Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 17, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

GOOGLE AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT....Every once in a while I hear an idea so blindingly, mind-numbingly blinkered that I want to find the person responsible and just beat the tar out of him. And no, for once I'm not talking about Social Security privatization.

The LA Times features an op-ed today by one Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association. His subject is Google's widely praised initiative to scan and digitize an enormous number of books from the libraries at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and others.

Gorman starts with a reasonable, if pedestrian, observation: information is not knowledge. Reading bits and pieces of books out of context is not the same thing as acquiring scholarly appreciation of a subject area. In fact, uncritically browsing through Google hits in a subject you're unfamiliar with can be positively misleading if you're not careful about who and what you read.

Which is all fine. It's slightly nannyish advice, to be sure be sure to eat your vegetables when you use Google! but it's basically sound. Unfortunately, Gorman then proceeds to drive straight over a cliff and explode in a cataclysmic fireball of ignorance and contempt:

I am all in favor of digitizing books that concentrate on delivering information, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and gazetteers, as opposed to knowledge....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.

....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.

How can a scholar possibly have such a narrow mind and a scholar of books, no less? Suggesting that Google should limit itself to reference books and leave everything else alone bespeaks a paucity of both spirit and vision that's staggering. And what's sadder still, it appears to be based on the defensive and Luddite notion that Google intends to put libraries and librarians out of business. I wonder if Gorman's 15th century forebears opposed the spread of the printing press on similar grounds?

I have no idea whether Google's initiative will eventually be successful. But I do know that digitizing and indexing vast stores of knowledge will be a boon to scholars on dozens of levels, as well as a source of knowledge and fascination to the rest of us.

Will we all read entire books online? Or print them out? Probably not. But when I use a brick-and-mortar library I don't always do that either. I browse. I peek into books. I take notes from chapters here and there. A digitized library allows me to do the same thing, but with vastly greater scope and vastly greater focus.

I wonder if there's still time for the ALA to un-elect Mr. Gorman as its upcoming president? He's an embarrassment to their profession.

Kevin Drum 12:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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