Kevin Drum Overreacts to Google Initiative Criticism

Fri Dec 17, 2004

The former Calpundit has some harsh things to say about this L.A. Times piece by Michael Gorman, the president-elect of the ALA. Drum’s main criticism is that there is no rational grounds for Gorman to object to an initiative that will make it easier for scholars to do what they already do in physical libraries. Gorman argues that the process of digitization will encourage the improper use of scholarly knowledge, turning instead into mere decontextualized information.

There’s a lot of backstory to these debates that starts with Plato’s attitudes towards writing and moves up through effects of the printing press (especially in contrast to the competing mnemonic technologies associated with some of the early Renaissance magi), mass media, and most certainly the computer. McLuhan and Ong replace Bruno and Ricci, etc. Keeping in mind that any discussion of Gorman’s argument is itself decontextualized without that type of historical background, I’m only going to focus on what I’ve observed as a teacher of literature and composition.

Is there a fundamental difference between holding a book in your hand, looking quickly through its index, perhaps glancing at others near it on the shelf, and then replacing it (seven times out of ten in the wrong spot) while only retaining a vestige of something on p. 121 and doing a keyword search on google through the same content? If you’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and are familiar with the ways and techologies of books, perhaps not. In some cases, the latter might even be preferable. If you lack such knowledge, however, as I find that the overwhelming majority of students at the large research institutions where I’ve taught do, then there is an important difference. If you’ve never learned about books and libraries, your ability to use tools that allow you to peruse their contents without distinction is going to be compromised.

Without the ability to distinguish good information from bad, the internet is an open sewer. You might find something rare or novel floating in it, but you’re also likely to come away diseased, worse than you were before. Thus, I think that “print literacy,” in the sense of knowing how books and libraries work, is a necessary precondition for being able to use the internet effectively, and many college students do not have it. I think perhaps that older and well-read people who aren’t educators, such as Drum, may fail to perceive the extent of the problem and that Gorman’s argument has to be understood in that context.