Friday, March 11, 2005

In defence of Gorman

I recently pointed my trusty browser to the blog of a colleague. It was with some surprise that I found a stinging rebuke directed at that most dastardly character: the president-elect of the American Library Association (ALA). These comments were published in the Library Journal, widely renowned as an outspoken organ of social criticism. This discovery left me with two questions: 1) will Michael Gorman ever assume the full mantle of "president" so he can stop using that ridiculous title, and 2) how did Michael Gorman cause such a fuss?

Responding to other blogs isn’t my kettle of fish. I realize that a large part of blogdom is devoted to exactly this practice but my own blogatory habits are different. I eschew those common community-building features like trackback, comments, and the blogrole in favour of pure commentary. Instead of establishing dialogue with a greater community (as per bloguru teachings), my blog is devoted to maintaining dialogue with… well, me (and any other wayward searcher that drops by). I’ve managed to adopt this format without bringing down blogageddon. But now here I am responding to some criticism of Michael Gorman. This break from my norm isn’t due to any loyalty toward the ALA but because I’ve actually read some of Gorman’s work and I suspect that many of his critics have not.

So what did Gorman actually say?

"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. 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."

Were these comments really that bad? Is there sufficient venom in these words to incite a blogolution? Or to subject Gorman to a (virtual) blogocution? I have to admit that I’m quite impressed that such a bland public figure as the president-elect of the ALA was able to cause such a fuss. I’m also amazed that the Library Journal has been recognized as an incendiary media outlet. Keep in mind that Eric Moon, the one time publishing executive of LJ characterized the submissions to the journal as "this incredible stream of garbage" and described their authors as being guilty of "scissors and paste research" making LJ a "grubby composite". He had equally harsh words for the venerable Library Quarterly: "still thought of by some as a ‘scholarly’ periodical…. [it] looks to me more like a collection of antiquated gentlemen examining their navels." (Jones, 1976) Ouch! So how did Gorman, apparently an antiquated gentleman, manage to rile up so many people during one of his navel exhibitions?

I think that Gorman was trying to say something else; his intention was not merely to piss people off. While I certainly can’t speak for the man himself, I can cast a bit of light on the opinions he expressed in his most recent book : The enduring library (Gorman, 2003). I would like to suggest that Gorman’s goal was not to offend bloggerdom but rather to demonstrate the problems that blogs, and the electronic delivery of ephemeral information in general, present to the nirvana of all librarians: the total fixity of knowledge.

Gorman is neither a luddite nor blogophobe. He posses a very real appreciation of digital media, especially with respect to its role in library settings. He describes three general schools of thought:

"There are those who think that digital media, in defiance of history or the needs of consumers, will overwhelm all other media, and hence libraries as we know them will have no future. There are those who believe that digital media will come to dominate, but not obliterate, all other communications media, and therefore libraries will undergo a sea change--persisting but in an increasingly unrecognizable form. Finally, there are those who believe that we are at an interesting point in the evolutions of communications media--a point at which digital media will find their place and level in society and will be incorporated into the ever-evolving library." (pp. 30-31)

In the context of this perspective, Gorman articulates his own definition of the Internet:

"It is a practical engine that delivers books, socks, gardening tools, and handmade candles at the touch of a keyboard. It is also a mythical presence--an infinite electronic hall of mirrors in which the thoughts and prejudices of millions carom, shift shape, and reverberate for nanoseconds, years, or periods in between." (pg. 53)

After demonstrating a full awareness of how libraries and digital information can live together peacefully, Gorman describes a concern that we should all consider. While the utility of a device for delivering handmade candles can hardly be argued, the cascade of thoughts and prejudices is a genuine concern, particularly for a librarian (and president-elect!) who was weaned on the values of cataloguing and archiving. In this concern we perhaps see the seed of Gorman’s rant on literacy. Indeed, for a librarian literacy means access to information. Correct spelling is more than Victorian quaintness but represents an industrial tool for uncorking the finite universe of knowledge. Just try to negotiate a card catalogue with your ‘f’s and ‘gh’s confused! Or ‘E’s and ‘3’s, heaven forbid! Gorman makes his views on spelling quite clear:

"What I mean by 'literacy' (or 'full literacy') is the lifelong process of learning to read and write ever more deeply and effectively after one has mastered the mechanics of reading and writing. These latter activities are mutually interdependent. One cannot write well if one cannot read well, and the more capable a person is of the sustained reading of complex texts, the more likely he or she is to be able to express complex thoughts in writing." (pg. 41)

For Gorman, the importance of literacy transcends information access and includes the most vital intellectual asset of critical thinking:

"This ability ('critical thinking') is what information-competence teachers seek to inculcate. Why then do literacy teachers content themselves with the mechanics of reading and writing and not the uses of which those mechanics can be put?" (pg. 46)

The critical thinking that occurs with "full literacy" is a vital component of information access. From this perspective, Gorman’s apparent condemnation of blogs makes some sense. Without bibliographic structure or even correct spelling, they present a threat to the institutions that are closest to Gorman’s heart: libraries. While some zealogs may claim that the time is right for libraries to "g0" away or that they should be "dL337d" from the info-sphere, libraries are still a vital means of disseminating the information we require to not just make sense of our world but to continue the building up of the world for an extended period of time:

"The attributes of a well-regulated library are well known to us all. They are organization, retrievability, authenticity, and fixity. There are those who claim that electronic documents and sites (assemblages of electronic documents) are different in kind and not just degree from all the other formats that human beings have used to communicate and preserve knowledge across the centuries." (pg. 87)

In these final words, I think that Gorman--despite his blogriminations--finally gives us an ace that we can keep. Who can argue that the ephemera spewed across the Internet lacks permanence and organization? It’s a complete bitch but it’s also part of the beauty of the medium and perhaps explains why a social-technical phenomenon like blogging can occur. What was the last socio-technical movement within the traditional library environment? I really can’t imagine. I want to thank Gorman for clearly demonstrating that the digital and the analog do not necessarily combine amicably. Pluralism is a good thing.

For me, I’m just excited that a navel gazing antiquarian writing a stream of garbage in a grubby composite can actually get Slashdotted.

References

Gorman, M. (2003). The enduring library : technology, tradition, and the quest for balance. Chicago: American Library Association.

Jones, G. (1976). "This incredible stream of garbage": the library journals, 1876-1975. The Indexer, 10(1), 9-14.

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