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.)