A librarian’s case against Google’s text digitization efforts, and my rebuttal

Via Slashdot, Revenge of the Blog People!

A blog is a species of interactive electronic diary by means of which the unpublishable, untrammeled by editors or the rules of grammar, can communicate their thoughts via the web. (Though it sounds like something you would find stuck in a drain, the ugly neologism blog is a contraction of “web log.”) Until recently, I had not spent much time thinking about blogs or Blog People.

I had heard of the activities of the latter and of the absurd idea of giving them press credentials (though, since the credentials were issued for political conventions, they were just absurd icing on absurd cakes). I was not truly aware of them until shortly after I published an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (“Google and God’s Mind,” December 17, 2004). Then, thanks to kind friends with nothing but my welfare in mind, I rapidly learned more about the blog subcultures.

My piece had the temerity to question the usefulness of Google digitizing millions of books and making bits of them available via its notoriously inefficient search engine. The Google phenomenon is a wonderfully modern manifestation of the triumph of hope and boosterism over reality. Hailed as the ultimate example of information retrieval, Google is, in fact, the device that gives you thousands of “hits” (which may or may not be relevant) in no very useful order.

On your left, you’ll find a remnant of the Paleolithic era, railing against the technological advances that assail him on sides even as he continues to support the archaic filing systems that give his life meaning.

Where does the phrase “Blog People” come from? It is by far one of the stupidest terms I have ever heard.

Ah, well. As they sang in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, “We don’t like / What we don’t / Understand / In fact it scares us.” I guess Gorman is out to kill the Beast.

His position ultimately seems to be that information in books is more valid than information rendered in pixels, that the only true way to learn is to read print materials. (That kind of makes the name of my website seem pretty sad, doesn’t it?) But it shouldn’t be hard to see the logical fallacy in this argument. Just because something has been published doesn’t mean it is automatically worth reading. There is plenty of trash out there–yes, even in established academic literature. What Gorman may truly be afraid of is the fact that easy access to textual information would de-glorify quite a bit of the writing on which his livelihood is based. It would not only make his current job obsolete (which he claims doesn’t concern him), but it would call into question the integrity of his work at the most basic level. People will start asking things like, “This study is completely unscientific. Why was it housed in this great library?” Clearly, digitizing academic texts spells doom for the legitimacy of librarians.

No text, digital, print, or whatever, should be glorified. Everything should be accessible so that merits can be judged across the board. Digital texts are accessible in libraries that have computers, but printed matter is not accessible on computers, because computers don’t typically come with libraries. So, we need more computers in libraries, and we need more texts digitized. And those poor, library-less children in California could learn at their home or school computers if the texts were made available in a digital format. Wouldn’t that, in the long run, be less expensive than building library sites, purchasing hundreds of thousands of books, employing librarians, and then attempting to keep an archive of print materials up to date?