I started to write this post as a comment to Leigh Blackall’s post “learning should be free, its an education that can cost”. Then it started to expand. However read Leigh’s nice post first. This will then make more sense.
Difference between library and university/college/school is still hardly understood among the people in the e-learning filed. The Open Courseware and the Libre Resource movement (if there is a such one day) is actually leading us back to the separation of learning content and activities. This is a right track. Library is a critical service of any University. One could claim it to be the heart – actually more the liver – of an University. Still the University is more a community of practice than a place.
I agree that learning must be free for the people. We should see this as an investment that pays off. Naturally, both to have content (libraries) and education (institutions) cost money. So, who should pay this?
In Finland both, libraries (public and scientific) and Universities are free and open for all – meaning there is no fees and you are free to visit and us the libraries. The legislation also guarantees right for the people to attend to any lectures held in any of the Universities. So, you can just walk in and have a seat, take notes, even ask questions from the lecturer. Laboratories, workshops, hospitals etc. may block you to enter the class by making an appeal to security, lack of space etc. This is reasonable.
What you *can not do* as the man from the street is to ask the lecturer to read and give feedback on your essay, ask her to supervise your research etc. To do this you must be accepted to one of the study programs. This is because these tasks requires use of lecturer’s limited resources of time. But, why is there freedom for all to attend to the lectures?
The reason is money. We are a poor country (or at least use to be) with only 5 million people. We can not afford loosing a single Joe or Leigh willing to learn. These people sitting in the back of the lecture room does not cost anything for anyone. The lecture would be held anyway and in 9 out of 10 lectures there are more seats in the room than attendants. They still scale pretty well.
This is the same with content in libraries, or even more with a content on Internet. They scale even better than the lecture rooms. When content is produced and located to the library or on Internet it costs some money – less and less nowadays. But reading (using) the content costs very little more. The main reason is that information and knowledge does not wear down. Also when you give it away you do not loose it from yourself. It’s a strange goods.
So, anyway, as there are costs who will pay them? Joe the Taxpayer pays it all. To make prospects greater that Joe will have a business or a job, it makes sense to give him all the possible ways to learn. Learning conducts to productiveness. Productiveness means ability to pay taxes.
The whole idea behind the free or libre learning is thriftiness. We can not afford to loose people who are interested in to learn: whatever they do it inside the formal system or informally with content from libraries / Internet and in online discussions with their peers. These are the people who come up with new ideas, start businesses and finally, one day, pay taxes.