Skip to content

Gorman, On Reflection

This is post-game analysis of what I now call (albeit very tongue in cheek) Gormangate. I expect I won’t have anything else to write on this issue for a while, if again, unless we hear a retraction or explanation from Gorman.

First, ALA’s own governing body has largely ignored this issue. This is not surprising, since Council is traditionally a few years behind librarianship in general. It’s also not really bothersome. But it is diagnostic. Council also ignored the ALA Web site design debacle of April 2003 until the rest of ALA had registered its outrage. This is a more important observation than you may realize, because Gorman is largely a product of the ALA political structure, so he takes his cues from the ALA political environment. As the outside world, particularly the blogosphere, picks up this story and worries it until the next fun thing comes along (read: about two more days at most, unless I’m wrong), ALA as an organization and Gorman as a person will have no response because ALA and Gorman are blissfully unaware of the discussion. Gormangate didn’t even make American Libraries’ news column this week.

Based on my Technorati searches and field intelligence, Michael Gorman’s “rather sad little piece” in Library Journal has not only reached deep saturation within Libraryland via the biblioblogosphere, but also, courtesy of blog-related cross-fertilization, it has also made it out fairly deeply onto the open Web (where it is now a part of the body of recorded knowledge).

Outside of LibraryLand, though Gorman’s words will be quickly forgotten, they will continue to resonate as the way people think about librarians. After all, Gorman has to be speaking for all librarians: we elected him, didn’t we? As the byline on his editorial notes, he is “president-elect of the American Library Association.” (Note that his term hasn’t even started; it begins at the end of ALA’s 2005 Annual Conference, and runs through Annual 2006. He will then serve a year as the immediate past-president. As we know from Jimmy Carter, past presidents have an indefinite half-life, and I’m sure we’ll hear from Gorman in that capacity, as well.)

Inside LibraryLand, some are finally learning what I have said for years: the most significant role of the ALA president is to make us look good to the outside world. (ALA, pretty much like Washington, is run by the permanent government of its hired bureacracy. For the record, I think ALA got lucky with Keith Fiels, whose job I do not envy.)

So how do we look right now? I’m not sure what effect Gorman was aiming for (nor do I buy the “satire” excuse), but belittling bloggers and making insupportable comments about Google didn’t make bloggers look bad; instead, it made ALA look like the backward organization many of us secretly worry it is, a mausoleum of 19th-century librarianship, and it did it at a time when popular pundits with free pots of ink could respond, and respond, and respond.

This is a sad counter-example of our dues at work. Our professional governance is our most important marketing tool, and how the ALA president represents us is crucial to how we are perceived. You paid for this bad press (and we may pay for it indefinitely). To get a little sixties on you, it was bad karma.

Another significant role of the ALA president is to be yet another nudge within the ponderous ALA bureaucracy for issues important to ALA members. If you elect someone who has consistently belittled technology, don’t expect him to advocate for (let alone understand the need for or interest in) services such as wi-fi at conferences. I can almost guarantee my old bete noir, ALA’s Current Reference File, will continue to sit in a trunk (literally, a trunk) throughout the Gorman administration.

Note that after my initial post, I have actually said very little about Gormangate, if you follow this blog and my other venues, because so little needs to be said. I am simply not surprised. As Rachel Singer Gordon pointed out on Web4Lib, Gorman was simply being consistent with Gorman; he has dismissed blogging before, in a book published by no less than the American Library Association. His statements in Library Journal fit in with my experiences of Gorman’s opinions about technology and its role in libraries.

Serving on Council with someone is a lot like being married: you either appreciate the long-term relationship far more than you ever imagined, or you soon wonder whatever you saw in the big galoot. During my terms on Council, I have routinely observed Gorman strolling up to the microphone to lob anti-technology bon mots, which inevitably elicit applause from his peanut gallery of uber-Luddites. In other discussions about technology, Gorman is notably silent. This is all a matter of public record, observed by hundreds of librarians who take the time to watch Council proceedings. His campaign website mentions technology nowhere, except–and this is an odd way to do it–by listing his 1999-2000 presidency of LITA. (He was also on ALA’s Executive Board when it looked at a Powerpoint of the new ALA website the eve before its debut and nodded with approval, not one of them aware of the train wreck in progress or thinking to ask why they weren’t shown a live website.)

On the plus side, Gormangate has already inspired some rethinking among library professionals about the importance of selecting who represents us to the outside world. Better late than never. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s observations after the 2000 U.S. general election, don’t let nobody ever tell you your vote dudn’t count. ALA’s elections matter. If you belong to ALA, please exercise your privileges, and vote.

But if you do vote, please do your homework. Gorman, as president-elect of ALA, is already in a position where he speaks for not merely 65,000 librarians but the future of librarianship itself, every single time he opens his mouth with or without benefit of an editor. How suited he was for this task should have been discussed far more extensively before he was elected. For those of you calling for his “recall,” give it up. You don’t get mulligans in elections for not paying attention the first time around.

Librarians need to learn to ask hard questions. This should be clear from this 2004 interview with Michael Gorman, where he stated that his priority as ALA president would be “addressing the crisis in library education.” Where, here or elsewhere, were the follow-on questions asking exactly what that meant? It has been suggested by some who have observed Gorman for decades that his approach to library education would be returning the profession to where it was in 1955. Given my prolonged exposure to Gorman through ALA governance activities, I believe that assessment is overly optimistic; if Gorman had his way, librarianship would learn to party like it’s 1899. But in fairness to Gorman, he has never pretended to be anything other than who he is. All the evidence is right there, where you can find it, in print, in transcripts, and for the asking.

I end this post (which will be postdated, since more editing goes into blogging than Gorman realizes), not for lack of ideas, but because I must return to a weekend’s worth of sustained reading and writing of complex texts. However, I must repeat that Gorman has never disguised his points of view, and has never been anything other than himself. What he has done in his latest antic, in his typically stilted, backward, overly mannered, poorly reasoned, Stephen-Spender-on-Ludes style–besides remind writers that it is a bad idea to insult your own kind–is make it really clear where his old world diverges from our new one. For that, I heartily thank him.

Posted on this day, other years: