Anne Frank Was an Unpublished Citizen Journalist: A Response to Michael Gorman
July 23, 2007, 9:37 pm
Filed under: blogging, librarianship, libraries, Uncategorized

Although I must acknowledge that the fractured attention span caused by my hectic summer schedule lends itself more to small bites of expression than to multicourse meals, I have a personal interest in the Michael Gorman controversy and couldn’t resist jumping into the fray. First and foremost, I would suggest that Mr. Gorman’s comments on digital media clearly reflect a negative bias despite his assertion in his controversial 2005 Library Journal column Revenge of the Blog People that he is “no antidigitalist.” Never mind that he has skewered video games, Wikipedia, Google, the Google Books digitization process, weblogs, and consistently asserts the superiority of print sources over digital ones and the importance of the librarian as a mediating authority in the process of gaining access to recorded knowledge. Gorman may or may not be an antidigitalist, but he is certainly a library traditionalist and arguably disingenuous in his persistent habit of verbally yarking all over a medium he claims not to despise. He is free to have his biases, as we all are to the extent that it does not interfere with our functioning. In the case of a librarian, functioning could arguably be defined as having the capacity to locate the best source of information to meet a given need.

Judging by his fixation on the dangers posed to libraries and literacy by our wretched overreliance on the internet, Michael Gorman seems to assume that one cannot be an avid ‘net user and a bibliophile. Obviously he has never visited my house and had to navigate around the precarious piles of books, bless his little heart. Come to think of it I have yet to encounter one confessed digitalista who is not an avid reader and bibliophile. and the only person I ever met who believed books were on their way out was not a librarian or library student. On the contrary, the library types I’ve encountered have for the most part recognized that one of the things that distinguishes the internet from all other media is that it encompasses all other media by providing highly specialized multimedia information packages that include (among other things) multiple points of access for books, including free online texts. Michael Gorman seems to object to even these on grounds that they will never be complete or comprehensive, but neither is my local library and this hasn’t stopped me from using it yet. Yet another objection to digitalized books is that the texts may not always be authoritative versions, to which my prescriptive response would be “Find out if it is an authoritative version and use it accordingly.” Ooh, that was hard.

Books do have a distinct stamp of authority by virtue of going through the editing and publishing process, but that very publishing process ensures that many books on certain subjects such as computer technologies and popular culture are already outdated by the time they hit the shelves. I’m sure I can learn something about the origins and development of an evolving cultural phenomenon like flash mobs by reading a book like Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold, but the book is necessarily limited in that it had to stop at a given point while smart mobs have continued to grow and mutate in response to technological changes . Fortunately the author is smart enough to recognize the need for currency, which is why he has a weblog in which to post about newer developments. As a librarian, I could not recommend the book over the weblog or vice-versa because they are mutually complementary. The book provides a conceptual foundation, which can only be enhanced by the addition of current information from authoritative sources. The web site can be instantly accessed but is not likely to provide the book’s comprehensiveness and depth of focus.

The artistry of selection means being able to find and suggest the best possible sources across all media depending upon the needs of a given user. Granted, Michael Gorman and I would probably agree that the best way to learn about Jack Kerouac would be to read his books. The only one of those held at my local suburban library is On the Road, but I’m sure I could obtain any number of other texts through interlibrary loan (ILL). Likewise, my local library only has one Kerouac biography, but I could have access to numerous others (not to mention other texts such as literary criticism) through ILL. I could also obtain many Kerouac resources through online booksellers and have them delivered directly to my door if I wish to spend the money, a level of service that libraries would do well to emulate.

Although it would be absurd to try and learn about a writer like Kerouac without texts, it would be just as absurd not to explore the other venues through which he can be understood. This NPR multimedia page is a gem of a resource, with a video clip of Kerouac reading from On the Road on the Steve Allen Show, plus various audio recordings of Kerouac both alone and with his contemporaries. My local public library offers no access to Robert Frank’s seminal short film Pull My Daisy, for which Kerouac provided the narration, but if I am not lucky enough to have access to the riches of an academic library collection, I can watch the film in its entirety for free on Google Video. And if all of the above isn’t enough, I may need to visit the extensive Kerouac archive at the New York Public Library and seek the assistance of a special librarian.

This brings us to this persistently thorny issue of authority, which Michael Gorman seems to believe is primarily the province of books and librarians. I know this because I read it on the internet, and I had no trouble finding exactly the piece I needed instantly, using Google. As nice as it is of Mr. Gorman to worry that we may not be able to find the information we need online, I cannot help wondering by what standard he expects us to regard him as an expert on the on the internet. His expertise in many subjects is undeniable, among them libraries, librarianship, and cataloguing. I would not accept as an authority on the internet someone who has expressed his vehement antipathy for Google, Wikipedia, weblogs, and digitization while denying a bias, but I’m quite sure you are capable of forming your own opinion on that based on the evidence at hand.

It is true that Mr. Gorman has repeatedly stressed his own nonantidigitalism, and we may take him at his word on that based on the fact that his internet critiques have appeared on Britannica Blog. Presumably this represents some form of endorsement of Britannica, a traditional information source that just happens to have an internet presence. Michael Gorman supports the use of these structures of traditional authority, but on what basis does he justify this support apart from personal bias and preference? We know he is rational and credible because he associates the rise of blogging with the damage wrought to scientific reasoning by encroaching fundamentalism (because both represent threats to established scholarship, never mind the fact that you probably couldn’t find two peer groups with much less overlap ). Nonetheless, it behooves us citizen journalist types to disregard the pompous rhetoric and discover the plain fact that the most conventionally authoritative source may not necessarily be the best one and certainly should not be assumed superior to an unconventional resource merely by virtue of its official status. What follows is but one example of many cases in which this principle might apply, but I’m sure you can find your own without trying very hard.

As a grad student, I have access to the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica through my university library, but when I used it to look up Sir Anthony Panizzi (an important figure in the history of library science) for a class project, I found an uncredited article that mentioned some of the highlights of Panizzi’s career but failed to discuss the Ninety-One Cataloguing Rules that are still referenced by librarians to this day. In contrast, the much longer Wikipedia entry not only mentioned the Ninety-One Rules but listed four references for futher reading on Panizzi where Britannica had none. As you may already have surmised, it is very easy for a researcher to find corroborating evidence for something that is unsubstantiated, but impossible to conjure up and proceed on a piece of essential information that has not been provided at all.

Although I certainly agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Gorman that there are different levels of research requiring different levels of authentication, I reject his notion that the initial “exploratory” level deserves to be rejected out of hand. On the contrary, while it is indubitably true that the only research project that should stop at Wikipedia is one of satisfying idle curiosity, reading a Wikipedia entry on a subject of which one knows little can open up a myriad of doorways to more authoritative sources, as well as bringing up further questions to answer as research progresses. Regardless of whether searchers consult librarians or bypass the library system entirely by purchasing documents online, someone who uses Wikipedia as a point of entry into a subject has very little to lose and someone who is lazy enough to stop there probably deserves the quality of documentation they get.

Just as an aside, it is worth noting that it is precisely Wikipedia’s mutability and collectivism that make it particularly useful for gaining a quick understanding of newer technological, social, and cultural phenomena like flash mobs, as well as for providing endless portals into vast depositories for the minutiae of pop culture. I would be surprised if Britannica had an entry on Fonzie at all, let alone one as amusing and informative as Wikipedia’s. There are probably just as many different ways of defining authority as there are people who are prepared to declare themselves authorities, but I am perfectly prepared to accept that someone who has immersed themselves in a subject probably has something of value to share on the topic, regardless of whether they have a steenkin’ badge.

That certainly seems to be true in the case of the Wikipedia entry on Rufus Wainwright, a topic on which I myself know a fair amount. I personally think the site’s credibility would be improved if contributors were named, but beyond that I can find no significant fault with the Wainwright information package and see no reason not to give it my seal of approval as a solid overview of my favorite singer’s career. Furthermore, the singer’s official bio on his own web site focuses mainly on his current album to the exclusion of his origins and earlier work. If the only standard for authority is for an item is to be the official or “authorized” source, a researcher dismisses the considerable value created by the many well-informed users who have contributed their time and resources to produce significant information packages, any portion of which can be subjected to further inquiry if the level of research or interest demands it. What’s not to like?

The fact is that today’s young, as do the young in every age, need to learn from those who are older and wiser; they need to acquire good habits of study and research; and they need to be exposed to and learn to experience the richness of the human record. Pretending that the Internet and the Web have abolished those eternal verities is both intellectually dishonest and a proposal for cultural suicide. —Michael Gorman

Nothing that I have argued or would ever argue would contradict this, and I’m sure the vast majority of internet-loving librarians and literate human beings would say the same. As a student and hopeful librarian, I believe readers should learn to examine all sources critically, including printed ones. It is precisely because the internet is so vast and open that librarians with specialized knowledge will be required to help teach users how to evaluate and weight their sources to meet the specific demands of any given inquiry. They also need to learn when only an primary source is acceptable, whether that source is a weblog or an original manuscript held in a special collection.

I am trying to close this discussion in order to fling my opinions into the ring, but then that is something for which Michael Gorman and his fellow party-pooper Andrew Keen would assume this writer to be eminently ill-qualified by virtue of my status as a “citizen journalist.” I may not have a steenkin’ badge, but at least I can see that in most cases there is something to be said for someone having the initiative and interest to write and create something that represents their interests and that they can share with other people instead of flopping into a chair and fixing their eyeballs on the TV set until they fall asleep. The standards for authority and value are not altered significantly by bringing additional voices into the mix, any more than they have been changed by the existence of self-published books. That assessing these qualities has become exponentially more difficult and complex with the advent of the internet seems to be at the root of what is vexing Mssrs. Gorman and Keen, but fortunately there are those of us who are willing to attempt the task and help others learn to do the same.



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