Today my mother sent me a link to this article by Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association - and wow, it’s the most snarky, uninformed, arrogant piece of tripe I’ve read in a long time. In fact, it’s so snarky and uninformed that for a while I questioned whether it was a hoax - I mean, can the president-elect of the American Library Association really be so dumb?
Yes, apparently he can, and that certainly doesn’t bode well for America’s libraries.
I don’t know if I can even begin to address everything that’s wrong with this article - but I have to try. First of all, his definition of a blog reads like this: "A blog is a species of interactive electronic diary by means of which the unpublishable, untrammeled by editors or the rules of grammar, can communicate their thoughts via the web." That makes me laugh, actually - I’m sure William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, Neal Pollack, Michael Chabon, Eric Garcia, and the vast number of lesser-known bloggers who have written technical books or novels, often as a direct result of their having a blog - will be very interested to hear that they’re "unpublishable". I’ll bet their publishers would be interested to know that, too. This statement pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the article, so we could just stop there, because it’s clear that Gorman has absolutely no clue what he’s talking about when he says the word "blog". But it’ll be fun to continue exposing his ignorance, so…
Before getting to the meat of the matter, Gorman takes a potshot at bloggers who have been issued press credentials - apparently, the idea is "absurd". Well, I don’t know what world Gorman lives in, but in my world (which I fondly refer to as the real world), it doesn’t take a complete conspiracy theorist to realize that you can’t always trust "real" journalists - if they’re not fabricating stories outright, then they’re being paid by the government to tell people what the government wants them to hear. In light of that, I think I’d rather take my chances with a fellow blogger who is genuinely concerned with The Truth and who, for no financial gain and acting on no political agenda, takes the initiative to find the *real* story behind the propaganda and/or lies - the story that big news outlets don’t seem capable of or interested in telling.
After this initial swipe at bloggers, Gorman veers off to attack Google (which he has done before in an article entitled "Google and God’s Mind" - and if you GOOGLE that title, you’ll get an overview of the reaction that little diatribe sparked). First of all, the man has no concept of how Google works or what it’s good for. It’s apparently "notoriously inefficient", providing users with "heaps of irrelevance" which are delivered in "no very useful order". Well, I presume Gorman has never had to search for anything on the Web, ever, because if he had, he would have realized tout de suite that if you want to find relevant information as efficiently as possible, then Google is the way to go. The bulk of my professional work entails looking things up. I must use Google hundreds of times a day, so I feel I know it pretty well. Yes, you need to employ intelligent search strategies in order to get the most out of Google (or any search engine - or heck, any card catalog, for that matter), but I would think that any self-respecting librarian would know how to narrow a search, cross-reference, or come at a topic from an oblique angle in order to find the information he or she was looking for. That’s not a shortcoming of Google - that’s just the way research works, both online and off.
But Gorman’s beef doesn’t seem to be with Google per se, but rather with Google’s plan to start digitizing libraries (which you may remember me swooning about a few months ago). And this is where Gorman makes a rapid descent into gross insults and belittlement by questioning the intelligence of anyone who reads blogs, writes a blog, or thinks that making the contents of the world’s libraries available online is a pretty nifty idea. Gorman says "the thing to do with a scholarly book is read it, preferably not on a screen". Well, as someone who has had to deal with more than her fair share of scholarly books lately, I would amend that by saying the thing to do with a scholarly book is, generally, to glean information from it, and to do that, it doesn’t make a whit of difference whether I read it on a screen or "in the flesh" (I’m leaving aside here scholarly books that are read for the pure pleasure of reading them, and historical books/documents/manuscripts which scholars will want to or need to see in the flesh in order to fully understand).
Truth be told, I’ve started to find the old "index at the back of the book" paradigm extremely time-consuming and frustrating when I’m writing a paper. I love the speed and efficiency of searching through a digital document: Apple key+F, and I’m off. Physically flipping back and forth and back and forth through a book, trying to scan each densely written page for a single word or phrase, just about does my head in. It’s not that I don’t love books, it’s not that I don’t see the value of holding an actual book in my hand or reading it through from cover to cover, and it’s not that I’m particularly fond of reading documents on a screen - it’s just that the reality of doing large amounts of research means that when I have the opportunity to search through something digitally, I will jump on it.
Contrary to Gorman’s comments, however, I do not have "a fanatical belief in the transforming power of digitization" and I’m not laboring under the assumption that once Google starts scanning books, everyone will have access to everything, everywhere in the world, at any time. But I do believe that the digitization of libraries will go some way towards making some information more available than it is now. And how can that be anything but a good thing?
Moving on, Gorman delivers bloggers such as myself another slap in the face by saying, "Given the quality of the writing in the blogs I have seen, I doubt that many of the Blog People are in the habit of sustained reading of complex texts." I don’t know what bloggers Gorman has in mind, but they’re certainly not any of the numerous, extremely literate and erudite bloggers whose work I read on a regular basis, and his derogatory comments certainly don’t apply to this blogger either. I am more than proficient at reading complex texts for long periods of time, Mr. Gorman - that’s how I spend my days when I’m not publicly lambasting drivel like your most recent article. I hope the folks over at Language Log, for instance (professional linguists, professors, and published authors all) get a good chuckle out of being branded part of the great unread, illiterate masses. Here’s a cold, hard fact, Mr. Gorman: bloggers aren’t rejecting your view because "their intellectual needs are met by an accumulation of random facts and paragraphs" and hence they are too stupid to understand your argument - they’re rejecting your view because they’re highly intelligent people and hence they know your argument (such as it is) is a load of hooey.
But really, it’s the last paragraph of the article that completely takes the cake. After maligning bloggers and griping about the money it will cost to digitalize books, Gorman writes: "If a fraction of the [money spent on digitalization] were devoted to buying books and providing librarians for the library-starved children of California, the effort would be of far more use to humanity and society." Well, if a fraction of Mr. Gorman’s energy were spent educating himself as to what blogs are capable of and finding out what’s happening in libraries in his own state, then maybe he wouldn’t come across looking like such an ass.
Mr. Gorman, in the interest of broadening your horizons, may I suggest you direct your Web browser to pamie.com. You will wind up at a long-running blog written by a very funny woman who also happens to be a published author and screenwriter. In the navigation bar on the left-hand side of that blog, you will see links such as "Alvarado Elementary School Book Drive", "San Diego Book Drive Blog", "San Diego Public Library Donor List", and "Oakland Public Library Donor List". And if you follow those links, you will find that this single blogger, Pamela Ribon, has motivated people all over the world - bloggers and non-bloggers alike - to donate what by now must amount to thousands of books to local public libraries in California! I don’t think it would have taken much research (using Google or otherwise) to find that out - but then I guess you, too, are guilty of "reading what you want to read" and seeing what you want to see, eh, Mr. Gorman? Really, you should be ashamed of yourself.
At the end of it all, I can’t really tell whether Gorman’s gripe is with bloggers, or with Google, or with the Internet as a whole, or just with this newfangled modern world we live in, where anyone with a computer and Internet access can publish their pesky opinions online and publicly take blowhards like Gorman to task for writing complete nonsense. Whatever his problem is, Gorman shows a stunningly profound misunderstanding of who bloggers are and what the Internet is, yet he doesn’t hesitate to publish strong opinions on both subjects. For someone who trades in knowledge for a living, I think this is a serious shortcoming, and I hope the good librarians in the American Library Association speak out against this kind of behavior, because it’s certainly not doing their organization any favors.
It could well be that Gorman’s intention was merely to provoke - in which case he’s succeeded, at least judging by how riled up I got when I read his article. His intention certainly can’t have been to contribute anything useful to the discussion of what place online publishing has in the modern media landscape, or what role the Internet can or will play in storing and managing the world’s knowledge, or what the library of the future will look like - all of which are deeply interesting questions that are worthy of being explored in detail. Ultimately, it’s just unfortunate that the president-elect of the American Library Association feels it’s more important to pout and lob insults at people than it is to engage in intelligent, informed discussion of some very relevant issues. Make a note of this, Mr. Gorman: it’s not your supposed "antidigitalist" stance that makes you so unappealing and infuriating - it’s your shockingly disparaging comments, your willful ignorance, and your narrow, narrow mind.