3.00 FYI France: Ejournal and archive

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

February 15, 2005 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on February 15, 2005.

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Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Ejournal subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: kessler@well.sf.ca.us

Here this file is one of a number made available -- hopefully attractively, all in one place, and relevant to libraries and online digital information work in France and Europe -- as part of FYI France (sm)(tm), an online service to which anyone can subscribe for 12 months by postal mailing a check for US $45, payable to Jack Kessler, to PO Box 460668, San Francisco, California, USA 94146 (site licenses also are available): please write your email address on the front of your check. Please email suggestions for improvements to me at kessler@well.sf.ca.us


Google digital library vs. France?... & vs. others?


The wonderful digital library news from Google -- that all the world's books are to be digitized -- has not been received with unrestrained glee by everyone. I've already tried, previously here, to suggest the worries of the rare book community: see this FYIFrance ejournal's December 15 2004 issue.

Now comes another sceptic: from the world outside of our "Anglo-Saxon" one... an "outside" world increasingly and self-consciously so... He is very upset, about Google's digital library plans, and the rest of us would do well to listen.

Jean-Noël Jeanneney is president of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France: this is the august position of "administrateur", once occupied by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Julien Cain, and other luminaries over the centuries before them -- individuals who, often against seemingly-insuperable odds, built and maintained the great library which was the Bibliothèque du Roi, and then the Bibliothèque Nationale, and now has become the BNF.

Jeanneney speaks for himself, in what he says about the Google digital library, but he is no crusading journalist merely grabbing at a headline. Google will be hearing from plenty of those, as well. But Jean-Noël Jeanneney heads one of the leading cultural institutions in the entire "non-English-speaking world".

That is a very large world, still, that non-English-speaking one. It includes Europe, also Russia, also Africa and Latin America; and yes also Asia, the billions of information users who are there, too. "English-speaking" being a matter not of capacity but of choice: for example very good English is spoken in India, but people there might rather choose something else...

Does Jeanneney speak for them? No, he would not pretend this: he would disclaim representing "Europe", even -- and pressed to the point he might say he speaks not even for his own nation, or even his BNF, but only for himself.

But the rest of us might do well to consider him representative, I myself believe, in many of his remarks which follow below: who else, to give us blunt and honest advice, if not the French? --

-- Jeanneney does not like the "crushing American domination" which he senses in Google's digital library project, he says -- and would anyone else, among the great institutions and cultures which populate the "non-English-speaking world"?

-- and he is suspicious, of what he pungently labels, "research-for-profit, cloaked in the appearence of disinterest"

-- so in these two respects alone, then, digital library developers everywhere might read, and carefully consider, Jeanneney's perhaps-representative and at-least-indicative and perhaps-very-influential remarks.

The article appears in the January 22 issue of Le Monde:

-- translations into English which follow here are my own --

"The risk, of a crushing American domination, of the idea of the world to be held by future generations...

"For now, the news has attracted the attention of only librarians and computer scientists. But I would measure the significance of this in cultural terms, and so in political terms: this is enormous..."

-- additional discussion by the French, of their BNF president's remarks, also is easily viewed in two locations --

-- Jeanneney says,

"Google is, as everyone knows, the premier search engine for guiding Internet users through the immensity of the Web... And it is first in terms of sheer capitalistic weight: since its listing on the stock exchange in New York in June 2004, it has found and it will continue to find an abundance of new financial resources.

"Therefore and thereby, on the 14th of December, this corporation announced with great fanfare that it has concluded contracts with five of the most celebrated and resource-rich libraries of the Anglo-Saxon world..."

-- the corporate and capitalistic and "market-driven" aspects of such a project, all increasingly just taken for granted in the US, still are objects of great suspicion everywhere else, and US Internet developers need to remember this --

"Contracts for doing what? For nothing less than the digitization, within a few years, of 15 million works in order to make them accessible online... for free, for those which now are in the public domain, and in teasing extracts for the others which still are under copyright, awaiting the passage of time..."

"They are speaking here of a total -- dizzying statistic -- of 4.5 billion pages. The initial reaction, facing such a gigantic prospect, might be pure and simple jubilation. Look how it has taken form, in such a short time, the messianic dream defined at the close of the last century: all of the knowledge of the world, accessible for free across the entire planet. Thus true equality at last is established, thanks to science, to the greatest benefit of the poorest nations, and of the most disadvantaged populations.

"But we have to look a little further into this. Some great difficulties were born at the same time..."

-- the "value-free" and magically-beneficial contribution to civilization of science, both Big Science and small science, also is not taken for granted so often, outside of the US --

"Here we find the risk of a crushing domination, by America, of the idea which future generations will have of the world. No matter what the immediate effect is of the Google announcement, the sheer exhaustivity of the undertaking puts all this beyond our reckoning, from a humanistic point of view. Any undertaking of this nature will require drastic choices, among the immense variety of possibilities which it offers."

-- I add here one of my favorite quotations from Umberto Eco:

-- for Jeanneney too says,

"The libraries launching themselves into this adventure certainly are generously open to the civilizations and works of other countries. Nevertheless: the criteria of choice will be heavily influenced -- even if we contribute ourselves, uncomplainingly, to the riches of this project -- by a point of view which is Anglo-Saxon, with its specific approach to the diversities of human civilization.

"I remember our Bicentenary of the Revolution, in 1989, when I was in charge of certain celebrations. It was damaging and difficult for the well-being of my nation -- for its image and for its own understanding of itself, of its past, of events shining or shady -- that when we came to our commemorations we had to seek, in English or American databases, recitals and interpretations which were biased in so many ways: "The Scarlet Pimpernel" crushing "Quatre-vingt-treize" -- the valiant British aristocrats triumphing over the bloody Jacobins -- the guillotine obscuring The Rights of Man and the brilliant contributions of the Convention. That experience was instructive, and it puts us on our guard.

"We should not forget, too, another aspect of this work-in-progress: in the ocean of the Internet, where everything can be found -- the true along with the false -- the process of validation of the products of research, by scientific authorities and in their journals, takes on an essential role. Anglo-Saxon science, which already is dominant in a certain number of domains, will become over-valued, inevitably -- with a crushing advantage to English, over the languages of other cultures, including those of other European cultures.

"It will be said that we speak here not of complete works, because those by definition are not yet in the public domain, but only of extracts, for the protection of authors and publishers. But in fairness this publicity alone will be discriminatory, and necessarily. Under the appearance of gratuity the Internet user in fact will repay Google, qua consumer, as that corporation lives 99% off of publicity, and the project which it has announced surely envisions a return-on-investment. And little ads in the page margins and preferred links will lead to sales, accentuating the imbalance."

-- and Jeanneney is careful to offer not just defensiveness but also a challenge, a competitive one --

"Ever since the question first was posed, following the second world war -- initially in film and then generally in the mass communications industries -- the issue of the French response to American domination, as a matter of principle if not in outright reaction, has weighed upon all of our originality here. A first response was protectionism, via a quota system, in theaters and then on the television. This was a legitimate reply, and it was partially effective. But in the present case such a strategy would be impossible, given the nature of the Web. There is a second approach, though, one which already has proven itself on several Websites: that of a counter-attack, one with an emphasis on cultural differences.

"In this matter France and her Bibliothèque Nationale have a special responsibility toward the francophone world. But no European nation is, we know, strong enough to undertake such an effort. I certainly would be the last to ignore the efforts thus far accomplished: the digital library developed by the Bibliothèque nationale de France under the name of Gallica -- which already offers 80,000 works and 70,000 images online, and soon will offer the fulltexts of the great French journals of the 19th century -- now is accessible, to the plaudits of numerous researchers and citizens, and it spreads our influence throughout the world. But it exists only through the subsidies of the French government, which are not unlimited, and through our own BNF resources, which are assembled valiantly but with difficulty. Our annual expense is not even a thousandth of the vast sum announced now by Google. The combat is unequal by far.

"Another approach is needed. And it can only be deployed on a pan-European scale: a Europe determined to be not just a market, but a shining center of culture and political influence without peer around the planet.

"So the time has come for a solemn appeal. It calls upon the leaders of the Union, in its three leading institutions, to respond without delay -- for, very quickly, the position will be taken, the habits will be formed, it will be to late to nudge them aside later on.

"A multi-year plan must be defined and adopted this year at Brussels. A generous budget must be provided. It is in providing these public funds that we will give to our citizens and our researchers -- providing them as necessary expenses and not as consumer products -- a protection against the perverse effects of research-for-profit, cloaked in the appearence of disinterest.

"It is only by relying on national government initiatives that we will prevent all of our archival photographic collections from falling into the hands of American corporations (Corbis, a subsidiary of Microsoft, already has taken things far in that direction). It is only by mobilizing specialized laboratories that we will develop search engines as well as software which are our own.

"Everywhere one calls upon, nowadays, the urgency of long-term research and industrial development policies which will assure, in the face of strong global competition trends, a pathway for the originality which Europe can contribute: well, here it is, exactly -- this is the challenge which we must confront. We can do it, we must do it.

"* Jean-Noël Jeanneney, former secretary of state for communications, is the President of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and of the association Europartenaires."



Am I personally in favor of any of this, either of what Google is proposing or of what Jeanneney is calling for here to combat it?

I do not see the two as opposed, myself -- I am very much in favor of both, in fact. It always has been as Jeanneney himself suggests, I believe: elsewhere in the above piece he observes,

-- certainly Henri-Jean Martin suggests this, too, and Elizabeth Eisenstein confirms it, regarding "transitions in media". People still write, in spite of centuries of printing. And people still speak, and paint, and decorate their buildings, in spite of centuries of writing, so Hugo's "ceci tuera cela" was an over-statement. And no decades in history ever have witnessed such paper production and consumption, as those now which have followed the arrival, proclaimed a quarter century ago, of "the paperless library".

And this will continue, it appears to me. There is room for both, and more. The world still contains much illiteracy: illiteracy regarding the written and printed word, and also illiteracy regarding the visual world, and sound, and taste, and multi-media representations of all of these and more. Many of us, on the globe, still cannot "read and write", and all too few of us can really "see" or "hear".

From Geoffroy Tory to Roland Barthe to Edward Tufte, we have been taught how little really most of us know of the visual and many other worlds of "texts". Most of us still are discovering the worlds of Bach, and of Rock and Rap. And all too few of us really understand "color", whether we are adept at manipulating our cellphones or not. And virtual reality developers only now are getting started on the richness & depth & complexities of multi-media representation.

And we need them all: because different people communicate in different ways, on different occasions: a globalizing world so devoted to "diversity", as the present one is, can ill afford to block off one particular communication channel in favor of any other.

Should the approach be "combat", rather than "cooperation"? Well, cooperation does work better, sometimes. But an old definition of "trade" is "warfare by peaceful means". So Jeanneney's call-to-arms, in the above, to me gains much in strategy and tactics to balance its occasional over-simplifications...

No there is not an "anglo-saxon world", as an example of the latter: Oxford and London friends long have made clear to me just how separate we in the US and UK are -- and when they haven't, other friends in Liverpool and Glasgow have -- and just when all of that begins to look alike, at least comparing it to places elsewhere on the planet, recent social trends in San Jose California and in London's Brixton remind me of just how changeable the most settled circumstances may quickly become. I'll take Jeanneney or anyone else French on tours of elementary schools in California or in Greater London, nowadays, and challenge them to find anything therein easily categorized as being simply "anglo-saxon".

But Jeanneney knows this, I am sure. Modern France is the same. He is making merely a strategic and tactical point, in asserting his "us vs. them" of "Europe vs. 'the anglo-saxons'". It is a valid question, I believe, how one marshals one's own troops; but for some causes whatever it takes will do, and I wouldn't question his judgment on that.

My own position, then, is merely strategic and tactical as well. Qua American I ought to and in fact do welcome the competition: the "business of America" being "business"... If France or Europe or anyone else comes up with strong competition, for Google's new digital library model, I welcome that: it will strengthen the Google effort, and add value to the efforts of all. If Europe does come up with a market entry, I might even buy some more Google shares... that's "market capitalism"...

Qua strategist and tactician myself, though, I am very concerned that my own team might become short-sighted, too: might not realize what the others in the market -- what the customers, in fact, who always must be heard -- are thinking, and doing. A mutual misunderstanding problem... India and China, for instance, both might raise points similar to Jeanneney's "Scarlet Pimpernel" objections, above; or Vietnam and the Philippines might do so -- and very justifiably in my own view -- to American-dominated digital library efforts.

So it is at least in that spirit that I translate and publicize Jeanneney's remarks here: US and other digital library developers all need to see, and consider, the whole picture -- and it has been my own experience, since the very invention of the public Internet, and certainly since the beginnings of "The Web" and "digital libraries", that digital development tends to focus on its own navel, on itself, and too often in documents which have been written only in English.

There is a bigger world out there. Here a leading exponent of that "non-English-speaking world" is presenting his views. We would do well to listen very carefully. He is critical, and he makes points which appeal far beyond our pocketbooks, to opinions and ideals of equality and diversity and fairness which we hold as dear as he does. There also is simply the impoverishment of our own effort, which would result from excluding him and the others. And there are more of him than there are of us; and, finally, they are at the very least "the customers".

Together, albeit in competition, we and the Europeans and many others _all_ might fashion a better "information" world, using different digital library techniques which -- like the oral & written & printed "word" historically -- do not replace but in fact will complement one another.

So, on the US listening once again here to the French, perhaps ironically it is as Kent warned Lear, about blunt and honest views being more useful than flattery:




The FRAY...

-- the phrase is taken from its frequent use on The WELL / the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, http://www.well.com, where I and so many other Internauts & Internautes have learned so much of what we know, about all of these "things digital", over so many years. "The Fray" refers to the scene one might find on any urban street-corner -- some times in a children's playground, other times on a very adult & bloody battlefield -- those of us who enjoy the general discussion-brawl atmosphere, online, and in fact benefit greatly from it, prefer to think of it as a forum, or perhaps better an agora...

Selected letters, then, compliments & complaints: the "suggestions, reactions, criticisms, praise & poison-pen" -- all received "gratefully", as promised over so many years now too, here on FYI France. They're not all going to appear here -- FYI France gets lots of mail -- but I'll try to include highlights and correspondence and and later postings which provide context, for the sometimes-controversial settings in which these ejournal issues have appeared.






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Last update: July 16, 2008