Michael Gorman, Fisher King

Oh boy.

I remember seeing Michael Gorman deliver the keynote at a BCLA conference while I was still a library school student.  At the time I thought a lot of Mr. Gorman.  He seemed intelligent, well-spoken, well-rounded, a person with humanistic concerns in a profession that sometimes spends too much energy on maintaining its own bureaucracies.  Gorman read, and clearly cared about, books.  He had a clear value structure having to do with the individual and communal life of the mind.  He was an old-school librarian in some satisfying ways, the way Robertson Davies was an old-school writer and journalist and playwright in some satisfying ways.

But Robertson Davies, God love him, wrote some regrettable screeds in his time, and Michael Gorman seems unable to stop himself from doing the same.  In the last couple of years, Gorman has come out against digitization technologies, blogging, and other kinds of social software  in some big and unfortunate ways.  In those links above, he’s blogging on the Britannica site about Web 2.0, essentially calling it out as a symptom of a lazy, wayward, dim-witted society.

There’s some irony in the fact that Gorman lumps bloggers and Wikipedia readers in with creationists (??), as self-indulgent dumbos.  I hope the irony is obvious, but just in case it’s not:  I blog, I consult Wikipedia, I use del.icio.us, and sometimes I even doubt the infallibility of credentialled experts–but that doesn’t mean I think God made the world in seven days.  Gorman uses the same cheap rhetoric and lazy classification that he claims to despise, in order to cut the legs out from under…well, I can’t tell, exactly.  Libraries contributing to the Google Books project?  Students using Google Scholar to find books and articles?  The general public, for uploading videos to YouTube?  I honestly can’t tell what Gorman thinks he’s doing, for whom he’s saving the world.  The world, made up as it is of dumb and clever people, late and early adopters, the left, right, and middle of the road, seems to be moving along as usual.

One thing in particular that drives me a bit nuts in Gorman’s posts is his strange insistence that library catalogs do a better job at discovery than, say, Google.  This is so patently ridiculous, so unexamined and unsupported, that it actually makes me momentarily sympathetic to Gorman’s dislike of the easy-going, blah-blah style of blogs.  I’m not sure what he means by “library catalogs,” but if he’s talking about those old standbys, card catalogs, I don’t think we can really claim they ever did a more efficient or complete job of finding materials than Google does.  If he’s talking about OPACs, well…which ones?  Which configurations?  I happen to regularly use an OPAC that can’t interpret diacritics, so materials in foreign languages just fall right out of the search.  (It has other flaws, too–don’t get me started–but the good news is, we’re working on it.)

What Gorman’s argument for library catalogs over Google web searching seems to boil down to–what many of his arguments boil down to–is the primacy of expertise.  It’s important, Gorman says, to develop expert search skills, so you know how to navigate vendor databases and library catalogs (not to mention print bibliographies and government documents and topographic maps and…everything else.)  If you use the tools the library developed and you don’t find everything you need, the problem is not with the tools, it is with you.  And here, Gorman and I must part ways. 

How many times have I gone looking for an article I *know* to exist, come up empty-handed in the databases, and found it via Google Scholar because I had a word wrong in the title, and Google Scholar was gracious enough not to care?  (Many times.)  How many times have I plugged keywords into our catalog, traced subject headings, found all I can find on a topic, then gone to Google or Amazon and found more out there, stuff that hadn’t made it into the catalog yet, or that hadn’t been assigned any of the same headings, or that didn’t share a single word in common with the titles I had, but that was recommended by another reader?  (Many times.) 

Gorman might say the problem is with me–I’m one of those lazy searchers who never learned to use the tools with precision.  It may be true–search has never been my life’s passion.  Like most people, I prefer to find, by any means possible or necessary.  But that’s the point–most people aren’t expert searchers, and they aren’t interested in becoming expert searchers, and why in God’s name should they?  We have the technology to build more inclusive systems for discovery–should we not use them, because we spent two years getting the MLIS?  Or because we’re somehow eroding intellectual culture by adopting intelligent search tools that actually work?

Like Michael Gorman, I have concerns about where we’re going as a society, intellectually and culturally.  I see the gap between academe and the world outside growing ever wider, and I see the humanities in particular struggling to remember, and explain, why they’re relevant.  I see Antioch shutting down, and I worry.  I don’t want to live in a world where people don’t read. 

I want to live in a world with more equal opportunities for the next generation, a world that’s educated enough to know what’s going on in Darfur and New Orleans, and compassionate enough to care and take action.  I think libraries are a pillar of that civilized, educated society.  That’s why I work in one.

I don’t think we’re going to get to that brave new world by turning our backs on our best ideas and our most useful tools.  I do think we’re going to need our principled humanists, as well as our dedicated technologists, to get us there in one piece.  That’s why I’m so disappointed in Gorman right now–he’s a spokesman for intelligent humanism, and he’s turned his back on us.


2 thoughts on “Michael Gorman, Fisher King

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