Sometimes good enough is, in fact, good enough

Fool’s Gold is an incredibly vexing book, in large part because I agree with the thesis that libraries (particularly academic and research libraries) are important, and their functionality not replaced by the web. But many of Herring’s arguments fall somewhere on the continuum between straw men and logical fallacies, and the tone (I hate to make tone arguments, but it just can’t be ignored) is completely over the top. It’s okay for the poster or an article, but is not effective at book length.

I’m only two chapters in (as of writing, as opposed to posting), and Herring has already commented, several times, that he doesn’t want to get rid of the Web. The refrain is already beginning to bear a resemblance to the protestations of a certain Scottish noblewoman, and that is one of the factors that undercuts another repeated assertion: that Herring is, in fact, a long-term and frequent user of the Web. (The main factor is the flavor of the curmudgeonliness, which doesn’t map well to the geeks of my acquaintance who’ve been playing online for as long as Herring.)

Most curious is the way Herring’s perception of research differs from my own. He is mystified that anyone could accept a less-than-authoritative answer to a question and laments the heavy use of search engines to answer questions. Extrapolating from my personal experience, I imagine that many of those Google searches seek to answer questions that otherwise would have been dealt with in phone-a-friend fashion or not asked at all.* And you know what? For some of those questions, the hive mind works just fine. If I want to know how many episodes of Baccano! exist so I know whether Funimation’s posted them all, Wikipedia’s pretty much the correct answer. And if by chance it’s wrong, and there happens to be a seventeenth episode floating around in the ether…that’s not really a problem. If my interest is less idle—say that I’m slaving away on a brilliant dissertation, Flaumel and friends: representations of the alchemical arts in Japanese popular culture—then of course I’m not just going to rely on the first result Google happens to give me. And if I’m trying to write a dissertation and don’t know the difference between a crowd-sourced encyclopedia, a traditional encyclopedia, and the types of sources I should be citing…then I have bigger problems than the accuracy of any given Wikipedia page.

I have the suspicion Herring’s politics are different from mine. So is his apparent faith that you always get what you pay for, and that limited access to information is a good thing. (Don’t get me wrong, I can be an intellectual snob, too, and don’t actually believe in the abolition of private property…but proprietary databases are problematic, both for the research community and the libraries serving it.) The amount of bile directed at Internet pornography in the introduction is troubling. I’m automatically suspicious that any “think of the children” argument will veer into censorship at best and outright persecution at worst.

It’s a shame, because there are important points buried in the text. Search engines aren’t magic; algorithms are developed by people whose goals (e.g. profit motives), no less than their skill, should be considered when evaluating the effectiveness of the tools they create. Context is important, as is authorship, and that can be difficult to suss out. Methods for evaluating content are available, but are often underutilized. (When was the last time you checked the history of a Wikipedia page to see if there was a flamewar in progress, or the user pages of major contributors to evaluate their expertise?) Those are teachable skills, just like any other research skill. Fostering basic literacy and web literacy doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

* I suppose it may partially be a matter of sampling: I have a sense of the questions I only “research” because there is the low-hanging fruit of a search engine literally at my fingertips, whereas Herring is concerned primarily—I think—with students doing actual research who really should know better.

Somewhat ironically, I think the fact that I do use the web, and am conscious of the need to assess a source’s reliability based on whatever explicit information or other cues are available, works to undermine Herring’s authority. A belligerent tone can’t distract from shaky reasoning.