A proper role for nonprofits, or is it?

On the wall of the Nonprofiteer’s office there’s a poster from World War I showing a soldier climbing a staircase of books–"Engineering" "Seamanship" "Law" "Farming"–toward a castle (whether that of his  dreams or the enemy’s stronghold left carefully vague), all under the headline "Public Library Books Are Free."  But apparently this, like much else received 20th-Century wisdom, is now a subject of debate.

As the New York Times reports, Google and Microsoft offer to scan and put libraries’ collections on-line  but only if the libraries agree to give the scanning search service exclusive access to the materials.  Libraries including the New York Public have agreed; libraries including the Smithsonian have said thanks but no thanks and turned instead to the nonprofit membership group the Open Content Alliance, whose scanning costs members $30 per book but whose resulting files will be available publicly and without restriction.

And, we thought at first, isn’t that exactly what the nonprofit sector is for?–to let knowledge grow from more to more and so be human life enriched?*  To provide alternatives to devil’s bargains like, "You can increase access to your collection, but only if you agree to restrict access to your collection"?

But then the Nonprofiteer took the next step, and wondered why as a society we should depend on either charity or business to assure that information is freely available.  As the book distribution system evolved–from paid circulating library to Carnegie-endowed free library to municipally-funded public library–so should the pixel distribution system.  Thus, taxpayers should be paying to transfer knowledge to the place where most people can reach it, and the government should be assuring universal access because in a democratic society "government"="universal."

The fact that this suggestion makes the Nonprofiteer uncomfortable–Give the government control of all knowledge?  Can we really expect everything that goes into a government scanning project to end up scanned, or might some inconvenient truths wind up in that warehouse with the Ark of the Covenant?–says more about the current oppressive administration than it does about the fundamental point, which is that essential resources should be made available to all citizens by the people who elect them.  Or, as it is written, public library books are free.

And so is–what’s that called?  That huge wasteful government boondoggle?  Oh, yeah: the Internet.

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*Crescat scientia vita excolatur: motto of the University of Chicago.

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