April 28, 2005

News flash: European national libraries are willing to take EU money

According to an AFP-based article in Deutsche Welle (4/28/2005),

In a stand against a deal struck by five of the world's top libraries and Google to digitize millions of books, 19 European libraries have agreed to back a similar European project to safeguard literature.

Nineteen European national libraries have joined forces against a planned communications revolution by Internet search giant Google to create a global virtual library, organizers said Wednesday. The 19 libraries are backing instead a multi-million euro counter-offensive by European nations to put European literature online.

The 19 signatories are "national libraries in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden". Apparently the British National Library "has given its implicit support to the move, without signing the motion" (whatever exactly that means), and Cyprus, Malta and Portugal are expected to sign up as well.

This all started with a warning a couple of months ago by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, head of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF), that Europe faces the "crushing domination of America" in the cultural arena, and an initiative by Jacques Chirac to promote Jeanneney's proposal for a pan-European publically-funded competitor to Google Print.

It's not an enormous surprise that the national libraries are in favor of "a multi-year plan" with a "generous budget" to provide for them to plan, implement and deliver this service. And I sincerely hope that this turns out to be a success, as Airbus has been, and not another "plan calcul". This was badly conceived and badly implemented Gaullist plan to promote the French computer industry, 1966-1975, discussed in context here:

From 1965 on, General de Gaulle and the government devoted their attention to developing a national computer and communication technology industry. After blocking the acquisition by a giant US firm, General Electric, of what was at the time France's only computer company, Compagnie des Machines BULL, the government decided to create the Compagnie Internationale pour l'Informatique (CII) as part of its computer development plan or "Plan Calcul" (13 April 1967). In its early years, the company would enjoy "national preference" from users in the public and semi-public sectors.

The lightning pace of development in the field of computer science, however, doomed these efforts to failure.

This concern is not mine alone: an op-ed by Bertrand Le Gendre in Le Monde of 4/21/2005, discussing the Jeanneney/Chirac initiative, is entitled "Le plan calcul de la BNF" ("The plan calcul of the BNF").

Le gaullisme était particulièrement chatouilleux sur ce chapitre de la grandeur et longtemps il a fait illusion : paquebot France, supersonique Concorde, plan calcul. Trois fiertés nationales, trois gouffres financiers, trois échecs commerciaux, qui incitent à se demander si ce"Google à la française" dont la Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) serait le pivot n'est pas, lui aussi, un pari risqué.

Gaullisme was especially ticklish about this business of grandeur, and has had a long history of delusion: the ocean liner France, the supersonic Concorde, the plan calcul. Three objects of national pride, three financial sinkholes, three commercial failures, which lead us to ask whether this "Google French style" based on the BNF is not, also, a risky bet.

I see little reason to be confident that the 20-odd national libraries will be able to work together efficiently to plan and implement this massive digitization process, and to make the results available to the public in an effective way. There is likely to be a substantial communications overhead, and perhaps some issues of local technical competence. Of course, Europe has many highly skilled technical managers who could make a success of such a project, but I wonder if the politics of the situation will allow any of them to be given the opportunity to do it.

[Deutsche Welle reference via email from Benjamin Zimmer]

Other current stories: in Le Monde, the Inquirer (where the likely cost is underestimated by an order of magnitude), from the AFP wire in the Sydney Morning Herald, and (a generally-negative opinion piece on the Jeanneney/Chirac initiative as a whole, by Pierre Buhler from Sciences-Po in Paris) in the IHT.

From the Le Monde article:

Pour M. Jeanneney, il n'est pas question de laisser les politiques se mêler directement des contenus. Des conseils scientifiques européens, composés de bibliothécaires, de conservateurs, d'informaticiens et de savants de toute nature, pourvoiraient à les définir. Une instance qui en serait l'émanation déterminerait une stratégie collective. Elle "s'attacherait à encourager tous les choix privilégiant la mémoire des échanges d'une nation à l'autre." Et devrait répondre "à cette inquiétude lancinante du n'importe quoi, de la dispersion du savoir en poudre" , caractéristique à ses yeux du projet Google, "dont le président des bibliothèques américaines - Michael Gorman - s'est fait le dénonciateur persuasif et inquiet."

For M. Jeanneney, it's not a question of letting the politicians meddle directly in the content. European scientific councils, made up of librarians, conservators, computer scientists and scholars of all kinds, will arrange to define it. A decision-making body that would result from this process would decide on a collective strategy. This body "would dedicate itself to encouraging all options, favoring the retention of the exchanges between one nation and another." And it should respond "to that throbbing anxiety for anything and everything, scattering knowledge like dust", characteristic in his view of Google's project, "which the president of American libraries" -- Michael Gorman -- "has so persuasively and disturbingly denounced".

Reste un risque majeur : face à la souplesse et à la détermination d'une entreprise privée, disposant de moyens financiers très importants, l'Europe risque d'opposer à la firme californienne une complexe usine à gaz, addition d'administrations atomisées, jalouses et paralysées par des interférences politiques.

There remains a major risk: in contrast to the flexibility and determination of a private enterprise, able to spend large sums, Europe risks opposing to the California firm a gasworks project, adding atomised bureaucracies, paralyzed by administrative jealousies and political interference.


Previous Language Log coverage of this story:

2/01/2005 Revenge of the Codex People [a roundup of Gorman links]
2/20/2005 Google challenges Europe?
3/08/2005 The Progress and Prospects of the Digital BNF
3/19/2005 France challenges Google
3/23/2005 EuGoogle advances
3/26/2005 Europe's Response to Google to be Managed by ... Microsoft?
3/27/2005 Tomorrow was Yesterday

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 28, 2005 05:21 PM