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Monday, December 20, 2004

Information Wants to be Dusty: Library Science as Reaction

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reaction


n 6: extreme conservatism in political or social matters; "the forces of reaction carried the election"

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One of my favorite Seinfeld scenes has Newman concluding a particularly melodramatic threat with "because when you control the mail... you control.... information!!!"

The one time my father ever subjected himself to parent-teacher day, he met the outgoing typing teacher, Mrs. Rummery. "What about these new word processing machines?," my father asked politely. Other teachers were starting to show students how to use them. Not Mrs. Rummery. "I'm glad I'll be long gone before I ever have to deal with that," she grumped. A wonderful steward of taxpayer dollars.

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Consider now the reaction of Michael Gorman, a librarian who argues that "the books in great libraries are designed to be read sequentially and cumulatively, so that the reader gains knowledge in the reading." Speaking for myself, I know that ain't true. Anticipating a glorious graduate school career, one summer I read Rawls' A Theory of Justice sequentially and cumulatively. It's safe to say I not only gained precious little knowledge from that exercise, but that in the ensuing years, the "snippets and snatches" method ruled the day for the tens of thousands of books and articles I was forced to read to come to a fully professional understanding of politics, philosophy, sociology, economics, admin theory, and other overlapping disciplines.

Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, writes with no little passion on the subject of recent high-flown experiments in digitizing content:

The boogie-woogie Google boys, it appears, dream of taking over the universe by gathering all the "information" in the world and creating the electronic equivalent of, in their own modest words, "the mind of God." If you are taken in by all the fanfare and hoopla that have attended their project to digitize all the books in a number of major libraries (including the New York Public and the University of Michigan), you would think they are well on their way to godliness.

I do not share that opinion.


Later on in his Newsday editorial, Gorman tells us which pieces of information he is in favor of digitizing, and which ones should be left alone. It's as if he believes that librarians alone hold the key to understanding how info should best be disseminated and consumed.

I do not share that opinion.

Words should not be taken out of context, but nor should access to them be seen as threatening in some way. There are whole courses, for starters, in "how to" read the canon of Western political philosophy. There might be four major schools of thought on the matter of "how to" read Plato's Republic or the works of Grotius. Some might involve close textual analysis. Others might involve a lifetime understanding the social, economic, political, and linguistic contexts of the works. That might involve a lot more reading, but it might also involve much research; in other words, not always reading all works "cumulatively."

There is talk amongst archivists that one can learn a lot from examining and smelling old books. Nice. But to a modern professoriate, the idea is to get higher education into the hands of the many, not to restrict access to a few "gentlemen." The bulk of reading material from whatever era (99+%) finds its way into the hands of undergraduates via anthologies and reprints. Education is supposed to be for everyone. Book-sniffing is considerably more rarefied territory than, say, wine-tasting, or truffle-digging.

Can there be any holding back the digitizing of some important historical content, and later, nearly everything ever published? Can Gorman see no potential benefit to this? You don't have to love or even like the "boogie-woogie Google boys" to admit it when they're working on something interesting.

The New York times piece on Google Web Library, and the InfoToday article on the announcement, offer a more balanced view.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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