somewhere in-between the ALA and Google is harmony
As far back as i can remember, i’ve found utter joy in being able to understand opposing points of view. Most of the time, this is useful in being a mediator between two warring individuals or groups; i used to wonder if should become a shrink. But, this week, i had the fortunate opportunity to hear two institutions talk past each other: American Library Association (Michael Gorman) and Google (Sergey Brin).
Let me back up… I was invited to Keynote at the ALA’s Library and Information Technology Association national conference. At first, i was befuddled – why me? And then, when i looked at the other keynotes, i knew i was in trouble. I was sandwiched between someone speaking about “how librarians can still vanquish Googlezon and win back our rightful place as the guardians of the world’s knowledge and all that is good” and Michael Gorman (the President of the ALA who upset quite a few people with his essay on “those blog people”). Oh shit. So, i prepared and delivered a call-to-arms-esque talk. By and large, i think it went over well. Some people were upset that i was critical of members of the community as an outsider; others were ecstatic that i was challenging the status quo. The biggest disagreement was over whether or not Google, as a corporate entity, can really do the same kind of work as librarians. I argued that money always biases and limits but librarians are more indebted to their funders than Google is to theirs. Still, i understand their point and frustration, which i tried to make clear in my talk and in answering questions afterwards.
After my talk, Michael Gorman of the ALA gave his keynote. OMG, i wanted to die. At some point, he started talking about the Tower of Babel and how we need to return humanity to a common language. So much of his idea of librarianship is focused on control and power. He talked about how Google returned terrible results that no one wanted because it was all so random. Librarians know how to give you value. Gah.
And then, today, Sergey Brin of Google appeared in my Search class as a surprise guest (webcast will be posted). I realized i had never heard him talk except for when i was working for the company and then, he could say whatever he wanted. In public, he was clearly trying to negotiate what he was and was not allowed to say. He made quite a few in the audience twitch over their response to China. Still, i understand (although don’t always agree with) the stance that some in China is better than none. He really rattled some feathers though with his response to the semantic web, tagging and librarianship. He took the techno-centric point of view that is so Google. Tagging inverts the relationship between man and machine. Tagging is only of interest and valuable if machines do it. Technology is just as good as experts and it’s a waste of the expert’s time to bother trying. (A good quote from this section was “Experiments like Esperanto have failed.”) One of my professors was really outraged by all of this – i thought his head was going to blow off. God it was painful. Will Google ever understand that culture has value? I guess not so long as technodeterminism is profitable. Gah.
So in less than a week, i got to see the most stubborn and power-hungry sides of two institutions who see no value in the other. And yet, so many of those in the trenches want to build bridges because we know that there are important lessons to learn. Yet, there are issues of prestige, power and money. The Google boys would definitely rather re-invent the field than learn from the librarians. The old skool librarians would rather stick to their ways than acknowledge that there are reasons why search companies have reached the mainstream. I understand where both side is coming from but their stubbornness and lack of foresight is excruciating. I find myself wanting to shake them both.
Somewhere in-between the ALA and Google there is harmony, but i wonder if they’ll ever be able to find it. Right now, i’m so thankful to be at a school of information that revels in the possibilities of technology and a search company that understands the culture has value. If i had to deal with the top of the pyramid at either the ALA or Google, i’d want to shoot myself on a daily basis. Instead, i want to circumvent both in order to innovate.