Yesterday, I discovered CBC's new Radio/podcast series called Spark, mainly focused on technology and Internet issues. The first episode I listened to was an interview with Clay Shirky. Shirky is a telecommunications scholar who is seen as something of guru on the effects of the Internet.
During the interview, one particular quote struck me. The fundamental idea of it is not new, but it does frame it in a memorable fashion. When asked about the economic effects of Internet fueled collaboration, he responded, "For any business where scarcity of information was the principle selling point, that business is in trouble." He went on to illustrate that point by arguing that the average price of stock photo has decreased 99% due to free services like flickr (which apparently has 1 billion photos online).
If one changes "business" to organization, then the application to universities (and indeed, much formal education) and archives should be clear. It is certainly true that vast stores of information are locked in archives and other special collections and can only be accessed with difficulty, but I wonder if users will continue to remain motivated to jump through all those hoops. Certain kinds of researchers who have a professional requirement to use that kind of research resource - historians, some graduate students, some lawyers - will likely continue, but what about the occasional, 'amateur' user? One archival argument might be that archives are fundamentally concerned with long term memory and that makes them distinctive compared to social web tools.
The competitive edge may lie in fostering community, the approach taken by many public libraries. Sure, you can get books at Amazon, Chapters/Indigo or Borders, but it isn't the same as being in a public place with others. Architecturally, most archives aren't set up to enable this kind of community easily. Perhaps the answer lies in developing more services to enrich the information in our archives? I'm not sure what that would be, but it is something to think about.