Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Meet the new boss (Or, Same as it ever was)

Recently, the president-elect of the American Library Association, Michael Gorman, expressed that he has some problems with Google Print. Needless to say, more technophilic members of the profession have a problem with him having a problem, and they expressed this on their blogs and listservs. Gorman, never one to back down from a challenge, basically insinuated that these people couldn’t read a novel if it didn’t star Dick and Jane. This produced the detailed, careful debate which the Internet is lo long known for. His defense, apparently, has been that his response was a satire… although of what, he doesn’t deign to tell us.

I'm sorry, are there librarians out there who did not know this was going to happen when they saw Gorman's name on the ballot? He was saying making the point that faster and disintermediated wasn't always better in print 10 years ago when I was in library school. (I’ll easily agree with this statement, by the way.) I've personally heard him say things like this at conferences over the years, and not always in moderate ways. If you didn't know this was coming when you cast your ALA ballot, then you didn't do your due diligence. (I know, there's a lot of names on that ballot, but there's only about 3 in the President category, and we are people who work in the research industry...)

For all Gorman's good points and contributions (and lest we forget, there are many), he's also a classic academic who likes the sound of his own voice. Put another way, one might say that he's a firebrand who points out legitimate flaws in ways the other side can't ignore, and if we were smart, we'd consider how he might be right and how to address his criticisms.

(On the listservs, by the way, Gorman caught a lot of flack about how "terribly inappropriate" his response was. Swift and Twain, however, might agree with him about satire... it's not supposed to be nice; it is supposed to get your attention. Taking a reductionist, selective response to reductionist, selective criticism does seem, shall we say, a very subtle piece of satire indeed, and he shouldn't be surprised when people don't get it. Alternately, it’s a mighty convenient excuse when you’re caught being the pot calling the kettle black.)

Let me put my cards on the table. I think that most blogs aren't much good if you don't know the author (or their persona). I'll suggest that it's a limitation of the format. The Blogger help actually suggests that you write short blurbs, not long essays, and it's a lot harder to communicate complex thought in short bursts than long "complex texts." (It is possible, and a skill which chronic logorrheics like myself need to work on, but I digress, and that's the point...) After your publishing platform eats your beautiful long essay once or twice because you click the wrong button, you learn not to trust it (or, like Pavlov's Blogs, to write blognuggets like you're supposed to instead of working on harder ideas).

But then again, a couple of my library school profs did stress the importance of evaluating content separately from format.

Access for all, does mean access for "all", and while the library community has already had plenty of conversations about adult material and hate or violence or political sites, we haven't really addressed the fact that it also means 16 year olds who don't want to eat their spinach or do their math homework. (Or people of other ages and the same attitude.) In point of fact, that's exactly who we're protecting with this core value of ours, because it guarantees them the right to eventually hit the complex paydirt underneath. And their free access, their searching Google, their gradually learning that "OMG liek whoa" is not serious discourse, is part of that becoming process.

Yes, Michael, the blogosphere is full of a chattering class who push out their own collections of almost commentless links, parroting what they've heard without providing significant new context to the discussion. Full disclosure: I've done this here, just to force myself to post. Fuller disclosure: how many of us remember that in 1994, putting your bookmarks file on a web site was The Thing To Do? Even fuller disclosure: "There is only only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey, 1891. This is not a new problem, Michael.

Yes, our world has been, for hundreds of years now, getting faster, and sacrificing detail and depth to do it. According to Sturgeon's Law, 90% of everything is crud, so the more stuff you make, the more crud you get. But crud is also in the eye of the beholder. My friends write beautiful interesting blogs. Just look to the list of brilliant people on the right. It’s people I don’t know who write garbage. (grin) Digitization makes it more possible than ever before for undergrads to write mediocre papers at 3 in the morning of the due date. It also saves a lot of scholars a lot of time and travel (or ILL) money. Again… not a new fight; I wrote plenty of mediocre papers without the Internet to help me.

But trading insults between "The Blog People" and "The Book People" is no progress at all. So for all of us who move with ease between the camps... is there something here to address, and how do we do it? What can we do to increase the level of discourse in the LIS corner of the blogosphere?

Well, my decision is this. Once a week, I’ll try to post something substantial about my field. I’m going to define "my field" very broadly indeed, and I’ll try to keep it relevant to people who don’t spend all of their time in libraries. Maybe, like TRP has done in the past, I’ll just pose a question and try to start a discussion. We’ll see.


Blogger TeacherRefPoet said...


I read Gorman's article. Didn't feel like satire in the Swiftian sense. It just felt kind of rude.

That said, I agree with him. Google is NOT a very useful research tool. Watch HS sophomores try to get information from it. Our wonderful librarian has a lot of links to good databases which kids routinely bypass to put some hopelessly vague phrase into Google. Books are way more helpful, but this generation grew up without them.

As for blogs...well...I also agree with Mr. Gorman if you're looking for information. If you're looking for interesting essays or interesting diarists, they're good once you know where to look.

On the other hand, I read the Gorman article, and never would have done so were it not for your blog. You took me to information.

Blogs can take you to the information, but they are not the information.

10:37 PM, March 16, 2005  
Blogger Joe said...


I agree. Gorman's hiding behind the word satire. Among other things, I think if he'd thought it was satire when he was writing it, he'd have hit the mark.

One of the real problems my profession is having is separating content from format or delivery tool. (Which is a pain, because it's exactly what we're supposed to be good at.) Google, for example, is a VERY useful research tool... for some things. Remember what a big improvement it was over AltaVista or Excite or Hotbot or even Yahoo?

For a basically factual query, assuming you have the knowledge or time and inclination to evaluate what you find, Google is pretty darn good. To find a variety of opinions on a controversial issue, it's not bad if you figure out the vocabulary used by all sides. To find scholarly information, no, it's pretty bad.

But a lot of this is a limitation of the content (and publishing styles) on the Internet, not so much of the search tool itself. So isn't it a good thing if they want to digitize and index more serious publishing?

Same thing goes for blogs. We don't have a good linguistic way to separate "blogs as personal diaries" from "blog server as publishing platform." There are good books and bad books, but that doesn't reflect on "books" as a really magnificent technology.

Blogs are no more or less "the information" than books or journals are... the facts, perhaps, exist in themselves in some Platonic form; the way we bring those ideas into a tangible expression in necessarily limited (and, Sapir and Whorf would say, affected or even determined) by the format we choose. That applies to medium, format, genre, even language itself.

So while I too agree with the philosophy behind Gorman's statements, I tend to think he's boiled some very complex issues down to "Fire... BAAAAD!"

9:21 AM, March 17, 2005  

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