Thursday, August 04, 2005

The spirit of public libraries in free culture

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.

this post via Lawrence Lessig's (author of Free Culture & Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace) fantastic Stanford Law School blog

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