Friday, December 17, 2004

Fisking Michael Gorman

I know, who the hell is Michael Gorman, right? I didn't know him either, but he's the president-elect of the American Library Association and he has a baffling editorial in the LA Times arguing that Google hasn't made libraries obsolete (do you know anyone who's claimed that?). Gorman must be feeling the heat from the Google revolution; he is clearly rattled and has lost his capacity for lucidity. Time for a good ol' fisking:

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 University of Michigan and New York Public), you would think they are well on their way to godliness.

Thus the tone is set from the outset - snide, condescending, accusatory. The mind of God reference comes from an interview with Sergey Brin, the cofounder of Google, who said the following in an interview with Red Herring:

What would a perfect search engine look like? we asked. "It would be the mind of God. Larry [Page] says it would know exactly what you want and give you back exactly what you need."

Now when I read that with my puny brain, I assume that Sergey Brin is responding directly and literally to the question asked, answering with a quite intelligence observation. Apparently, there are hidden depths here that only Gorman can see, as he has detected an undertone of Sergey Brin saying that he himself can achieve the exalted state of perfection.

I do not share that opinion. The books in great libraries are much more than the sum of their parts. They are designed to be read sequentially and cumulatively, so that the reader gains knowledge in the reading.

What is one to make of this statement? Does Gorman think his readers don't understand how to read a book, or the difference between a book and a search engine?

A good scholarly book on, say, prisons in 19th century France goes well beyond simply supplying facts. Just imagine that book digitized and available for Googling. Google isn't saying exactly how such a search would work, but if it's anything like the current system, you might enter, say, "Nantes+Prisons" and get back hundreds of thousands of "hits." Somewhere in those hundreds of thousands would be a reference to a paragraph or more in our book. If you found it, what would you do with it? Supposing it says " � there were few murderers in the prisons of Nantes in 1874 � " and gives you the source of the paragraph. That is all but useless. Absent a lot more searching, you have no idea whether there are other references to the subject in the book, and the "information" you have found is almost meaningless out of context.

So, you abandon that line of inquiry or resolve to read the book. Are you going to do that online, assuming it's out of copyright? (In the Google scheme, hundreds of thousands of books in copyright will not be available to be read as a whole.) Not many would choose to stare at a screen long enough to do that.

Gee, and all the time I thought Google was helpful in pointing out where I might find information - I guess the millions and millions of people who use it daily are getting no utility whatsoever from their meaningless and out of context searches. Again, does Gorman even understand the concept of a search engine? Is there anyone alive who expects a Google search to return an entire book?

Are you going to print the book, and end up with 500 unbound sheets? Or will you request the actual book (in copyright or out) through the active and developed interlibrary lending system that supplies thousands of books daily to scholars, researchers and dilettantes worldwide? The latter involves a short wait, of course. We all know that, in Googleworld, speed is of the essence, but it is not to most scholarly research in the real world.

In other words, because people prize speed in search engines, that means they don't have the patience to search out and read books (and where does this leave your libraries, Mr. Gorman?).

The nub of the matter lies in the distinction between information (data, facts, images, quotes and brief texts that can be used out of context) and recorded knowledge (the cumulative exposition found in scholarly and literary texts and in popular nonfiction). When it comes to information, a snippet from Page 142 might be useful. When it comes to recorded knowledge, a snippet from Page 142 must be understood in the light of pages 1 through 141 or the text was not worth writing and publishing in the first place.

I can't add anything to this condescending idiocy - we know the difference between trivia and useful knowledge, Mr. Gorman.

I am all in favor of digitizing books that concentrate on delivering information, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and gazetteers, as opposed to knowledge. I also favor digitizing such library holdings as unique manuscript collections, or photographs, when seeing the object itself is the point (this is reportedly the deal the New York Public Library has made with Google). I believe, however, that massive databases of digitized whole books, especially scholarly books, are expensive exercises in futility based on the staggering notion that, for the first time in history, one form of communication (electronic) will supplant and obliterate all previous forms.

Google is a for-profit entity, and a quite successful one at that. They obviously believe there is a market for this; I don't think they just throw millions of dollars in the wind. Is Mr. Gorman a librarian or a stock analyst? What does the expense matter to anyone but Google shareholders?

It is beyond premature to prepare to mourn the death of libraries and the death of the book. If I had shares in publishing companies I would hang on to them. This latest version of Google hype will no doubt join taking personal commuter helicopters to work and carrying the Library of Congress in a briefcase on microfilm as "back to the future" failures, for the simple reason that they were solutions in search of a problem.

Who's mourning the death of the book? Mr. Gorman again engages in stock analysis and concludes with a basic misunderstanding of the profit motive. What a specious, ill-reasoned waste of time this editorial was. If I didn't know better, I'd say Mr. Gorman is delivering information rather than knowledge.

(hat tip to RealClearPolitics)...

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