Peter Suber has just released the July 2008 SPARC Open Access Newsletter. The feature article this month is Open Access and the Last-Mile Problem for Knowledge, and begins with the "tarmac problem" for disaster relief - emergencies such as Katrina where badly needed supplies were almost within reach, but never delivered. Peter compares this "last mile" problem with the problems of access to (stage one problem), and understanding of (stage two problem), scholarly knowledge.
Peter argues (and I agree) that paid access to the published literature is not a scalable solution, as the volume of this literature grows, while the money to purchase essentially does not. Open access is the only scalable solution to full access to our scholarly knowledge.
Peter's Stage Two problem is understanding of the knowledge that is available. Open access is a necessary precondition for full resolution of this problem, but it is not enough. Learning or growing in knowledge is not just about having access; it is about finding the right article, how to sift through mazes of often conflicting data and opinions to find the information that will really answer your question. Some of the answers, as Peter argues, are technological - alerting services, machine translation, automated summarizers for long articles we don't have time to read, text mining and so forth.
All really good ideas. What I'd like to add: We librarians have much to add to resolving this Stage Two problem - building understanding, such as our skills in helping people to build information literacy, one-on-one help with finding answers (reference and research assistance), and our skills at designing and building systems to facilitate making the connections between author and reader. As our global storehouse of knowledge grows, with more research being done and published, data and new formats of publications made available, the need for our skills will only grow in the coming years.
As Peter Suber says:
It's staggering to think about what could happen if the knowledge we have painstakingly discovered, articulated, tested, refined, validated, gathered, and delivered to the tarmac were systematically distributed to all who need it. Imagine if what was known became more widely known, especially among those who could put it to use.