Information is free.
At least, it should be, according to the majority sentiment in library land. Ever since the advent of early public libraries of the 1800s, public libraries have had a democratizing effect on society. In 1948, the ALA adopted the "Library Bill of Rights," championing open access to information resources and challenging censorship. Throughout the years, freedom of access has come to mean, in many areas, free access.
In this digital age, I think that our field's approach to access should change. Before, if a person had borrowed a book from the library, he would walk away with the book, for a designated period of time. However, he would have no sense of ownership over the book. He would eventually have had to return it to the library. In the mean time, another person who had wanted the book would have had to wait her turn to read the book. This system of lending had historically provided free access to materials and, as there was no sense of ownership, publishers and authors did not feel as though their intellectual property had been stolen or misused in any way. Currently, access continues to be free, in most cases, but the sense of ownership has changed. With digital copies of books and journals, library patrons can now download their desired information resources. Cost of access has not changed. All these resources are still free to the user, but ownership has altered. Protection of intellectual property has diminished.
I am not suggesting that libraries should start charging for all memberships or that school children should no longer be allowed to check out and read copies of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. I am suggesting, however, that access to digital information should change. Authors spent hours, perhaps years creating these resources; and, in the case of scholarly works, authors may have spent hundred of thousands of dollars on education to create the journal article that was just emailed into your inbox for the low, low cost of absolutely nothing.
Currently, there are hundreds of commonly used databases providing access to thousands of journals and other digital resources. Libraries often pay for subscriptions to these databases to allow patrons access to the information. However, these subscriptions are incredibly expensive; so, libraries can rarely afford more than a couple subscriptions.
What is the solution? How do you provide freedom of access to all information (not just the subscription your local library can afford) while simultaneously protecting the intellectual property of the people responsible for creation of the information? As unprofessional as this sounds, think of Netflix. They offer different levels of subscriptions for different levels of access. To individuals, not institutions. In addition, we could envision a situation where a person could want access to one and only one item in a database. For a one-time fee, this could be possible.
Information is not free. In fact, it is very expensive. The time, the work, the effort of the authors should be recognized and rewarded. And freedom of access should not always mean free access. Freedom of access should mean ability to access. In this age, where the lines of ownership are blurred with digital downloads, perhaps we should reconsider our system. While the purchase of information is somewhat antithetical to the ideals of library land, small fees to access scholarly work isn't necessarily robbing people of access. In fact, because patrons of any library could access the information in any database, access will be increased.