Lost in the Library

My friend Randy Reichardt, a librarian by profession, blogged about the Gorman controversy in separate entries today and yesterday. Michael Gorman is the president-elect of the American Libary Association. In December 2004 he wrote an essay in the LA Times which criticized Google’s project to digitize entire libraries. His article was discussed in some blogs. Some of the discussion was thoughtful and well-informed, some was polite and some wasn’t. People sent him clips of some of the more colourful things some bloggers were saying. Then he wrote a piece in the Library Journal online dismissing blogs and bloggers. (Information and relevant links in Randy’s entries linked above).

The whole thing spins off under its own weight because Gorman’s February piece was – well – not gracious. I’m fascinated by the discussion, and I have been left with unanswered questions. I might add, I recently watched “The Name of the Rose” which has a major plot line of searching for the last extant copy of a manuscript of Aristotle in a monastery library which was a locked maze. Umberto Eco created a very apt symbol for the tasks of preserving information in the Dark Ages. Electronic libraries can easily become mazes locked by copyrights and technical barriers to access.
I suppose that librarians have been thinking about these issues for the last 20 years or so, as books and documents have been digitized. (I have been traumatized by unhappy experiments with TextBridge in my workplaces). I can see how a digital collection can be indexed and searched but I am still curious how digital archives can be effectively searched over the Internet by – for instance – a public librarian looking for something not in her own collection. I am even more curious about how direct public access would work. I can’t see it with Google and other search engines as we know them. I read Francis Wheen’s book “Idiot Proof” which is a cross-disciplinary rant about advertising, politics, economics, business, religion, media and philosophy. He refers to the philosophers of the Enlightenment and notes, ironically that if you search the word Enlightenment with Google, you will get hundreds of hits for books, religion and counselling – all New Age entrepreneurs – and probably nothing about the history of ideas. If I knew I wanted to know about rationalist and romantic philosophers of the 17th and 18th century, or had vaguely heard that the Enlightenment wasn’t a colon cleansing product, I might begin with a dictionary and an encyclopedia, and then start to search for books with information.
Even when I have a reasonably specific idea, Google is annoyingly dumb. Another example – I wanted to get information about the philosopher Harry Frankfurt. I didn’t need to check the catalogues of all the bookstores with any of his books, or the online course outlines of a few dozen undergrad courses in moral philosophy, or footnotes in the few journal articles that showed up on a plain Google search. But that’s what Google gave me.
There is going to have to be a better way to search. I would like to be able to confine my search and screen out all advertising, marketing and promotional sites unless I am shopping. I would like to get search library catalogues and magazine and journal indices. I would like to browse by author, title and subject. I would like to know if my search concept can be found in a book without getting hundreds of hits in the same book or duplicates of the same book in different collections, and I would like to drill down into the book and search it.
If Gorman’s point is that someone has to build a better search tool when they build the archive, I agree. If his point is that the tool should be built for librarians, I might agree.
Gorman also made me think a bit more about blogs. His aside about the word blog and his general tone obscured some valid points. The search engines are not handling blogs well. Right now, on any given day a Google search may bring me to several blogs with entries that mention the search string, almost none of which have any value to me. Blogs are clogging the engines, just like advertising. Blogs are more like magazines or newspapers or private correspondence than books – temporary, fragmentary. They are meaningful in a narrow context. They are private seminar notes rather than major teaching texts. On the other hand, someone searching the Web for exactly what I have written won’t find it unless she uses a very unique search string – which may not occur to her if she hasn’t already read the piece or conceptualized the topic the same way I did with the same key words. If a writer is concerned to be read and heard, Google ranking is not useful – it’s not the hits. It’s who stays.


One response to “Lost in the Library”

  1. Some of the questions about the project are answered in Barbara Quint’s report from last December: http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb041227-2.shtml
    Unanswered questions remain. One key concern is to what you allude: how will these texts be made accessible, i.e., what kind of indexing will be provided. If made available via Google Scholar, that will cut a considerable amount of garbage from the search results.
    Gorman remains unconvinced, and seems to be in the minority. From Quint’s report:
    “John Berry of Library Journal viewed the Google library program as “another great leap forward for access to information, a paradigm shift in our time.��? As for the future of librarians, Berry said: “Every time anything like this comes even close, the role of librarians is strengthened and made more central. This will happen again. We’ll go back to our basics—evaluation and provision of information sources, helping people authenticate currency, comprehensiveness, accuracy, and so forth.��?
    My favorite quote: “Mary Case, library director at the University of Illinois at Chicago, cut to the chase: “If we dig in our heels, we’ll just look stupid. It’s coming. We must use it.��?
    That sums it up for me. This project is happening. Tony, my colleagues and I do not feel threatened. I appreciate this discussion, thanks for continuing it on your blog.
    – Randy