Fool's Gold: Why the Internet is No Substitute for a Library
by Mark Y. Herring.
Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2007.
ISBN-13: 978-0-7864-3082-6, vii, 191 p. Paperback. US $45.00.
Occasionally one can still run into someone who is ranting about the Internet, digital books, and the fight against those who would call print obsolete. You would find yourself in just such a situation if you entered a conversation with Mark Y. Herring, author of Fool's Gold: Why the Internet is No Substitute for a Library(McFarland, 2007).
Nine years ago, Herring became known for his list of "10 Reasons Why the Internet is No Substitute for a Library," which was published in American Libraries (April 2001) and was subsequently turned into a popular poster sold by Herring to benefit his university's library (http://www2.winthrop.edu/dacus/about/ordertenreasonsposter.htm). As a public relations tool, the list actually was not bad; it included points such as "Not Everything is On the Internet" (#1) and "What You Don't Know Really Does Hurt You" (#4). The ten points seem to center on two key issues: Books vs. the Internet, and the problems associated with the Internet as a poor information storage and retrieval mechanism.
Unfortunately, however, the expansion from Herring's 2001 cautionary list of ten reasons to be wary of the Internet to a book length argument does not work, as much as for what Herring, via his list, leaves out as for what he includes. The very effort to measure the strength of libraries by comparing them to the Internet forces a narrow and limited conceptualization of libraries. Herring's 10 original talking points miss critical, relevant policy issues of the Internet that strike at the core of library values, including patron privacy and intellectual freedom (although Herring does rail against pornography on the Web, devoting Chapter 3 to a discussion of all the awful stuff on the Internet and libraries' failure to install filters). Also missing from the ten points is a discussion of the expanding emphasis of the information profession on teaching information skills, especially within the academic library community, or the importance of Library as Place within our democratic culture.
Along with omissions in concept, the author's style is also a barrier to the content. Herring has a tendency to speak in hyperbole, sometimes even bitterly, especially in his Preface and Introduction. His point of view was so evident that I continued to question his objectivity beyond these early sections,, even when he included extensive citations and notes in the main chapters. Inevitably I wondered what he was omitting in order to make his point. When I did find alternative voices, they were buried in the footnotes, as with his note detail in Chapter 5 regarding William Arms' "... more positive take on digital libraries ... " (p. 178) than Herring's. Later, Herring calls another optimistic voice a "put on a happy face" approach to library futures (p. 187).
These problems of fairly overt bias notwithstanding, Herring actually presents in the body of his work a fairly good and well-documented discussion of some of the key misconceptions about the Internet as an information source and about digitization. He is perhaps most convincing in his conclusion, reminding us that the central idea is not to totally dismiss technological changes, but to slow down and keep what we value most about libraries and library services. Unfortunately, however, he does not articulate what indeed we do value most about libraries, instead once again staying within his singular focus of simply fighting against too rapid change.
Ultimately, in Fool's Gold Mark Herring raises important questions about the Internet and electronic resources, and about their impact on libraries. However, by framing his concerns as a "books vs. technology" debate, Herring misses essential points to be made about the future of libraries, including our need to hold on to our essential values while re-tooling for a rapidly changing society. Using his original "10 Reasons" limits Herring’s discussion. The Internet is no substitute for a library not because print is better than electronic, or because face-to-face access trumps remote access. Figuring out what libraries can do for information users and for cultural stewardship in a rapidly changing society is a more central and critical argument.
About the Author
Kate Marek, Ph.D, is associate professor at the Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. © 2009
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