May 01, 2005

Le plan biblio advances

Another development in a story we've been following for a few months: six European heads of state signed a letter in favor of a European Digital Library.

According to Le Novel Observateur on 4/28/2005, the letter was signed by Jacques Chirac of France, Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, Silvio Belusconi of Italy, Jose Luis Zapatero of Spain, Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, and Ferenc Gyurcsany of Hungary, and was addressed to the European Commission and the EU president. It's not clear to me whether the other EU countries declined to sign, or weren't asked.

Ils souhaitent donc «prendre appui sur les actions de numérisation déjà engagées par nombre de bibliothèques européennes pour les mettre en réseau» et «constituer ainsi ce qu'on pourrait appeler une bibliothèque numérique européenne».

They therefore wish to "support the digitization activies already underway at several European libraries so as to put them into a network" and "thus to constitute what one could call a European digital library".

I suppose that "les mettre en réseau" means something different from "put them on the internet", since I imagine that's already done -- we're talking about coordination of activities and harmonization of standards and so on, a set of problems that can consume amazing amounts of resources when the network is connecting a set of established institutions, as Fernando Pereira pointed out a week or so ago. Fernando's observations are worth quoting at length:

Large government efforts in information technology have a way of failing to deliver even a fraction of what they promise. The reasons are complicated and varied, but one of the main ones is mission creep: since a large project involves many constituencies, all of which have different concerns, and all of which can stop or slow down the project, the path of least resistance is to make the project a union of the requirements from all of those constituencies, regardless of whether the requirements are compatible, or fit within the project budget. This happens too in large, established corporations with many power centers and legacy systems. In addition, such projects are often managed by institutions involved in standards that are too fond of complex designs that are supposed to increase modularity and interoperability. The end results are often a bureaucracy of objects and interfaces -- plumbing -- with very limited actual functionality. In contrast, all successful information access projects I know of started with a clear goal and a few simple (but not necessarily obvious) design ideas, created and managed by one person (arXiv, ...) or a small team (CiteSeer, Altavista, Google, ...). Early success puts demand pressure on such projects that helps steer their growth in useful directions. In contrast, large bureaucratic projects spend most of their resources in pre-deployment design, planning, management, and conflict resolution, with the result that they do not acquire an early user base who advocate for the project and help make it better before the money runs out.

Returning to the story in Le Nouvel Obs:

Dans ce cadre, ils proposent que l'Union «fournisse le cadre d'une concertation entre les institutions concernées» et «apporte sa contribution à la solution des problèmes à surmonter».

In this framework, they propose that the Union "should furnish the framework of a consultation among the institutions involved" and "supply its contribution to the solution of the problems to be overcome".

I believe that concertation can mean either "talking together" or "working together". It's not clear which meaning is intended here. Either way, I think we just heard about it from Fernando...

Les six chefs d'Etat et de gouvernement souhaitent que cette question fasse l'objet, «à brève échéance», «d'un débat entre les ministres de la Culture» et de la Recherche des 25, «à la lumière d'une première communication de la Commission».
Jacques Chirac devrait évoquer le sujet dans son discours d'inauguration des rencontres européennes de la culture, lundi prochain à Paris.

The six heads of state wish this question to be the object "in the near term" "of a discussion among the ministers of culture" and of research of the 25 [EU countries], "in the light of a prior communication from the [European] Commission".
Jacques Chirac should raise this issue in his inaugural address at the European cultural meetings, next Monday in Paris.

There's an AP wire story, and a brief report in English from the American Library Association, and some commentary at The Economist.

Meanwhile, there's also a relevant piece in the most recent Science magazine (which you'll need a subscription to read) about a "digital libraries" area where Europe is apparently ahead of the U.S. -- though Jacques Chirac will probably not be talking about it. The article is Gretchen Vogel and Martin Enserink, "Europe Steps Into the Open With Plans for Electronic Archives", Science, v. 308, issue 5722, 623-624. Here's their lede:

BERLIN AND PARIS--While moves in the United States to make scientific research results available--for free--at the click of a mouse have generated intense debate, European research organizations have quietly been forging ahead. Slowly but surely, they are starting to build and connect institutional and even nationwide public archives that will, according to proponents, be the megalibraries of the future, allowing anyone with an Internet connection to access papers that result from publicly funded research. "The cutting edge of the Open Access movement is now in Europe," says Peter Suber of Public Knowledge, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

The article cites detailed progress, both technical and social, in many European countries, towards realizing the goals of the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. I'll summarize their findings in another post -- if I can't find an open-access article covering the same ground!

[Update 5/2/2005: In his speech today, Jacques Chirac mentioned the proposed "bibliothèque virtuelle européenne", and said that "à travers des initiatives comme celles-là, l'Europe sera aux avant-postes du combat pour la diversité culturelle" ("through such inititiatives, Europe will be in the vanguard of the fight for cultural diversity"), as opposed to leaving things "au jeu aveugle du marché" ("to the blind play of the marketplace"). ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 1, 2005 03:07 PM