3.00 FYI France: Ejournal and archive

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

July 15, 2006 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on July 15, 2006.

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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. And you can pay via PayPal, on the FYI France homepage:


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Review of Livre, by Michel Melot


The French make beautiful books, and they write about them well. Among the leading such writers, currently, is Michel Melot. His volumes on French prints and libraries are well-known and make good reading. Now he has added an intriguing, stunningly - presented, thoughtful work on the uses and future of "the book".

Note that the title contains a comma... the book has a future... Melot is no stranger to the newer technologies: it was at his instigation that a small group met in his wonderful Paris Opéra offices, now long ago, for discussions which led to various fruitful "new technologies" undertakings -- including Herve Le Crosnier's development of the very successful French librarians' econference, biblio-fr --


-- now 14,000+ subscribers, for which Le Crosnier now credits Melot with having been "the lightnin' strike" for him -- and including Jack Kessler's personal discovery that my own little list of 18 "French Online OPACs" (that was in 1992) was not exhaustive of all of the immense activity then under way, inside the Hexagone, in online librarianship.

Melot's personal credentials extend far beyond the digital, however: far back, earlier, to include his immense knowledge of the history of the book and of early printing and of older French librarianship -- and more broadly, and perhaps more deeply, as he has thought and written a great deal about all these other things.

He draws upon a distinguished career, which has included his having been director of the Département des Estampes et de la Photographie of the Bibliothèque Nationale, first director of Paris' well-known Bibliothèque Publique d'Information at the Centre Pompidou, and president of the Conseil Supérieur des Bibliothèques.

The present book exhibits all of this experience and erudition well. But above all it is immensely-readable. Melot's subject, here, is the meaning of the thing we have called a "book": its limitations, its possibilities, the old uses to which it has been put, the new uses which only now perhaps are developing for it. How, exactly, do we appreciate the "book" as opposed to other products of the human imagination: is the book something derivative, something utilitarian, or something more of the imagination, and one which affects us as we affect it?

And, whither the book now, in the digital age? That is Melot's "comma"... He is convinced, as most of us are now, that the reading of books will continue. But he is not convinced that we yet really understand in what directions. The "book" has many surprises in it for all of us, it seems. Melot begins (p. 17),


No less than Régis Debray -- sometime-professor of "médiologie", now, in Paris, and recently president of the ENSSIB national library school's Conseil Scientifique -- offers the Introduction, praising Melot's erudition and the originality of his thinking, reminding us that new technologies experience, "a first phase of popularity, followed by a second of disenchantment", and that digital text is no exception: "one can imagine a complementarity, happy and pragmatic, between the computer screen and the book".

Melot, then, declares: "Chapitre 1, Et le Verbe se fit Livre..."

His prose can be poetry: he writes of, "ce pouvoir fédérateur, totalisant, universalisant" -- "this unifying, total, universalizing power" -- which books offer, to texts, as other more open-ended digital media do not --

Melot's text is no encomium or mere panegyric, as too many "books on 'the book'" turn out to be: instead it is an extended essay, a thoughtful rumination. He clearly loves books, but he has no axe to grind unconditionally "for" books... He points out their limitations: for example, the message has had to conform somewhat to its medium --

And Melot offers, and warns of, the flexibilities of digital text:

Melot's work is filled with intriguing insights and suggestions, for anyone who has thought about books, libraries, digital information, "transitions in media", or texts -- particularly if the interest has been the long histories of all of these, where Melot's immense erudition pays off well. This is not a text tackled lightly, as each sentence is packed, and each paragraph deserves long mulling-over and several re-readings -- yet it is a book very enjoyably read-through the first time, too, as Melot obviously enjoys his subject and he communicates it well, and he does so unthreateningly and familiarly, to any reader.

For "summer reading", then -- at least as a prelude to more intense Fall and Winter re-reading and further study, later on -- I recommend the book highly. I have read it twice, now, and I am just beginning a third run-through in order to take better notes. The first time I learned a great deal, and became excited by its subjects, and later readings are improving upon this.

Libraries need this book: librarians themselves need to read it, book collectors and connoisseurs will be fascinated, and anyone in the book trades will be intrigued, as will any student or scholar who ever has wound a research path through the myriad "media" in which texts present themselves today -- and every "digital librarian" should read this book.

And someone needs to translate it: into English but also into other languages. Melot's poetic prose in French is wonderful to read, but the ideas he expresses are too important to leave them there. The reasoning translates well into other languages: the discussion is simple, and it is clear -- always the best sign of a capable treatment of a complicated subject.


Michel Melot grasps the essentials of the digital age -- that our age no longer is simply static but has become the dynamic "space of flows" and "flow of spaces", described by Castells and others -- but Melot also sees the essential loss, if we allow our age to become only that.

There is a balance to be struck, perhaps, rather than a choice to be made. Both statics and dynamics are needed. The welcome dynamism of our modern world also is in need of some things which will be more steady, and less changeable, and longer-lasting.

Melot sees room for, and even the necessity of, both, and he weaves the two together well, here. "All books are a part of biography", he declares, "The book is an indication of the human condition. Like us, it stands complete when it is alone, and incomplete when it stands before others." (p. 196).

Books do that for us, then... the iconography of Perrault's BnF Tolbiac design, "books" standing open on a table... The human world needs to be, simultaneously, both a "complete" and an "open" place.


Nicolas Taffin's masterful photographs illustrate Melot's concepts well: in fact this book is rewardingly read, second time through at least, with a thumb in the photo credits index... as for example when the photo credit, "Page 53. Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu, volume 3", indicates a fuzzy image of gently-stacked blue paper pages, in "Chapitre 2 Ainsi pense le pli" -- perfectly evoking, to me anyway, the voluminous reconstruction of both the certainties and uncertainties in a life -- or in the case of the credit, "Page 72 Erasme Eloge de la folie", referring to a vague and illegible image of printed letters on a page, in "Chapitre 3 L'adieu au verbe", where Melot is pointing out that, at times, "The word 'book' becomes ambiguous, designating both the material object and the intellectual oeuvre." (p. 73)

The book is a pleasure to hold and to read, as well: just the right fonts, and sizes, and spacings and paper surface, strong binding and smooth cover. Kudos to Patricia Chapuis for her excellent graphic presentation.


I highly recommend Melot's Livre, to anyone with some time available to spend, this summer, poring over a lovingly-crafted and intriguingly-argued book about books and many other things.




Full citation for the book under review here:


Other books by Michel Melot (partial list, the BN offers 52 notices):






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