In 1836, Anthony Panizzi, who later became Chief Librarian of the British Museum, gave evidence before a parliamentary select committee. At the time, he was only First Assistant Librarian, but even then he had an ambitious vision for what would one day become the British Library. He told the committee:
I want a poor student to have the same means to indulge his learned curiosity, to follow his rational pursuits, to consult the same authorities, to fathom the most intricate questions as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go , and I maintain that the government will grant him the most liberal and unrestricted assistance in this regard.
He made some effort to achieve that goal by providing general access to human knowledge. By 1856, after 20 years’ work as a keeper of printed books, he had helped expand the collection of the British Museum to over half a million volumes, making it the largest library in the world at the time. But there was a serious problem: to enjoy the benefits of those volumes, visitors had to go to the British Museum in London.
Imagine if it were possible to provide access not only to those books, but to all knowledge for everyone, everywhere – the ultimate realization of Panizzi’s dream. Actually, we don’t have to imagine it: it is possible today, thanks to the combined technologies of digital texts and the Internet. The first means that we can make as many copies of a work as we want at a negligibly low cost; the latter provides a way to distribute those copies to anyone with an internet connection. The global rise of low-cost smartphones means that “everyone with an internet connection” will soon include even the poorest members of society in every country.
We have the technical means to share all the knowledge, and yet we do not offer everyone the opportunity to satisfy their learned curiosity as Panizzi hoped.
What’s stopping us? That is the central question that the open access movement has been asking and trying to answer for the past two decades. While tremendous progress has been made and more knowledge is now freely available than ever before, there are signs that open access is at a critical point in its development, which could determine whether it will ever succeed in Panizzi’s plan.