Form Versus Function

January 23rd, 2007 · 1 Comment
by Kassia Krozser

Maybe it’s because we spent our childhood in a room lined with books. Truly, every wall, except for the ones that were really doorways, was filled with books. Eight feet of books, or maybe six feet*. Or maybe it’s because our schedule means that so much of our reading is done online. Really — there’s something tacky about pulling out a novel while you’re on a client’s clock.

Or maybe it’s because, like all readers, it didn’t matter what form the reading material took — scraps of paper on the floor of a subway, cereal boxes, flashing signs over freeways — because it was all about the words. As long as we had a series of letters that formed words that formed sentences that formed paragraphs that formed, well, you know. It’s an addiction, one that leads to cranky exchanges with parents and spouses. Some people just don’t get the need to read.

While we want to discuss last week’s Google Unbound conference — and will– we must first rant about one of the more irritating articles we’ve read on the subject of Google and book digitization, mostly because it seems to raging against a machine the author doesn’t comprehend. It’s one of those “where to start” sort of things, what with the title of the piece being Could this be teh final chapter in the life of the book and all. So let’s begin with the differences between English readers and French readers.

First, obviously, though there may be some bilingualism going on, it is safe to assume that the primary language of English readers is English (likewise, French readers generally work with French texts). So, if one were to, oh, utilize a search engine that, oh, served primarily English-reading customers, you would expect the results to skew toward the language that the majority of those individuals comprehended. In this case, the language would English.

Yet, the cranky author of our offensive article says this:

Jean-Noël Jeanneney says that Google is not what it seems. Its search results are biased by commercial and cultural pressures. He has a point. Try this: go to Google Book Search and enter Gustave Flaubert. The first results are full of English translations of Madame Bovary.

Hmm. Wonder why that is? Our author neglects to report the result of Google en francais and seems, sadly, not to recognize that such an animal exists. Nor does he seem to grasp the elements that go into search functionality at all. Of course, one also wonders if he recognizes that digitizing the world’s libraries is a big project, and, well, you know you have to serve the audience you serve. French may have once been the language of diplomacy, but English is increasingly the primary language of the Internet.

Also, our author loses points for making a dig at Google’s “beta” designation for its Book Search feature. Yeah, we’re as cranky as this poor man. Oh, and, man, sorry dude, but you know, if potential customers aren’t able to “…read whole passages of my books of which I own the copyright…” like they could in bookstores, well, then, why did you write the book? Didn’t you want people to read it? To be able to find it in the vast morass of published books? To be able to purchase it? Seriously, how are you finding readers?

We digress. There is more to be cranky about. After discussing the difference between a search engine and an index — how does one find an index without searching, and how are indexes formed if not by someone’s decision to choose this work over another, this biased filtering alone limits the ability to expand knowledge — our author seems to be angry that young minds are turning to Google as a resource for homework. This man has clearly never been in a public (or British equivalent) school library. We’re talking about outdated texts due to lack of budgetary priorities. Your average school library will still have books that tout Pluto as a great planetary discovery; the NASA or JPL websites will have more current information. Other websites will allow the student to see the (still) ongoing debate over “planet, not planet”. How, pray tell, does this seem like a step backward? Sure, inaccurate information abounds, but, have you read history books, especially those geared toward kids?

Still, there’s more:

Back at the NYPL, David Worlock of Electronic Publishing Services said, “Ultimately it’s not up to Google or the publishers to decide how books will be read.

It’s the readers who will have the final say.”

No, it is the teachers who will have the final say. They will determine whether people will read for information, knowledge or, ultimately, wisdom. If they fail and their pupils read only for information, then we are in deep trouble. For the net doesn’t educate and the mind must be primed to deal with its informational deluge. On that priming depends the future of civilisation. How we handle the digitising of the libraries will determine who we are to become.

No, sir, it is the readers. Teachers can, certainly, teach. But it is the purview of the individual to learn. There is a need to read on a variety of levels. And, yes, how digitization is handled will form our civilization in the future — looking knowledge behind proprietary formats or restricting access to information is not the answer. Ivory tower approaches to book, in whatever form they take, smacks of elitism and fear.

We have no patience with those who equate books with knowledge. Books contain knowledge. But books also contain conjecture and misinformation. It is wrong to equate format with superior knowledge. Stop fearing the technology and start considering ways to teach our children to think critically again.

Don’t equate form with function.

* – Such is the plight of a librarian’s children

[tags]books, education, google[/tags]

File Under: The Future of Publishing

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