their entire life to the industry. I happen to think it stifles creativity.

    But the “hurdle” was simply money and power. Publishers could not expect to control the number of times a book was read after donating it to a library. Film Studios, because of their rental market profits, did expect to control the number of times a film was viewed. To them, if a student viewed a film in the library, they wouldn’t rent it at blockbuster. (nevermind that you can’t rent early David Lynch shorts at blockbuster) I guarantee that if there was a rental market for used books, Random House would have tried to shut down those USC libraries as well.

  • Corey

    So I guess what I am saying is, if you want content that
    has value (DVDs, In-Print Books, University Course Materials) to go free, you have to convince the content owner that there is a benefit.

    Perhaps if I had been allowed to view rare films in the USC cinema library, I might have pursued my interest in film to the benefit of a studio, a student downloading free course materials might decide to matriculate in order to learn more and buy a degree that will enable them to practice in that field. The knee-jerk reaction of a Publisher, Studio, or University is going to be to protect established revenue streams.

    MIT supports OpenCourseWare because they benefit from the prestige of being on the cutting edge more than they benefit from tuition lost to self-study. If you want to encourage your favorite school or studio or content provider to do the same, you’ve got to sell it. Its all about the Benjamins. :)

  • http://randomdude.com/blog/ Dustin Sacks

    I think a good start would simply be getting universities to add there repositories to the lists that get searched when you search for something in a public library. If people knew that this information was available then they would be much better placed (and motivated) to get the unis to open it up more.

  • http://www.democracynow.org/ Tayssir John Gabbour

    The nuanced historian David Noble has a humorous and sharp talk about education colliding against tech. The context of how distance education has been a historical failure overall, and why online courses are faithfully replicating these failures. (His bio and RealPlayer [sorry] link.) His book, available online, elucidates this more carefully.

    The salient point (as I understand) is that tech is generally used to make education “scale” — by lowering the ratio of teachers to students. Thus destroying its value. Apparently studies have consistently shown that the teacher to student ratio strongly correlates with educational quality.

    Reminds me of well-known consultant Gerald Weinberg’s Law of Raspberry Jam: the more people you try communicating with, the thinner the message gets. The less value people get out of it. But no doubt collaborative efforts like wikis and in-person meetings may help mitigate this.

    Incidentally, those in the tech world may be very interested in his work researching tech’s role in automating people away. In addition, he’s written quite readable books for general audiences on the political history of tech, though I haven’t read them personally yet.

  • http://www.democracynow.org/ Tayssir John Gabbour

    [Trying to repost this comment, as I got a weird error last time, and there's a bug where I only sometimes see it. Please delete my older one if it suddenly shows up, as I've shortened it.]

    Activist historian David Noble lays out the context of why distance education historically failed overall. And why online courses are faithfully replicating these failures. (His bio, audio of a talk and his book available online.)

    The salient point (as I understand) is that tech is generally used to make education “scale” — by lowering the ratio of teachers to students. Destroying its value. Apparently studies have consistently shown that the teacher to student ratio strongly correlates with educational quality.

    Reminds me of Gerald Weinberg’s Law of Raspberry Jam: the more people you try communicating with, the thinner the message gets. The less value people get out of your teachings. But collaborative efforts like wikis and in-person meetings may no doubt help mitigate this.

    (Incidentally, those in the tech world may be very interested in his work researching tech’s role in automating people away. In addition, he’s written less technical books for general audiences on the political history of tech, though I haven’t read them personally yet.)

  • http://blog.johnjosephbachir.org John Bachir

    Quick note, if you like OpenCourseWare, check out Connexions. It’s a very sophisticated system by which anyone in the world can develop, publish, and share educational material.

  • just passing by

    I saw your 2003 comment “fix dialup first” and was excited unitil I realized the entire page was years old.

    It’s still true. True even sub 50 k (where an older machine can view decent video versus a faster connection that would overwhelm i’ts ability to buffer itself) isn’t around.

    I just find the public library to BE missing when dialup users are not able to have there content buffered to them. INstead we have to buy very fast connections AND very large buffering systems to subsidise the cost of providing large files to us. That is we each have to own something that should be shared. What libraries AND the interent are supposed to avoid. It was claimed then that wholesale was a fraction of retail which might of been meaningful BUT FOR THE FLAT PRICING MODEL that anticompetievley dominates dialup despite being the rule for broadband, the rule it’s not followed! (anyone who uses more then a iota of bandwidth gets kicked off).

    ON peak dialup should cost more then broadband for not being limited. Off peak should be under a penny a minute even if that represents less then the ‘cost’….

    Libraries should be able to charge something for best sellers (i visited oine a few yeqasr ago that charged a buck, but ended that policy).