I’m late, I know, to comment on Michael Gorman’s anti-Googlite op-ed piece in the L.A. Times. But the controversy over his opinions about Google’s digitization plans has now been swamped by the reaction to his anti-blogging column in Library Journal, while I’m still chewing on my response to the original piece.

I work on a digitization project that puts up page images of historical texts and makes them full-text searchable. I am, according to Gorman, wasting my time:

I believe, however, that massive databases of digitized whole books, especially scholarly books, are expensive exercises in futility based on the staggering notion that, for the first time in history, one form of communication (electronic) will supplant and obliterate all previous forms.

The extremism of this statement is breathtaking – we’re not actually shredding the books once we’ve scanned them, after all, and in an earlier paragraph Gorman himself pointed out that it would be possible to discover books in services like ours or Google’s and then order them by interlibrary loan. Of course, he doubted that Google users would do so – but if that’s the case, then the nature of reading itself is changing, and the assumptions that make online digital texts “futile” won’t survive long. Maybe the new breed will read monograph-length texts online; maybe article-length productions will supplant the monograph in scholarly discourse.

But even more irritating is the phrase “for the first time in history”, as if the transformations we’re seeing now are unprecedented. There have in fact been two great “reformattings” in the last two millennia of western history: the move from papyrus roll to vellum codex in late antiquity and the early middle ages, and the move from manuscript to printed book in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In both of these previous reformattings, much was lost. Texts that didn’t catch the tide of reformatting at its peak tended to remain in the ghetto of the old format, where they were not maintained, and many perished. The second reformatting, in any case, was heartbreaking for those who valued the best of the old tradition (see Trithemius’s In Praise of Scribes for the response of one who treasured the spiritual atmosphere of the monastic scriptorium and despised the business ethics of the printing shop).

But neither of those reformattings could have been stopped. The benefits of the new format were so great that no force could turn them back, even though they changed the nature of reading and scholarship for ever, in ways that could not have been predicted. And the same is true of digitization. The question is whether we’ll manage it well or badly, whether we’ll preserve as much as we might. As president-elect of the ALA, Gorman could make himself useful by working to ensure that that this reformatting goes well. He might start by attacking the industry-led extensions and enhancements to copyright protection, which are the reason why so many of the books that Google will put online will have to be presented in snippets.