Saturday, March 12, 2005

"Google at the Gate"

In the March 2005 issue of American Libraries, there is an article entitled "Google at the Gate" containing questions about the recently-announced Google digitization project, with answers from Michael Gorman of Cal State-Fresno and ALA president-elect, Deanna Marcum of LC, Susan McGlamery of OCLC, and Ann Wolpert of MIT. The article appears at an interesting time, just as the buzz is dying down from what some have called "Gormangate" - a huge reaction, especially among the blog community, to comments Michael Gorman made recently lampooning the value of bloggers.

In this article, Gorman continues the dismissive style of rhetoric that have incensed so many in his previous comments on the Google projcet and on blogging. The tone is very much one of a person who is certain he is right and need not consider any other arguments put to him. Two quotes in particular caught my eye:

"Any user of Google knows it is pathetic as an information retrieval system..."

This quote, of course, depends heavily on the definition of "information retrieval system." The remainder of the sentence references the traditional IR research metrics of recall and precision, so it's probably reasonable to assume that Gorman is measuring the effectiveness of Google along those lines. And that's one fair way to measure. However, your random Google user is probably unlikely to measure Google according to those terms. Most information needs are for something on a topic rather than everything on a topic. We in libraries are used to (and should be!) focusing on the latter. But that doesn't mean it's the only way to design a search engine.

"I cannot see the threat to small libraries [from the Google digitization project], nor can I see much of an advantage."

Gorman's answer to this question stands in stark contrast to those of the participants in the interview. The others give multi-sentence responses, addressing at least some possiblities for advantages and disadvantages to small libraries from the Google digitization project. But the style of Gorman's answer is, again, dismissive, giving the impression he's made up his mind that the Google project is "bad" and that there is no need to consider its impact on libraries, small or otherwise. Perhaps he's carefully thought through all the issues and this quote is the result of a great deal of reflection. But there's no explanation presented, so the reader cannot know. I suspect this style of rhetoric, passing down from on high a conclusion without any explanation or support, will not prove effective for libraries as we increasingly need to talk about our services and expertise to those outside the profession.

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