In 1997-98 I was serving as the conference programing chair for a section of ALA. I wanted to get a speaker who might say something radical or controversial. I sent an invitation to Neil Postman, author of Technopoly. His book presented a message that technology doesn’t, in itself, solve problems. Human thought, decisions, and actions solve problems. Postman emailed me that he was interested, but he was unavailable at the time of the ALA conference. Next I tried Theodore Roszak, author of The Cult of Information, a book with a similar theme. Roszak wanted a bit more money than we had available.
Next up was Nicholson Baker, who at the time had published an article in The New Yorker bemoaning the disposal of card catalogs in libraries all over the world. I was sitting in my office one day after sending an invitation to Baker’s agent. I got a phone call and picked up the receiver. A voice said, “this is Nicholson Baker.” I about fell out of my seat! He was actually calling from Italy, where he was doing some work! I was quite touched by his concern to reach me personally. He went on to say that he didn’t really want to make an appearance at the conference. A lot of the response from librarians about his card catalog piece had been pretty negative. And he didn’t feel like he had anything more to say.
A couple of years later it turned out he did have more to say. He wrote another piece for The New Yorker in 2000, this one about the discarding of newspapers by the world’s libraries. This article later served as the basis for the book Double Fold, published in 2001. At the ALA conference in 2001 Baker also gave a presentation sponsored by the Social Responsibilities Roundtable and the Progressive Librarians Guild. Much more to say, I guess: Book tour!
All of that is prelude to say I was a little surprised to see an essay by Baker in The New York Review of Books describing how much he likes Wikipedia. The article is ostensibly a review of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual by John Broughton, but the true thesis is about Baker’s battle with Wikipedia editors over entries that were slated for deletion. What I thought might be the quintessence of irony turns out to be not so strange. Baker is still talking about preserving information that somebody else wants to dispose of. Another irony remains however: that I, a person quite determined to arrange a program that questioned library dependence on technology, would become such a devotee of technology! I think, however, I remain a humanist and not a technopolist. Like Postman, I don’t believe technology itself can solve our problems. It is only a tool that we can use to help us. The most important thing technology can do is enable people to interact with one another.
By the way, at that conference back in 1998, the speaker I finally got was Mark Crispin Miller, who gave a wonderful presentation about media conglomeration. John Buschman and Janet Swan Hill gave thoughtful responses.