Michael Gorman vs. Google/Blogs

Feb 26, 2005 15:05 · 1059 words · 5 minute read

I usually avoid writing on the topic of blogging itself. I’ve been doing this for nearly four years and have not bothered to read most of the articles that are either breathlessly heralding blogging as the “new new” or as a bunch of trash that will never challenge “real journalism”. However, I felt the need to respond today.

In Revenge of the Blog People!, Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, trashes the usefulness of blogs and Google. I certainly would not claim that he’s an “antidigitalist” based on this particular article, but I do believe that he has not done enough research for his article. You need read no farther than the opening sentence to see this:

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.

In any form of human communication or creation, there will always be those who are good at it and those who are not. Usually, the number of people who are really good at something is a small percentage of the whole. But being “good at blogging” doesn’t matter! People write their blogs for a variety of reasons, and other people read those blogs for reasons that are all their own.

Without exception, the blogs I subscribe to are written by people with a fine command of the English language. Sure, there is no editor and sometimes mistakes slip through, but the general quality of the writing is fine.

Given the quality of the writing in the blogs I have seen, I doubt that many of the Blog People are in the habit of sustained reading of complex texts. It is entirely possible that their intellectual needs are met by an accumulation of random facts and paragraphs. In that case, their rejection of my view is quite understandable.

The fact of the matter is that most people in the world are not “in the habit of sustained reading of complex texts”. I daresay it would be hard to find any statistical evidence proving otherwise. As someone working in a high-tech field, I find blogs to be an invaluable part of “going deep” in my profession. I can read the thoughts of a variety of people, both well-known and unknown, and learn about new tools and techniques in a way that periodicals had never previously captured.

Topical blogs are a fabulous resource, and I would guess that every field has good ones today. I would imagine that there are even good blogs for librarians.

On Google, Mr. Gorman writes:

In the eyes of bloggers, my sin lay in suggesting that Google is OK at giving access to random bits of information but would be terrible at giving access to the recorded knowledge that is the substance of scholarly books. I went further and came up with the unoriginal idea that the thing to do with a scholarly book is to read it, preferably not on a screen.

Given that Google’s “digitize every book” project is just getting started, I can’t claim that Mr. Gorman hasn’t done his research, because there is no product available yet. I can say that I disagree with his assessment based on where I see things headed.

One thing that Mr. Gorman does not mention is that Google, today, has scholarly sources broken out into a separate search engine at scholar.google.com. For now, at least, Google does see a need to break out those kinds of searches from the ones that produce “random bits of information”. The mechnisms for indexing and organizing books and scholarly works for a “Google-like” search are different than those used for the web. I would be willing to bet that Google employs librarians to help ensure that they get it right.

Fast forward a few years… Google has millions of books digitized and neatly cross-referenced and provides an interface that can do card catalog-style lookups, full-text search lookups and relevance ranking based on criteria that related to scholarly works rather than “PageRank”. That information can help a researcher quickly hunt down what their looking for, and then check out the book so that they can read it “not on a screen”.

In a few years, though, the notion of reading it on a screen will likely be far more palatable. A few more years of refinement will likely make the eInk products usable, providing a high-resolution interface for reading books. Assuming rights issues are dealt with (something I have no confidence of happening in the next five years), then there will probably be a lot more reading happening on screens than there is today.

It is obvious that the Blog People read what they want to read rather than what is in front of them and judge me to be wrong on the basis of what they think rather than what I actually wrote.

Though I chose to spend the time writing this article, I choose not to spend the time going back and looking up his previous article and the responses to it. With any article that makes any kind of interesting point, responses will be all over the map. Pre-blogs, the number of responses that one would see were quite minimal. With blogs, anyone can respond with a trivial amount of effort. Sure, some large portion of people may respond by not reading the article and just writing a couple paragraphs of their thoughts. Ignore those people. There are doubtless others who did read the article and are providing useful commentary.

I have a healthy respect for librarians. What they do involves some complicated issues, as I saw firsthand working at JSTOR. Fast computers, huge amounts of storage and the Internet are creating whole new classes of problems for librarians to help solve. The mass of information being created today is greater than ever, and librarians help to organize it and separate the wheat from the chaff. Though Mr. Gorman is not an antidigitialist, he comes across as trying to protect the current thinking without considering how to deal with the new information organization problems that are coming up. To him, Google and blogs are probably worse than prime time network TV and are not an information resource even worth considering. I think that in a few years, we’ll see otherwise.