A book unopened is but a block of paper
I'm a big believer in open communication and information. You can't make informed decisions, learn new things and grow if you don't have easy access to facts, and it's amazing to me how often we don't have access to facts. Political censorship actively clouds what we can learn -- and I don't just mean government politics; corporate, scholarly, and individual politics shape a lot of what we know.
But information that disappears into bowels of academia also puts a huge hole in what's been known and can be learned. The classic example is the Roman Library of Alexandria in Egypt. We know some of what was in that library before it burned, things like the circumference of the Earth and its location in the solar system. Things that hundreds of years later the Church was burning people for heresy… knowledge that we think of as part of the modern world but was very much a part of the ancient world.
But we don't know what was lost. There were too few copies of the books that were stored in Alexandria. There were no backups, no copies stored at some other library -- that was it. And when it burned, that was that, it was gone.
Granted, much of the written word of the 20th century is crap, and a lot more of the 21st century's writings are turning out the same way. But this is where search comes in. At the moment the king of search is Google, but there are lots of ways to find what you want to learn about, if it's digitized.
The problem is that most of our knowledge isn't searchable -- it's on paper in books. Books are a great archival resource, but as the old Chinese proverb goes, 'A book unopened is but a block of paper.' A book that's been scanned, indexed and placed online, on the other hand, is a searchable resource, which means even if you know nothing of some obscure work, you may find it and get a Eureka moment without having to fly to Stanford University and toil in the stacks.
So, Google's initiative to scan millions of books and put them online is core to my philosophy that knowledge should be easily available. I was troubled by the news that they'll end up holding de facto copyright on some books because, in my opinion, copyright ties up knowledge. But, on watching the PBS News Hour segment (embedded below), it seems that the only books in question are books that actually are copyrighted but where the copyright holder is difficult to locate.
In one sense, this props up what I feel is the biggest impediment to the free distribution of knowledge -- extended copyright laws. In another sense, this brings millions of books into the light of day (or the glow of monitors) that may otherwise be sitting on a stack in one or two libraries.
Think of it like that rare plant in the jungle that unlocks the cure for cancer. I don't honestly think there is a single book out there with all the answers, but if what we're doing is making knowledge available, albeit within the framework of existing copyright restrictions, then maybe that cure for cancer is one step closer.