Column Editor: Debbie Vaughn (College of Charleston) <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Column Editor’s Note: Those connected to libraries of all types have very likely at least heard of Michael Gorman — among many other distinctions, he was the 2005-2006 ALA President and has been honored with a number of awards for his service to libraries and his support for access to information. For better or for worse, he is also known for his stance on the Google Books Library Project. In this month’s Monographic Musings, ATG reviewer Patricia Dragon examines Gorman’s recent autobiography, published by ALA Editions. Happy reading, everyone! — DV
Gorman, Michael. Broken Pieces: A Library Life, 1941-1978. Chicago: ALA Editions, 2011. 978-0838911044. 248 pages. $35.00.
Reviewed by Patricia Dragon (Head of Special Collections Cataloging, Mtadata, and Authorities, Joyner Library, East Carolina University) <email@example.com>
Michael Gorman’s Broken Pieces: A Library Life, 1941-1978 is the autobiography of a central figure in libraries of the past 40 years, from his boyhood in working-class England to his faculty position at the University of Illinois. It is stuffed full of vivid anecdotes from school days with teachers both repressive and enlightening, reflections upon his parents and childhood through adult eyes, and stories about a child’s discovery of libraries as places to escape existence, and later, as the locus of a fulfilling career. These broken pieces add up to a compelling portrayal of what makes the author who he is. Laboriously indexed and with meaty citations, it is also the work of a scholar detailing pivotal developments in library history in the 20th century, with particular reference to cataloging. Throughout, the earnestness of Gorman’s passion for libraries is the central, unifying theme.
What stands out in Gorman’s recounting of his early working days are the fascinating descriptions of his colleagues, reminding the reader of the tyrannical library ladies and freethinking bohemians all librarians of a certain age have known. Gorman writes of one: “She wore the muted garb of an interwar bluestocking, and her dark and steel gray hair was arranged in a sort of straggling, tumbling bun secured by long pins. She had an intimidating habit of making points by stabbing the relevant papers with savage, bony fingers” (121). Although he also gives details about the technology with which he worked, for instance in a long description of the printing plates for catalog cards at Hampstead Public Library, it is clear that for Gorman, libraries are about the people, not the technology. It is impossible to imagine all the colorful characters whose personalities, wardrobes, and lunch preferences he lovingly describes being adequately replaced by the Internet.
The book exhibits an appealing blend of personal and professional. Several times, Gorman outright apologizes for not being the husband and father he should have been. He writes frankly about debilitating anxiety and nervous breakdowns. Family events appear regularly but briefly, almost tinged with regret, tucked in abruptly between descriptions of conferences and meetings and work and trips across the ocean. The blending of personal and professional serves to underline the central importance of his work to his life.
Gorman offers cogent criticism of library education today, derived from his own sharply different experience. The curriculum prescribed by the [British] Library Association, Gorman explains, was not simply vocational education, but was inherently closely allied to the needs of the profession. There was an ordered curriculum and general agreement on what the degree recipients should know when they graduate, unlike the programs of multiple tracks and fewer universal requirements that prevail now. Cataloging was central to librarianship, a status Gorman sought to preserve in his first years on the faculty: “I was determined to teach cataloging as one of the fundamental bases of librarianship, not as a specialized skill of use only to a few. I wanted the students to understand that cataloguing was … ‘the way librarians think’” (162). Needless to say, Gorman laments the loss of cataloging from the central library curriculum.
For readers looking for juicy conflict, Gorman refers in advance to chapter 12 several times, calling it “the battle of AACR2.” He explains that he segregated the material on cataloging into a separate chapter so that those not interested, presuming there are any who have read thus far, can skip it. The cataloging-phobic have no need to fear, however, since although he alludes to the radical changes, Gorman actually goes into little detail about them. He does give a succinct history of cataloging developments in the 20th century, describing how AACR2 arose out of movements for greater international cooperation such as the ISBD, the rise of machine handling of records requiring certain kinds of standardization, the need for cataloging principles rather than haphazard examples, and the proliferation of formats other than printed books. The battle he describes centers on the conflict between the cost of implementation versus improved service to patrons.
Of course, Gorman is famous for his scathing criticism of certain library trends, and he does not disappoint in this realm, calling FRBR “a name more suited to a Beanie Baby than an ambitious cataloging standard” (197). He leaves no one guessing how he feels about RDA: “based on trendy chatter, gaseous assertions, and untested assumptions” (203), or metadata: “an inferior, unstandardized species of cataloguing done by amateurs” (191). Although he often portrays himself as a man increasingly unable to recognize the world around him, a literary man in a digital world, Gorman is careful to stress that he is not against the prudent use of useful technology, but rather only technology for its own sake. He remains cautiously optimistic that libraries will continue to inspire and educate those who seek such things. His book is an inspiring read for all librarians and anyone concerned with the preservation of the intellectual record.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.