Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Michael Gorman and digital books

Librarian Michael Gorman wrote an opinion piece carried in the Los Angeles Times on December 17, 2004 titled "Google and God's Mind," a commentary on Google's plan to digitize books and make them available for online searches.

Gorman is Dean of Library Services at California State University, Fresno, and is president-elect of the American Library Association.

He thinks of Google's efforts to create digital libraries as an act of hubris -- an attempt to gather all the world's information in one medium. Somewhat pedantically, he reminds us that information by itself is not knowledge.

Gorman warns that Google's search of online books will encourage readers to read bits and pieces of books rather than the entire text, thereby reducing the reading experience to a sort of "Cliff's Notes" version. He's afraid the book will become marginalized by a fast food culture.

But the last time I checked, the reader still has the inalienable right to decide how to use a book for his or her own knowledge.

The medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan once said of electronic technology that "the medium is the message," suggesting that the way in which a message is delivered says more about our society than the message itself. The medium may change and evolve, but the message is essentially the same.

Digital media provides the possibility for libraries to be preserved and propagated for future generations, indefinitely. It represents another way to mass produce the written word, and to distribute information and therefore, knowledge.

The medium is the message.

Digital books will never be a perfect substitute for real books, but they can complement each other. No one is suggesting replacing one with the other.

Michael Gorman needs to trust readers to know how to read a book the way they see fit, and not worry about how the book is presented.

He was heavily criticized online for his views, and he wrote a response titled "Revenge of the Blog People!" In the piece, Gorman dismissed his detractors, many of whom were bloggers who characterized him as a Luddite. He also makes several subtle insults at blogging culture and those he believes are obsessed with technology.

The reason Gorman's opinions have a slightly musty odor to them -- something that smells of technophobia -- is because he believes advocates of digital libraries, such as Google, want electronic media to "supplant and obliterate all previous forms," according to his Los Angeles Times article.

His comments are deeply rooted in his profession as a librarian.

I'm not knocking the trade -- I have a lot of respect for librarians as patrons of literature. They have an admirable and often thankless job.

But his suggestion that Google and others like them want to replace brick-and-mortar libraries is the sound of an alarmist.

I'm not an apologist for technology -- I may have a degree in Management Information Systems, but my difference with Gorman is in how information is used, not in what mode it is delivered.

Gorman should remember that the book itself is a technology -- and it remains the greatest technology in human history.

So I chose to make remarks here in a blog -- another technology -- because I think of a blog as another way to deliver information efficiently, nothing more, nothing less.

The medium is the message.

Information and knowledge are only as useful or as destructive as the reader who makes use of them.

Knowledge is power, as they say.

Give Google a chance to show what its project can do before demonizing its ambitions. Ridicule their godlike hubris, if you will, but let their results rise or fall on its own merit.

Afterword

I love books, because they represent a system to deliver information efficiently. I don't have to wait for it to boot, it doesn't have batteries to burn out, and it has no screen to fade out. It doesn't crash. It's light and portable, and I can even make notes in the margins.

As wonderful as a digital book can be, there's nothing quite like a real book. And there never will be. Books are an indispensible part of human knowledge, and as long as there are books in this world, libraries will always be here, too.

I see digital libraries as a valuable service that will complement real libraries. And unlike Michael Gorman, I don't see anyone threatening to replace real libraries with electronic imitations.

2 Comments:

Blogger Randy Reichardt said...

Hello. I am a librarian at the University of Alberta. Yours is one of the most thoughtful and articulate responses to Michael Gorman's blog rant I have yet to read. I have referenced your comments on my site here: http://stlq.info/archives/001822.html.

I have tried to locate your Langrange 5 blog, but cannot find it, despite my best search engine efforts. What is its URL?

I have added Project 921 to my Bloglines account. Thanks again for your contribution to Gormangate.
- Randy Reichardt

March 5, 2005 at 7:33:00 AM PST  
Blogger C.J. Nieman said...

Thanks for the nice comment, Randy, and thanks for visiting. It's good to know there are others out there who share what I hope is a reasonable view.

My space-related blog, Lagrange 5, can be found at http://lagrange5.blogspot.com/.

March 5, 2005 at 5:16:00 PM PST  

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