ALA’s Gorman Strikes Out Again

CommuniK Commentary by K. Matthew Dames

Commentary by K. Matthew Dames, executive editor.

I have never met Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association. I will assume, however, that someone within the Association has had time to brief Mr. Gorman on the key issues involved in the Google Print controversies since his June inauguration. Unfortunately, his comments in the Nov. 1 edition of The Wall Street Journal suggest he has not received (or ignored) such a briefing:

“I feel that this is a potential disaster on several levels,” said Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association and university librarian at California State University, Fresno. “They are reducing scholarly texts to paragraphs. The point of a scholarly text is they are written to be read sequentially from beginning to end, making an argument and engaging you in dialogue.”

Mr. Gorman, who said the American Library Association doesn’t have an official position on the subject, described Google’s argument that Web users will be able to look at several snippets and then decide whether they want to buy or read the book as “ridiculous.” Further, he noted that as a published author, he opposes Google’s intention to build an enormous database that includes copyrighted texts. “It’s a flaunting of my intellectual property rights,” he said.

Mr. Gorman’s comments show a shocking naivete about his presidential post, a stunning lack of perspective and knowledge about the Google Print projects, and a disappointing waste of the influence the ALA could and should wield in this debate.

First, let me address Gorman’s comment that ALA has no official position on the controversies: the comment is patently ridiculous on two levels. To begin with, ALA needs to have an official position on this issue. For better or worse (often worse, in my view), ALA’s position on any issue that involves libraries is considered the official opinion of the entire library community. ALA’s membership total dwarfs that of all of the other domestic library representative organizations, therefore it controls a dominant and preeminent authority shaping public opinion on any issue that involves libraries. ALA’s influence is so strong, in fact, that it is rare that the Medical Library Association, SLA, or the American Association of Law Libraries will formulate a public position on any issue involving libraries without first trying to gain ALA’s implicit or tacit support. Just as the Five Families don’t move without first paying respect to Don Corleone, SLA, AALL, and MLA often don’t step out with a formal opinion on any issue — particularly a policy issue — without first speaking to ALA.

That the largest library representative organization in the country does not have a position or opinion in this debate is unacceptable. ALA needs to get in the game.

Second, ALA’s failure to take a position in this debate ended the minute Gorman spoke to the Journal. It is unconscionable — stupid, even — to think that quotes from the president of any organization ALA’s size will fail to be considered the tenor of the membership. If Gorman’s comments do not reflect ALA’s membership or board, he is out of touch with his organization or made a colossal mistake. If his comments are consistent with what ALA’s membership wants, then the four library organizations need to have a sit down and discuss a coordinated response.

But that sit down should take place in private — preferably before Gorman has looked foolishly out of place in speaking to The Wall Street Journal.

Even Gorman’s rationale for calling the project a “potential disaster” sounds idiotically irrelevant given the context of the debate and the article. Both the debate and the core theme of the Journal‘s article are about copyright, yet Gorman chose to frame his response in terms of the proper uses of scholarly texts. Who cares about the proper use of scholarly texts if the texts never get used? Sure, Google is looking to make money from the Print project, but if it allows access to knowledge in a respectful, economical way, then that sounds like an issue about which ALA has a stake, and should have an opinion.

Has it occurred to Gorman that Google’s digitization projects may allow a researcher to discover a source about which she knew nothing, and then enter a library to use that text or order it through the interlibrary loan process? Should this occur more than once, is it possible that a savvy library (like the one Louise Schaper runs in Fayetteville, AK) could use such interactions to reacquaint researchers with the powers of a strong library? Might not the goodwill from repeated positive interactions of this sort serve to increase customer satisfaction and traffic, which then may be leveraged to justify budgets?

Gorman’s comments about bloggers were unfortunate and ill-informed. I withheld comment for several reasons, though, mostly because I was unsure whether he was properly accustomed to successfully handling the media relations portion of this presidency. With the policy issues that face all libraries, library representative organizations need to have people in front of the public who are savvy, well prepared, and able to speak clearly to different constituencies. Gorman has shown a consistent inability to exhibit any of these attributes.

The Google Print controversy has gotten white hot during Gorman’s term, and as head of the nation’s most influential library organization, the ALA president does not have the luxury of being ill-informed. The ALA needs to take a strong stand on this issue since it deals with access to information. Unfortunately, it seems like the wrong man is at the helm.

Kevin J. Delaney and Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg. Google Will Return to Scanning Copyrighted Library Books. The Wall Street Journal Online. Nov. 1, 2005.

: K. Matthew Dames on the intersection of business, law and technology. A business venture of Seso Digital LLC.

Written by sesomedia

11/04/2005 at 09:00

Posted in Uncategorized

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