September 26, 2010

Inaccuracy in Adbusters article

I am not going to spend a lot of time on this, but I want to point out an inaccuracy in an article on the Adbuster’s website (and maybe in the magazine as well, I can’t tell) titled, “Google’s Flaw,” written by Micah White. I’m not unsympathetic with White’s point about Google, but I have to come to the defense of Sanford Berman and the “leftist librarians of the 70s.” What he wrote will be quite funny who know the people he is talking about:

The idea that search engines can, or should, be neutral can be traced back to a movement of leftist librarians in the 1970s. Led by Sanford Berman, one of the first to bring social rebellion into the library, radical librarians argued that the system used to organize books was inherently biased and racist because it reflected a Western perspective. At that time, and to this day in nearly all public and academic libraries, books were organized in subject hierarchies. Berman believed that this system was deeply problematic. He wrote that, “western chauvinism permeates the [library’s organizational] scheme”. And called for a “disinterested scheme for the arrangement of books and knowledge”. In so doing, he paved the way for search engines.

Berman, and his generation of radical librarians, placed their faith in technology. They assumed that the automation of indexing, what we now call search engines, would provide a “disinterested scheme”. And we see today in the actions of the Texas attorney general, the same flawed assumption that search engines can be “neutral” or “disinterested”.

What Micah doesn’t realize is that in his concern over the commercialization of knowledge he is writing in the same tradition as the radical librarians who first set to work in the late 60s. Yes, Berman was concerned about the bias in Library of Congress Subject Headings, but his position was not to reject controlled subject vocabularies across the board. He was a cataloger, not a computer scientist, and spent his career cataloging books according to a hierarchical subject headings list that was an improvement upon LC, according to his views. Berman and others’ criticism of the idea of neutrality in LC subject headings eventually extended to a criticism of the possibility of neutrality in any system, including libraries as institutions, and supposedly neutral systems such as the Google search engine. What search engines as neutral tools can be traced back to is the positivist basis of information science itself, which had its birth during WWII and continued to be developed within a corporate/government setting. This history couldn’t be more thoroughly documented. Berman and his fellow radical librarians did not, as Micah has it, place their faith in technology (aside from a few). On the contrary, their group has been the group within librarianship that since the 1980s has offered the criticisms of our over-reliance on technology that Micah White ought to familiarize himself with, often with a focus on the problem of positivistic assumptions underlying our use of technological tools. To assert that not only were they, as a group, supportive of the technological methods that led to systems like Google but that they were the originators of those systems flies in the face of a whole body of work on the history of technology. Yes, it is true that many in the 60s generation were enthusiastic about technology, and went on to found The Well and such, but it was also obvious – at that time – that computer technology was a part of the military industrial complex and that the push for automation in libraries had a huge amount of government funding behind it. If Micah White wants to maintain his claim, he is going to have to supply a lot of evidence, because he is going against a large body of historical work.

I am posting this after contacting White and receiving a reply in which he stuck to his guns about Sandy Berman et al. being the origin of search engines as neutral tools. Perhaps it would be better for me to ignore this, but Adbuster’s is a magazine that I have always enjoyed. I subscribed to it in the 90s and still find their project interesting. But I found their anti-leftist turn less than half-baked when it originally appeared, and still do. This article distorts history in order to take a cheap shot at the library left.

2 Comments »

  1. I hope you referred him to the work of John Buschman, et. al.

    Comment by JJR — September 27, 2010 @ 10:33 am

  2. Kramer auto Pingback[…] http://libraryjuicepress.com/blog/?p=2452 […]

    Pingback by librarian.net » Blog Archive » librarians’ search for neutrality a precursor to debate over Google rankings — October 6, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

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