A thought experiment.

It all started with this Ray Bradbury quote in the New York Times:

“Libraries raised me,” Mr. Bradbury said. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

I’ve bolded the chunk that has resonated most strongly around the Internet, especially Twitter where it was widely tweeted and retweeted.

The tweeter that most piqued my interest was Tim O’Reilly, publisher of O’Reilly Books and all-round Web 2.0/Twitter Rockstar.

Now, I poked around a little on the web and on Twitter and as far as I could tell, O’Reilly has never really shown much interest in libraries or librarians before. Which is fine. Personally, I love his books, Safari is a great product for libraries and got it about digital books very early in the game. His view of publishing is very progressive and geared to an all-digital future, he’s certainly at the forefront of trying to figure out a business model for technical book publishing. I buy a lot of O’Reilly books for my collection and I first got us on board with a Safari subscription for York 5 or 6 years ago. (Note to self: do this year’s Safari title selections soon.)

So what drew him to Bradbury’s comment, and what resonated about that comment among so many of his followers that caused them to retweet?

I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries.

I do have some thoughts on the issue and I think it revolves around having faith in content rather than institutions.

I suspect O’Reilly may have associated libraries less with their institutional nature than with our large collections of content that are freely available to our patron communities. Libraries are thought of as places where people can engage with information, knowledge and ideas, to learn independently and freely, to follow their own muses to where great books and literature take them.

Whereas colleges and universities are thought of as large, impersonal, factory-like institutions, slow to change, ivory towers that are closed to all but a few. They focus narrowly on branding and certification rather than true knowledge and learning — sausage factories of the mind.

You learn in libraries. You are taught in colleges and universities. Active vs. passive.

Now, I don’t believe either of these facile characterizations for a minute, and I could easily reverse them to make colleges & universities come out smelling like roses and libraries, not so much. But I do think that might be the dynamic that caught people’s attention, and certainly someone like Tim O’Reilly sees his future bound up in making content available outside of institutional confines.

But it’s an interesting way to look at things: content vs. institutions.

(It’s worth noting that I definitely believe in both IHEs and libraries; I also believe in the vital role of libraries in those institutions.)

Comments

  1. #1 phisrow
    June 24, 2009

    It’s an interesting irony, actually. Bradbury’s “I hate the internet” piece becomes an internet sensation because both Bradbury and the web2.0 crew think that their preferred medium is the replacement for universities.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    June 24, 2009

    Ivan Illich was way ahead of everyone on this.

    Libraries + Coffee shops = Education.

    Illich’s model was perfect but for one missing item. The Internet.

    Speaking of which, I’m off to the coffee shop just now…

  3. #3 John Dupuis
    June 24, 2009

    phisrow, I purposely didn’t bring up the “hate the internet” part of the Bradbury interview because, well, I think it’s unfortunate. On the other hand, he’s 88 and I’m willing to cut anyone some slack at 88.

    I also haven’t given up on universities (particularly large ones), but at the same time I think there’s got to be a way to make them less sausage factory-like and more reflective and learner-centred. I think there’s definitely a role for libraries as places for reflection and collaboration.

  4. #4 John Dupuis
    June 24, 2009

    Of course, that means that a coffee shop IN the library is the perfect solution…and becoming much more common especially in larger libraries.

  5. #5 Mark
    June 24, 2009

    Not sure I’ve ever seen anything from O’Reilly re libraries but perhaps an interview I saw recently on his blog where he was interviewed about his Classics education and its relation to his job and life after college sheds some light.

    Kind of hard to be a Classics major without a library. Maybe not impossible but hard. Less hard now than it was whenever he went to college but still/

  6. #6 Lobster
    June 24, 2009

    Greg, I appreciate your sentiment, but have found that libraries have far fewer lolcats and coffee shops have far less pornography. :)

  7. #7 Woody Tanaka
    June 24, 2009

    I think it’s being repeated because of a degree of populism. Basically it’s saying that self-taught education is better than a university degree, which resonates with not only the non-degreed self-taught, but the many college-educated folks who believe they went to “inferior” schools.

  8. #8 John Dupuis
    June 24, 2009

    Thanks, Mark. I found the interview here. It’s obvious that he’s well read and extremely thoughtful and articulate, and frankly I’m not surprised he has a classics background. He does seem to take a long view to things.

    I will admit to being curious as to how he wrote and researched all those essays. Tim, if you’re reading this, let us know!

  9. #9 Christina Pikas
    June 24, 2009

    It’s interesting because there has been some work (thinking by Star) talking about libraries as infrastructure and what that entails. Libraries talk about freedom and partnering in education, but at least two well respected researchers have said that we create barriers by acting as evil for-profit publishers’ henchmen. I think this statement is about the content and not about the service, which, with licensing of content, is more the norm. So this, to me, is very backward or public library looking.

    Are these statements outrageous?

  10. #10 John Dupuis
    June 24, 2009

    Christina, I agree completely. I do believe in libraries as institutions that are part of an educational mission that’s more than just a content warehouse.

    Maybe it didn’t come out that much in my thought experiment, but I do wish people cared more about the institutional infrastructure that facilitates learning. Of course, at this point I think I’m drifting pretty far from what I could infer about what TO’R really believes based on this tweet.

  11. #11 thorn
    June 25, 2009

    i agree with nearly everything you say. technically, i agree with everything; but i have to nitpick a little.

    ‘freely available’<>’free’.

    i believe you know that; many in the library world know that. some still don’t know that; or don’t think about it.

    libraries are a pre-paid service. on my tax bill it’s an actual line-item that is > USD 200/yr. — and a bargain at twice the price. freely available, absolutely. but absolutely not free.

  12. #12 John Dupuis
    June 25, 2009

    Thanks, thorn, good point. I guess I had a little Chris Anderson moment.

  13. #13 Termal Oteller
    June 28, 2009

    I will admit to being curious as to how he wrote and researched all those essays. Tim, if you’re reading this, let us know!

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