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.

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17 thoughts on “somewhere in-between the ALA and Google is harmony

  1. RatcliffeBlog-Mitch's Open Notebook

    nail meets head, sparks fly

    apophenia: somewhere in-between the ALA and Google is harmony: danah boyd sees… 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…

  2. orcmid

    [What happens if I don’t spell apophenia the way Danah spells apophenia but … ]

    It is amazing and wonderful that your approach gives witness to these clashes of culture. (Ah, I have an archetypical image for you at I think it is great that you have the kind of widened perspective that makes partisans in both groups uncomfortable. When that happens around me, I figure I must be doing something right [;<).

  3. Liz Lawley

    Oh, nice contrast, and good assessment of the differences.

    The good news is that Gorman’s view is *not* typical of most librarians’. The bad news is that his prominence makes it seem that way.

    (He was elected because of name recognition, not because ALA members necessarily support his views.)

  4. zephoria

    Liz – that was the nice thing about meeting lots of librarians. I got to see the range of viewpoints. Of course, i also know a shitload of Googlers who don’t see eye-to-eye with Sergey. And yet, these are the public faces and the ones who have too much power.

  5. Brenda

    I was in the LITA audience and would be willing to predict that a there were more people there who agreed with you than not. I talked to a few who admitted that while you initially pissed them off (librarians are pretty sensative about the role of the profession–sometimes blindingly so,) they eventually came around to what you were saying.

    My personal opinion is that Gorman is simply ignorant of the medium and exactly who these so-called “blog people” are. When he originally made his comments, there was a long and heated thread on the LITA list in response. And as I recall, the pro-bloggers came out ahead 🙂

  6. Noel

    I was a librarian once not long ago. Now I work in social justice philanthropy. I left the profession becuase of the low pay and wholesale disrespect that society has for us [once a librarian always…] I hate professional conferences and organizations. They are truly freak shows! The people who spend their lives collecting social capital in these types of settings are just sad and are the same people you avoided in high school! I ditched ALA long ago but I still attend the [rival] Internet Librarian Conference when I can because it’s good and it’s in Monterey –it’s certainly not to “party” with the those happenin’ SIG’s!

    I remember when Sergey Brynn demonstrated Google at IL a bunch of years ago when it was like just a search box and a logo. It blew away all of the other search engines on the panel all of which declined to take “searches from the audience.” Some of which don’t exist anymore. Google is a great tool God bless ’em but I know that I bring a lot more to finding quality information than any piece of technology could ever. I ain’t no John Henry but I put in many years as a reference librarian in the South Bronx underneath the Cross Bronx Expressway and my patrons didn’t have “information requests” or needed “competitive intelligence” they had problems that required a human being not an interface. So to sum up…
    1)Google=great tool, arrogant, mildly autistic founder
    2)librarians=humans,underpaid,quality over quantity
    3)professional conferences=freakshows
    4)conference junkies=freaks looking for the perfect cheer.
    5)ALA=great work on the Patriot Act otherwise lame.
    The soap box is now available! 🙂

  7. Hermes

    links for 2005-10-06

    Pitchfork: Daily Music News sequel to 13 Year Itch (tags: Music) Webcast Lecture: interesting videocasts (tags: Google) apophenia: somewhere in-between the ALA and Google is harmony great comment about conferences as freakshows (tags: Libraries Google…

  8. Dorothea

    Gorman’s not stupid, though he’s perpetrated some howlers since he was elected that fully justify that impression. (The “blog people” idiocy was far from the worst; that dubious honor belongs to his “hip-hop” comment.)

    I think “control and power” hits the nail on the head; Gorman’s constituency consists substantially of librarians who feel (not always wrongly) they are losing both. So they grasp at grains of sand instead of looking for bedrock.

    Curiously, I got into librarianship because I saw change happening there that wasn’t happening and should have been in publishing, where I started out. The locus of the changes I’m pushing has little to do with search, which tends to make it less visible.

  9. zoe

    Thank you again for agreeing to speak at the Forum. A great many of us really appreciated hearing from someone outside the usual suspects and who challenged us to see technology and culture from a different perspective. Too bad you couldn’t stay – I think you would have found David Levy’s presentation much more interesting than Gorman’s. For those of us who actually want to build those bridges it was great fun. Someday I’ll get the pictures posted to the LITA blog. Loved the hat – first time I thought of a conference keynote as performance art!

  10. Max Henrion

    It’s remarkably odd that Sergey Brin takes the position that social tagging is not valuable because the tags are created by unreliable humans. Google’s original stroke of genius — the Page Rank algorithm — rates a page by the number (and quality) of links to it. Their radical insight was to realize that these links are (human-generated) votes on the value and relevance of the sites they link to. Social tagging is just a new, faster and simpler way for people to vote on value and relevance. These human votes are going to be more accurate measures of value and relevance than machine-generated ratings for a long time to come — even taking into account spamming. I wonder how long before Google returns to its roots.

  11. penis enlargement

    I agree with you the way you view the issue. I remember Jack London once said everything positive has a negative side; everything negative has positive side. It is also interesting to see different viewpoints & learn useful things in the discussion.

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