Harry Potter and the Gwinnett County Schools


Fang-Face writes "An article posted to First Amendement Center about a Harry Potter challenge reports finis to a call to ban the whole series from the Gwinnett County school district libraries. Ms. Su Ellen Bray, the hearing officer for this case, had recommended strongly that the series stay; the closing argument in her recommendation was: "To remove this series of critically acclaimed and highly popular books from the school media centers because of a challenge of one parent who has not read any one of the books in its entirety, who has mistakenly identified the themes of the books, and whose main argument is that the books teach the readers to be evil, would open this very fine school system to ridicule by many of its citizens as well as citizens of this nation."

The school board appears to have agreed with her."


I endorsed Gorman for President and defended him multiple times. I think his politics are a joke but his profesisonal resume is a bit more impressive than most of the techies whose knives are out for him. If he didn't mix the two so much I'd actually admire him.

My undergraduate background is in computer science, and from that perspective I have a great deal of admiration for Michael Gorman's work with AACR as well as that of Henriette Avram in creating MARC. (I noted this statement in the announcement of her passing: "Though Avram was a systems analyst by training, not a librarian, her work ... revolutionized access to library materials.") Know why I admire them? They did what they did in a world with the twin challenges of expensive computing cycles and scarce storage. MARC and AACR were created when punch cards and 9-track tapes ruled the world and computers took up rooms. (Wanted one for your desk? Hah!)

Here's my problem, though: we no longer live in the 1970s. Computer cycles are so cheap that we stack CPUs in huge racks to collectively work on solving a problem. Storage is so cheap that we consider a verbose, ASCII-based markup language (a.k.a. "XML") as the state of the art in computer-to-computer communication. Compare the information density of 1000 characters of MARC versus 1000 characters of XML. And more to the point, let's not forget AACR where every colon, period, and dash carries meaning versus the explicit description of attributes in XML. Example? Compare

300    |a1 v. (unpaged) :|bill. (some col.) ;|c26 cm.


<datafield tag="300" ind1=" " ind2=" ">
  <subfield code="a">1 v. (unpaged) :</subfield>
  <subfield code="b">ill. (some col.) ;</subfield>
  <subfield code="c">26 cm.</subfield>

See what I mean? The first is 51 characters, more or less, and the second is 185 characters. Now I'd argue that the second is not much more expressive than the first. (The second is MARCXML -- a raw translation of the MARC record format to XML.) But take a look at this more mainstream XML format (from MODS):

<subject authority="lcsh">
<geographic>United States</geographic>
<topic>Politics and government</topic>
<temporal>20th century.</temporal>

A human can read and understand that as well as being parsable by a computer.

Now anyone that would have proposed the second or third of these examples in the 1960s or 1970s would have been laughed out of the machine room and told never to come back. Sure, you could write a computer program back then to read and write those XML-based formats, but it would have been so computationally- and storage-expensive that it would never have been taken seriously, much less actually contribute to the spread of machine-based cataloging tools.

So back to this decade, when storage is cheap and computer processing power even cheaper. Interoperability with other systems outside the library domain is more and more important. There is a computer on every desk...and one in your pocket. The user is empowered with a combination of better human/machine interfaces (we've exchanged punch cards for keyboards, mice and graphical user interfaces) and inexpensive communication mechanisms (that make machine-aided tagging and recommendation engines possible).

Is this the death knell for the librarian? Not necessarily. If the profession continues to train and promote the librarian of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, then yes. If that librarian is one that recognizes the shift to user-empowered technology in the past decade, nebulously characterized as "Library 2.0", then we have a valuable value-added role to play in the information-seeking and -use activities of citizens in this new world.

-the Jester