Libraries in a Perilous Era

Library automation has been an “unqualified success,” but in a post-Web world, the tool is often perceived to be the end rather than the means, and that concerns Michael Gorman, long-time librarian, library technology advocate, and current president of the American Library Association.

This morning over tea, Gorman told me libraries are facing gigantic issues, including “the whole future of information.”

The emphasis on quick search and the retrieval of nuggets of information defies the thoughtful process of the scholarly tradition and libraries’ role in preserving and providing access to the human record of recorded knowledge, he said.

With the emphasis on quick search, Gorman said, “We’ve gone from cataloging to this sort of reduction of full texts . . . and a new age of amateurism [blogs] . . . and a belief in the great myth that everything is available on the Internet and everyone can find what they want.”

This, he said, creates a “perilous” environment for libraries, and even challenges the basis of our civilization by reverting to a pre-Gutenberg situation in which “everything is written on water, it just flows away.”

What about Google’s digitization of library collections?

“It’s a huge misallocation of resources,” he said. “There are lots of ways to find books, and digitizing whole texts is a waste of time. The chances of a snippet from a book showing up on the first screen of search results [as far as most users go] is fairly low. It would be better if Google would help solve the scholarly communication issue or fund the digitization of archives.”

If you are in London, you can catch Gorman’s Track 2 Keynote, “The Challenge of Digitization,” tomorrow (Tuesday) at 11:15. Though Google was not listed on the preliminary program, I understand from Gorman that Google has worked its way onto tomorrow’s session, which is focused on the future of libraries.

[Photo by Lisa Black, used with permission]

Dick Kaser
ITI V.P., Content

P.S. I’ll be publishing the full, and scintillating, interview with Gorman–who is definitely not a Luddite–in a future issue of Information Today.

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