FYI France

File 3: Ejournal and archive

by Jack Kessler,

September 15, 2014 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on September 15, 2014.

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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:

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Of libraries and publishers


T his month, a good new essay by Hervé Le Crosnier, just-published, on the conflicts of roles faced now by libraries and by publishers -- recent events in the French context, of interest to us all --




The Library-As-Publisher:
a confusion of roles,
one damaging the Public Domain

by Hervé Le Crosnier
(translated en américain by Jack Kessler --
Hervé's original in his eloquent French may be
seen via the links shown at the end, here.)


A new digital book collection, assembled in part from works in the public domain, has appeared under the title "BnF collection ebooks".

This collection is the product of a private-sector venture of the Bibliothèque nationale de France known as "BnF-Partenariat", which wants to build, "digitized offerings of works held by the BnF and a realization of their commercial value".

This is a confusion of the respective roles of libraries and of publishers... one which enfeebles both the public service mission of the library and the role of publishers in preserving the texts of the past. Basically it is an erroneous interpretation of value in the public domain.

Libraries have missions which favor public access to all the documents they possess, their sole limit being their budgets and their task of conserving documents which are rare and precious. To this end, the digital is a major ally for the distribution of works in responding to the demands of users.

Another library mission is organizing their works so as not to select, favor, or modify their subjects for any reason, neither ideological, or financial, or in the name of some standard of "good taste". Libraries must offer each work an equal chance to reach an interested public, as a function of its own centers of interest. This is a central value, in an era when private search-engines, and private social-media, organize our access to information using opaque algorithms.

Publishers have, notably regarding the public domain, a totally different approach. They by contrast select certain works for distribution to particular publics, directing their promotion and adapting their presentation, typography, format... The quality of editions is not measured by the quantity of such documents rendered available, but by their critical apparatus, illustrations, and typographic qualities.

There are two missions, here, each as important as the other, but different in their objectives, in the type of task, and in their relation to the public. A library must respect professional rules regarding equality among works, and changes in thinking, over the ages... while the publisher is allowed to favor a particular editorial line, selecting according to what is hoped will be the demands of the public.

The question of price is a consequence of this fundamental distinction. Libraries have a mission for which clients already have paid: to offer to all a free access to all documents... so far as their budget permits... Free access for the public is one consequence of this mission. The publisher has an economic objective. So he will adapt his selection, assemble his series, organize his promotion, all to this end.

For we must not forget, even if the work belongs to the public domain, what we expect from publishers is that they will offer a presentation to us in the most relevant and agreeable manner, with full critical apparatus, notes and prefaces, best design and typography, and placement in its cultural context. This is why they have our confidence, and why we are ready to buy the books, printed or digital, which they put on the market.


* A risk of confusions: who does what?

That a published collection should bear the distinction, "Bibliothèque nationale de France", entails a grand confusion, which is fatal as much to libraries and their public service mission as it is to publishers and their work of rehabilitating old texts and promoting them.

For libraries, that confuses their digitization work, which is a way of favoring open access to their texts in our digital age, with selection for a supposed market.

The education of a librarian insists that it is not for the librarian to choose, but the publisher. The librarian understands the tendencies of an era through studying the story of its publishing, and organizes a balanced approach among the works which contribute to these tendencies as much as budget permits, a balance necessarily limited. To validate some cultural effort via an editorial choice draws upon something else.

This confusion also enfeebles libraries, notably in cities which do not have the budgetary power equivalent to that of the BnF for digitizing local or other specialized collections.

The belief that a digitization effort can be evaluated only by publishing, that the best is that which sells best, puts the library's relationship with its donors in danger.

More philosophically, when a library becomes the editor of the works in its own collections -- as vs. their arrangement in catalogs or expositions -- the library presents itself as a manager, of its public service intended for all, more a logic of being an "owner" of the public domain for which it decides how things must be used.

If this is in-step with the managerial logic which dominates our era, this approach is not that of librarians. The idea of a network of libraries, each a participant in a collective task greater than its parts which offers a larger and more effective collection -- for its organization, digitization, encoding, cataloging -- is a fundamental principle of the profession.

For publishers, that a library so prestigious as the BnF might launch itself out into the commercial market devalues the publishers' own work of selection and promotion. In addition to conflicts of interest, there is the confusion between publication, making available to the public -- and edition, working to see that the presentation of a text meets the expectations of the readers -- a confusion which will harm the overall image of their profession.

A publisher is free to choose a business-model, to establish a price. In the digital world, he may choose the distributors with whom he will work. A publisher can work with the proprietary format of Amazon Kindle, or work in opposition to that for commercial reasons; he can decide to ignore readers' desires and put DRM in his books...

The eventual problem concerns the extension of his market and his budget balance. He may compensate for these restraints on his readers and their abilities to share texts, with a poor quality which causes his readers to go elsewhere.


* "May a public library require a reader to possess Adobe Digital Edition, and so exclude all Linux users?"

All this works differently for libraries. Interoperability, the capacity to be read outside of any platform-affiliation, respect for user-freedom, all are in the institutional mission-logic defined above.

But the collection of the BnF is distributed with DRM -- FNAC, -- or solely in Amazon Kindle format. This done, the BnF, as a public library, finds itself enmeshed in the competitive games-among-platforms which far exceed its own capacities.

May a public library require a reader to possess Adobe Digital Edition, and so exclude all Linux users? To purchase the ebooks of the BnF, one must provide La FNAC and other platforms chosen by BnF-Partenariat with personal data, notably those very-useful addresses and birthdates...

Is it the role of a library, moreover one which is "national", to permit these platforms to record all this private information and sell it, out on the great mega-data market? On the contrary, libraries, as their entire history demonstrates, have a responsibility to respect their readers, to guarantee the anonymity of reading.

Another question, often raised by commentators regarding this BnF venture, is the free-of-charge nature of the public domain. Let us be realists: happily, for decades publishers have sold public domain works... if they hadn't, we would have been deprived of all this essential knowledge.

The question of price is for the market, and for the culture the decision as to which readers should pay. The same work in the public domain will be sold cheap in a pocket edition, a little more expensively with critical apparatus attached, and very expensively when it is printed on fine paper and leather-bound with gold gilt. Each type of edition enjoys its own public.

It is not because there now are free editions in digital formats that this variety will change. It is simply because the publishers who would pay for the works in public domain are rivals, in quality, in critical apparatus, in illustration, in interoperability... In the end, the successful publishers will win their prize, and their competition will lower the prices, to the great benefit of the public, of reading, and of the rehabilitation of the texts of the past.

In this regard libraries have a new mission to support this democratization of access to works in the public domain: to provide sources which simultaneously permit free distribution and quality editorial work. Digitization and optical character recognition make possible, using an information system -- which does not produce new copyright problems -- a source-text viable 95% of the time. This source-text can be used for information search and retrieval, also it can serve as a working copy for typographic improvement and corrections which are properly the realm of an editor.

It would be good for libraries to make such source-texts available to all, without restrictions or negotiation. These source-texts are a necessity for libraries, for they enable the main mission, which is to organize the works in the collection and offer access best-adapted to the needs of an age -- nowadays networked information access, documentary research, information search and retrieval, and access to image copies of the original.


* "In the final analysis, this usage limitation, of an institution financed by the public purse, is contrary to the true value of the public domain."

But, sadly, many libraries -- and in the lead our Bibliothèque nationale de France -- are requiring rights negotiations from all who wish to use their source-texts. This will limit the possibilities for publishers to choose their texts, and perform their valued task... also though it will limit, and this is far more serious, the capacity of active readers to offer to others the works which they like.

For as we have seen, from Project Gutenberg to Wikipedia, altruistic readers are ready to devote their time and energy to the construction of collections of knowledge and culture and to their sharing. This energy of The Commons, in knowledge, ought to find its best allies in libraries... but it's the opposite, from this new collection of the BnF. It sends a very bad signal to all readers interested in sharing, in the rehabilitation of old texts, anyone desiring to promote the books they have loved.

In the final analysis, this usage limitation, of an institution financed by the public purse, is contrary to the true value of the public domain. If one can believe the report of Bruno Ory-Lavollée published by the Ministère de la Culture, the value of our cultural patrimony relies above all upon the multiplied usage of works-conserved offered by libraries and museums. So we have here public libraries putting into place a contrary policy.

It would be good to suggest solutions which would help libraries -- all libraries -- and publishers, and this contribution-impulse of individuals which one can see every day now.

The first necessity is to dissolve this BnF-Partenariat, the BnF venture into commercial activity. The CNRS for a long time believed that a commercial structure like INIST-Diffusion could monetize research... until last year an audit and some pressure showed that it had failed, that this sort of venture yielded derisory results for the institutional missions it supposedly represented.

The wise decision was taken, to reorient the INIST as an extension of the research-work of the CNRS and abandon the commercial activity. From this experience the Ministère de la Culture ought to have the BnF refocus its missions as well, and abandon this tool-of-confusion which is their BnF-Partenariat.

Benefit from the experience of the CNRS: to maintain the same direction for a public institution and a private commercial venture does not make sense.

Then, admit that "the numbers" are not the entire story... Libraries will digitize as a function of their allocated resources, but that is only a first step in evaluating in the public domain. It must be that within this digitized mass one may select and promote certain works.

This may be the role of the editor, of other individuals, or of other institutions... The free access to source-data -- notably the OCR text version -- is a principle which will favor the cultural use of resources. And it is that which is the objective. Changing the usage licenses, doing merely technical work on texts in the public domain adding no new restriction, is essential to extend the Feench culture and language to the world.

Finally, we must remember, and never forget, that the public institutions charged with conserving our cultural patrimony and our public domain are simply managers working for the benefit of us all. The cooperative functioning of our libraries, and here the role of the largest in energizing and training, is a central goal of our missions of universal access in our publications. These values must be remembered, in this moment of The Digital, if we are not to be blinded by exciting technique, or by the promises of digital industries which calculate in "data", and forget the collective value of the public domain and of the sharing of culture.





For Hervé's original in his eloquent French, as I said, plus some very interesting images, see the following:




Happy rentrée -- welcome back!


Jack Kessler,



FYI France (sm)(tm) e-journal ISSN 1071-5916
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