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May 1, 2005 - Another Phony War (Google versus the Bibliothèque Nationale)

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From Rick Erickson, editor and publisher of MetropoleParis


DATELINE PARIS 26 April 2005:


British newspapers often treat the French with affection. Home-grown eccentrics have to be handled with care so it is handy to have another whole nation of them offshore, but not all that far away. American newspapers, across an ocean, regardless of their newspeople eyeballing the spot, sincerely distrust the French.

Almost all other countries have gotten over the horror and shock engendered by the French revolution that tossed out - sometimes the very heads - of royalty and proclaimed itself a republic. Anglo-Saxon immigrants in America, borrowing from the French, tossed out the crown even before the French did and founded a republic too, and have never forgiven the French for it.

So it is not surprising that US newspapers have had relatively little to say about Google's plan to scan millions of works in several important libraries, with a view to putting the contents online, available to all. More comment has been generated by reports that France's president Jacques Chirac flipped out at this Anglo-Saxon cheek and ordered a crash-scan at the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Google's initial announcement last December was followed in February by reports that the BNF's head, Jean-Noel Jeanneney, expressed worry about world history and culture being represented by Google's private collection. Merely expressing a desire for multi-polarity, his remarks were sensationalized, as in, 'Sparking a French War of Words.'

Then Monsieur Jeanneney announced that the BNF would begin scanning French newspapers from the 19th century to add to the consultable database. In mid-March Jacques Chirac was reported to give a 'go ahead' to the BNF, to close the 'scan-gap' with Google.

But this is not good enough, according to an American commentator. He expressed concern that the state-run operation would somehow turn out to be less 'free' than the commercial offer from Google. Especially worrisome are restrictions imposed by France on taking photos in museums and fees charged to library users, such as the 10 cents charged for photocopies by Paris' public libraries. It would all be okay, he concluded, if France shared its archives with Google and, "Not just hold it for their own Web site."

Sometime in mid-April Le Monde had something to say about this, which the International Herald Tribune remembers today as making Google into a 'villain.' Added to this, the spat, in the mind of the IHT, is no less than 'the first culture war in cyberspace.'

The IHT writer attempts to explain this to the Paris paper's readers but becomes hopelessly entangled trying to explain Google's project and how it does not really constitute an attack against France's cultural identity, while pointing out that maybe half of some books Google intends to scan are not, in fact, in English.

For Google to reach its 'target' of digitally archiving '15 million books,' the writer claims, it will have to scan works in those American libraries that are written in German, Italian, Spanish and French. It's hard to tell if this writer is for or against Google's project, because he says the criteria of selection 'has not been spelled out.' Will Google opt for scholarship or commerce?

Google meanwhile, must be amused. The company has stated that the library project is one that its founders were working on when they invented Google - as a scholarship research tool - and their latest initiative is merely a return to their roots - but now with the deep pockets to pull it off.

It is quite expensive and time consuming to digitalize sometimes fragile old documents and books without wrecking them. Unlike having clever software with its search formulas, copying books is very tedious and requires a certain amount of added scholarship for it to be worth anything. Commercial considerations aside, Google is engaged in a brave and long-winded venture.

Does any of this mean that France's Bibliothèque Nationale was on the verge of rolling over and playing dead?

To be sure France has been startled by the idea that a private company would willingly take on a massive task with the scale of Google's 'Library Project.' But France has been spending around two million euros a year since 1996 to digitalize everything in its cultural cupboard, and this of course includes the tons of books and other documents garaged at the Bibliothèque Nationale.


Europe is on the scene too, busy throwing up Web sites full of European culture, with spending foreseen to amount to 10 million euros per year.


Gallica propose un accès à 70 000 ouvrages numérisés, à plus de 80 000 images et à plusieurs dizaines d'heures de ressources sonores. Cet ensemble constitue l'une des plus importantes bibliothèques numériques accessibles gratuitement sur l'Internet.



The proposal of MICHAEL - (Multilingual Inventory of Cultural Heritage in Europe), approved in the framework of the eTen programme, was born on the basis of the joint efforts of Italy, France and United Kingdom on interoperability and inventories carried out for MINERVA; it can be considered a MINERVA spin off.  The project will define a common approach and a model of digital cultural heritage services that will be applied across the participating nations.  The MICHAEL project focuses on the integration and alignment of many national initiatives in the digital cultural heritage sector. The project will deliver interoperability of national cultural portal initiatives and a high-quality end-user service, which will facilitate the exploitation of European cultural content resources.

It's something that a state can do if nobody else is willing to try and make a commercial deal out of it. And given the 'social' bent of many European states, it is seen as a worthwhile effort - to put the European patrimony of culture online and have it freely accessible for everybody.

This then is probably the problem. Both Google's project and France's desire to make its patrimony available online are equally incomprehensible to American news organizations, so they fall back on promoting old and shopworn cultural differences even when there are, in principle, none.





Copyright © 2005 – Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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