Saturday, February 26, 2005

Blog People and Michael Gorman

Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, has written a rant about bloggers, Google, and the role of librarians.

I quite enjoyed the rant, especially as Google refuses to index my web site, but then I started wondering about the implications of Gorman's assertions.

The current method of publishing books, with authors, agents, publishing houses, printers and booksellers cannot be viewed as the "right way" any more than blogging can claim the title. The former is just as much a result of technology (printing) as is blogging (web and Internet).

One begins to suspect that Gorman's assertion that his concerns have nothing to do with job protection for librarians rings hollow, and is an elitist attempt to maintain control over access to knowledge.

I have witnessed the same painful transition in computing, where the old IBM priesthood of programmers and system administrators fought bitterly to prevent the widespread dissemination of information that led to their becoming irrelevant. The phrase "real men program in Assembler" while humorous, has at its root the vain attempt to keep things hard so that access is only possible through the professional intermediaries.

Where were the librarians when the world shifted and such wonderful new tools as the web, and search, and essentially free storage became available? I have no disagreement with the assertion that current methods are anarchic and ineffective, but they are still dramatically better than trying to educate by assuming that all knowledge should reside in books organized by librarians and accessible only by physically going to book storage locations.

The real debate should be about the inability to judge veracity of information without context or bona fides. Google's approach is to assume that popularity (number of linked pages) equates with importance. It is the digital equivalent of mob rule.

The "dead trees" brigade relies on self appointed gate keepers - editors, publishers, distributors to determine what gets published. While one can perhaps accept that this ensures quality, it does guarantee that most material is not published. Since sales ultimately determine success and therefore subsequent access to distribution, the same result we see with Google obtains - a rush to the lowest common denominator, and those with the most money for promotion (or search engine advertising placement) take dominant placement.

There is also a very real concern about monopolistic control over the channels of distribution. There are few librarians happy with the prices charged by scholarly journals. Given the archaic system of publish or perish in academia, the inevitable logjam of those needing to be published has run into the decreasing number of outlets controlled by large publishing houses.

Do I want my news and information to come from some illiterate blogger? Obviously not. But I do want my news and information to be available conveniently and instantly. Gorman should be questioning why librarians have failed to keep up with technology and the potential it offers to revolutionize their profession, not trying to protect books and libraries. Most libraries use computers only to make the distribution and tracking of books more efficient, not to access their contents.

You are doomed if you do not understand what business you are in. Libraries are not useful because they store books in one place. They are useful because they provide a thoughtful and useful indexing framework for the retrieval of information.

To use another analogy, libraries are like fixed line phone companies attempting to compete with mobile phones. The fixed line companies thought they were in the business of providing physical connections and handsets to customers. Experience has shown they were actually in the communications and indexing business. The value comes from the phone number and the ability to access any other subscriber.

The technology is irrelevant.

2 comments:

Carmilla said...

I appreciate your response to the Gorman issue, but you need to stop generalizing about librarians. Countless librarians have kept up with the technology and do everything in their power to help it progress even when constantly challenged by some visionless non-librarian administrators who cut library budgets and stymie technological progress because they don't understand it.

Just remember: Gorman doesn't represent all librarians. Many practicing librarians do not belong to ALA and many who do aren't slavish to his viewpoints.

Keith DeWeese

Waleed Hanafi said...

I take your point. I guess I am just as guilty of generalizing about an entire population as Gorman. I just find it sad that all the knowledge gained by a profession does not seem to have been preserved during the technological shift. Most corporates have abandoned any pretence of information management, and rely on email archives. The divide between academia and business is huge in that respect.