Skip to content

Michael Gorman: I Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Library Dust

From a Chronicle of Higher Ed article, One College Librarian Worries About ‘Atomizing’ Books … (the article will soon disappear behind the fee-based veil, though you might be able to dig it up via one of those expensive databases your library licenses):

“Wouldn’t it be better for [Google] to work on, quote, cataloging the Web, so you can get the kind of results you get from a library catalog?”

You know, that is EXACTLY what we need. Users come into libraries asking for books about “cookery” all the time.

“They say they’re digitizing books, but they’re really not, they’re atomizing them. … I mean, my view is that a scholarly book is an exposition. It begins at the beginning and ends at the end. It cumulatively adds to your knowledge of a topic and presents an argument.”

This is congruent with the “no skimming” rule strictly enforced at CSU Fresno.

“You can go to the Library of Congress catalog … and you can search using their subject headings and find an enormous amount of literature on any topic you want and then borrow it. …”

The folks at LOC might be surprised to learn that the average person can borrow books from the “Library of Congress catalog.”

“And, you know, if you build a gigantic electronic archive, sooner or later the governor of your state or the president of your university or somebody in Congress — some jackass — is going to say, Look, only three people have used this section of this digital database in the last year, why are we spending money keeping it?”

I am pleased to see that as Gorman nears his coronation as ALA president he is honing his diplomacy skills to a razor-sharp edge. We rely on those “jackass[es]” in Congress for quite a bit of support, including refunding the Library Services and Technology Act. More comments like this and we’ll see state library services morph into money to build more sports stadiums (and watch Google take the blame for that, too). As for university presidents being jackasses, do I sense a whiff of roman à clef?

“If you want to know about the dynasties of China, you’re going to have to read a book. In fact, you’re going to have to read several books.”

We repeat, effective immediately, we are enforcing the “no journal articles, no dissertations, no skimming, no Web search” rules.

As always, if you turn his comments upside down and shake out their pockets, you find some truths. Suspicion of Google is warranted; it is a company, not a savior. There is some value to comprehending a work in toto. Metadata is a Good Thing. (But there is also value to free-text search and discovery, and please, let’s not suggest that meta-parched library catalogs are the sine qua non of retrieval.) If you want to study the Chinese dynasties, you should read books. (But I would reject the scholarship of anyone who limited his research to books. Back in the day, that was a failing grade, too.)

Then again, just when I think he might make some sense, he erupts into the MacArthur Park syndrome” (when you write something as inscrutable as the lyrics to MacArthur Park). Study the following comment: “Go to any campus, and the library is likely to be the most technologically advanced unit on campus. … That does not mean that everything can be dumbed down to some kind of hip-hop or bells-and-whistles kind of stuff.” What could Gorman possibly mean by that comment? I see green icing flowing in the rain–or a professional curmudgeon spouting words he doesn’t understand in a cheap ploy playing to the appreciative caws of his dwindling peanut gallery.

Posted on this day, other years: