Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View from Europeby Jean-Noel Jeanneney, Teresa Lavender Fagan, Ian Wilson
The recent announcement that Google would digitize the holdings of several major libraries sent shock waves through the book industry and academe. Google presented this digital repository as a first step towards a long-dreamed-of universal library, but skeptics were quick to raise a number of concerns about the potential for copyright infringement and unanticipated
The recent announcement that Google would digitize the holdings of several major libraries sent shock waves through the book industry and academe. Google presented this digital repository as a first step towards a long-dreamed-of universal library, but skeptics were quick to raise a number of concerns about the potential for copyright infringement and unanticipated effects on the business of research and publishing.
Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of France’s Bibliothèque Nationale, here takes aim at what he sees as a far more troubling aspect of Google’s Library Project: its potential to misrepresent—and even damage—the world’s cultural heritage. In this impassioned work, Jeanneney argues that Google’s unsystematic digitization of books from a few partner libraries and its reliance on works written mostly in English constitute acts of selection that can only extend the dominance of American culture abroad.
As a leading librarian, Jeanneney remains enthusiastic about the archival potential of the Web. But he argues that the short-term thinking characterized by Google’s digital repository must be countered by long-term planning on the part of cultural and governmental institutions worldwide—a serious effort to create a truly comprehensive library, one based on the politics of inclusion and multiculturalism.
“The president of the French national library has made himself the frontman in what he sees as a struggle to save cultural diversity. In the postmodern world, the battleground is the Internet. Here, search engines determine what tomorrow's generations will click on, learn and think.”—Financial Times
The president of the French national library has made himself the frontman in what he sees as a struggle to save cultural diversity. In the postmodern world, the battleground is the internet. Here, search engines determine what tomorrow's generations will click on, learn and think.”Financial Times
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Read an ExcerptGOOGLE AND THE MYTH OF UNIVERSAL KNOWLEDGE
A VIEW FROM EUROPE
By Jean-Noël Jeanneney The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
"We hear the breathing of the horses of space, Pulling the wagon that we cannot see" :: VICTOR HUGO, Les Contemplations, VI, 16 ::
A Positive Outlook
What we should not be feeling at this point is gloom. Optimism is much more appropriate. There is nothing more foolish than to deplore the progress offered by the Internet. Let's leave that to malcontents and people living in the past.
Numerous sociological studies have been published dealing with the way the Internet affects the behavior of its users. Some studies point to the risk of isolation, of discouraging the sociability inherent in research. But reflection and writing are always at some point solitary activities. I'm particularly aware of what the Internet offers many researchers and citizens, enabling them to escape an enforced isolation-those whose place in society, in the world, in the economic hierarchy of nations keeps them at a distance from the mainstream.
Like everyone else, I am aware of the profusion of information, the treasures of every kind that, thanks to the Internet, are already offered up to our appetites on our computer screens. (Iam not speaking here of the more private use of the Internet, of e-mail and instant messaging, important as they are, but only of the Web in the strict sense of the term.)
France is practically the only European country-for the moment-to have decided to digitize a large number of complete works. We have lowered our sights from the unrealistic goals expressed by some when François Mitterrand, then president of the Republic, announced on July 14, 1988, the plan for a "Very Great Library ... of an entirely new kind." The majestic building on the Seine upstream from Notre-Dame offers its thirteen million volumes to readers who prefer works produced on paper. But at the time I am writing, there are also eighty thousand books from the Banff collections (in addition to seventy thousand images and several dozen hours of sound recordings), which anyone, anywhere on the planet, can read on his or her monitor and print out, thanks to Gallica (http:// gallica.bnf.fr), our virtual library, which is constantly being expanded and offers a vast range of interesting and unusual materials.
Conceived as a national and encyclopedic collection, Gallica includes monographs and periodicals; texts by classical or lesser-known authors from antiquity to the twentieth century; dictionaries; bibliographical and critical resources; publications of scholarly societies; and multimedia thematic collections concerning, for example, travels in France, Italy, and Africa-as well as a collection of documents (established with the cooperation of the Library of Congress) showcasing the French presence in North America from the time of Christopher Columbus to the nineteenth century.
Other countries have preferred, so far, to concentrate their efforts on documents of a different kind. Do you want to read Shakespeare's Hamlet in the first quarto edition of 1603? You have only to go to the British Library site and click on the heading "Treasures in Full." Do you need to consult a Finnish journal for a certain date in 1805? Go to the University of Helsinki Library site and the appropriate issue will appear on your screen. To consult descriptions of monuments in Egypt and Nubia, click on the site of the Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée. And so forth.
Such initiatives are increasing. The Ministry of Culture has registered nearly thirty French libraries that are embarking on the digital adventure. The site of the European national libraries, TEL (The European Library), which has eighteen full members, has just opened; its purpose is to keep an updated list of digitized materials, to provide catalogs, and to maintain links with these. Museums, archives (the Archives of France and the Archives of Canada have just opened a common site), and the most dynamic national and university libraries around the world have developed programs of this type and are continually expanding them. The Joconde database lists eighteen thousand works from the national collections; the Enluminures database includes eighty thousand images drawn from medieval manuscripts, all of which are accessible over the Internet. There is also the "Cultural Material Alliance" program headed by the Research Library Group, and the recently opened European platform MICHAEL, piloted in France by the Ministry of Culture, which brings together the public and the private sectors.
Another program in the development stage is Cairn, both a portal of access to printed journals in the social sciences and a structure for managing journals in digital form; it will be able to handle at least twelve hundred titles (www.Cairn. info). I decided to have journals in the Bibliothèque nationale added to Cairn's collections; thus Francophones now have a counterpart to such services as the JSTOR database, which for a fee provides access to back issues of more than six hundred exclusively Anglophone journals. MathDoc, located in Grenoble, has become a valuable tool for mathematicians.
Similarly flourishing is the digitization of leaflets, "underground literature," which escape the channels of commercial publishing, and of other unique forms of testimony to our historical past and cultural vitality: engravings, ancient maps, charters or treaties, coins and medals, musical scores, photographs, oral archives, sound recordings, and so on.
The Library of Congress is playing a significant role in this respect: it has concentrated its efforts (not without narcissism, but who is entirely free of that?) on a collection entitled "American Memory," which claims to be a documentary reflection of "historical events, people, places and ideas that continue to shape America." Closely connected with that program, "Global Gateway" (part of which is being developed in cooperation with several countries) is concerned with influences from abroad. As mentioned above, I took the initiative to ensure France's involvement by signing an agreement in Paris with the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington. We were in the midst of the Iraq controversy, and I had no regrets about demonstrating that long-term cooperation, resisting the vagaries of politics, could still be established between our two countries, which have been friends for so long.
The Book Will Survive
Optimism in the face of so many positive undertakings that were unthinkable for earlier generations need not go into mourning for the demise of books in the traditional form they have maintained since the birth of the printing press. Each time a new medium has appeared, we have seen prophets of doom announce the inevitable disappearance of what came before. At the time of the July Monarchy, proponents of elitist publications were filled with distaste and concern as they witnessed the growth of widely circulated popular dailies. In the period between the two World Wars, newspapers were scared to death by the rise of radio, to the point of refusing to be quoted in press reviews read over the airwaves. In the 1950s the development of television caused many people to predict the collapse of radio-which was saved almost immediately by the invention of the portable transistor radio. And I can still hear the fear of those who predicted, around 1984 or 1985 when I was director of Radio France, the French public radio station, that the new morning television shows were going to destroy our programming at the very time when most of our listeners tuned in; we now know that nothing of the kind happened. There are many other similar examples.
On each of these occasions, the harbingers of doom were blind to the diversity of social practices and cultural behaviors, to the complex interweaving of attitudes, to the predictable reaction of an audience that is inclined, after a detour through new channels of information, to return to a more classic medium, which it might even have ignored without that unexpected inducement. I'll wager that many Internet users will likewise be led back to classic book culture.
The Web can certainly bring back to light, even to wide circulation, works that have been lost in the recesses of book-stacks, perhaps because they are rare, difficult, or simply forgotten. Without doubt, "on demand" printing-the manufacture of single copies of published works, bound in their original format (the Bibliothèque nationale plans a similar process for sound recordings in the public domain)-will increase. We may see more reprints of obscure works in small quantities, made available by current printing technology. Thanks to the Web, with the splendid diversity of its offerings, such works will gain notoriety, prompting readers to ask for them in printed form. Surveys of Gallica users have shown that many searches lead to the purchase of the work in question, either new or used, in online or traditional bookstores.
After all, the many images now reproduced-whether paintings, photographs, drawings, maps, or engravings-far from diminishing the impact of the originals, encourage people to go see them in museums; their affective power can only be enhanced by their having been previously studied. As far as I know, the imaginary museum so dear to André Malraux not only failed to alienate people who enjoyed going to exhibitions but increased their numbers throughout Europe, especially in France.
People won't forgo the convenience of having a volume within easy reach; nor will the emotion of touching books, having direct contact with the originals, their appearance, their smell, be diminished. This is something that the people who four or five years ago lost a lot of money on "e-books"-electronic books that could be downloaded for a fee and read on portable computer screens adapted for the purpose, and which suffered a resounding (if temporary) failure-just didn't understand. No doubt the idea will be reborn in another form (our Gallica library is already often used in this way and downloaded) as soon as a special tool is no longer required, but I can't believe it will ever replace the books on our shelves or on those of our children.
So I remain unperturbed by the reproaches or regrets that are sometimes voiced: "Why didn't we devote the billions of francs spent to build the Very Great Library on a major effort to digitize all that we are uselessly saving on paper!" I could point out that when the library was conceived, neither technology nor public opinion were ready for mass digitization. But there is really no dilemma here. A civilization must be able to move forward on both paths. François Mitterrand, who launched the effort, and who for a time promoted and embodied the idea of the modernity of the virtual, was also a passionate lover of books, which he enjoyed, if I may say so, with almost visceral pleasure.
The Need for Librarians and Booksellers
We may conclude, then, that neither librarians nor booksellers need worry about their possible disappearance.
The social and cultural function of librarians will be increasingly important and prestigious in the future; they will be even more useful to the public, and their profession will become more satisfying. For years, a common perception, maintained by various stereotypes, has tended to reduce the role of librarians to that of providing books, images, recordings, and other documents. In reality, librarians have always helped to organize chaos, to guide readers to the information they are seeking among the vast quantity of sources and media that contain it. And now, with the irruption of digitization, this essential function will be enhanced, and librarians should benefit from renewed recognition. More than ever before, they will stand beside professors and schoolteachers as essential intermediaries of knowledge.
As for traditional booksellers, they, too, should be confident in their future. They must of course learn to adapt, to become even better guides and intercessors. But we will discover an ever-increasing need for their contribution. On condition, of course, that the government protect them from the effects of "remaindering," which might, as happened for records, be practiced to their detriment by large anonymous chains or online bookstores.
In short, while a little digitization distances us from the intermediaries of knowledge, a lot of digitization will bring us closer to them. The profusion of questionable, partisan, bizarre assertions spreading over the Web will demand sources for validation that librarians and booksellers are especially qualified to provide. The new technology can promote all sorts of newly discovered connections, productive analogies, unexpected encounters, unusual speed in the circulation of ideas and the development of inspiration. Uncontrolled, however, it can lead us astray and ultimately render us impotent.
These are intellectual concerns, but they impinge on our moral and civic life as well. Librarians will be at the forefront of those who serve this virtual impulse by constantly reminding us that knowledge must be arranged on the basis of global considerations, collective reasoning, and blended perspectives, rather than by encyclopedic listings. Not only is an understanding of the history of our cultures at stake, but also their vitality in the here and now.
I hope it's now clear why I quickly took issue with those who interpreted my position as being hostile to Google. I'm not criticizing Google's search engine, for it functions according to its own logic and owes its success to the remarkable talent of its founders. My intent has always been to prod European inertia in the face of a challenge of such dimensions-the formidable ambivalence of a marvelous invention, the World Wide Web.
AT THE MERCY OF THE MARKET
Virtues are lost in personal interest, as rivers are lost in the sea. :: La Rochefoucauld, Maximes, 171 ::
On Google's Corporate Information page we find this boast: "Google's mission is to organize the world's information." While certainly not insincere, these words prompt us to take a closer look.
In France, no one has forgotten a recent statement by Patrick Le Lay, the CEO of TF1, the first commercial television station in the country, and the astonishment aroused, not so much by its truth as by its frankness: "TF1's mission is to help Coca-Cola, for example, sell its product. Now, for a commercial message to be received, the viewer's brain must be available to it. The mission of our programs is to make those brains available, to amuse them, to relax them between two commercials so as to make them receptive. What we are selling to Coca-Cola is available human brain time."
I am recalling Le Lay's words not to re-ignite civic indignation, which was certainly justified, but because it provides an enlightening comparison to the Web.
The "Invisible Hand"
It's instructive to look at the effects, in the world of culture, of putting one's faith in market forces alone.
I was amused to hear that one of the executives at Google bore the name of Adam Smith, the famous eighteenth-century British economist, author of The Wealth of Nations and inventor of the theory of the "invisible hand." According to Smith, as we know, the sum total of self-interested actions of individuals and businesses is destined, according to a strange and improbable alchemy, to spontaneously create the best of all possible worlds.
On the whole, Europe does not subscribe to that article of faith. Europeans remember what Charles de Gaulle told his minister and confidant Alain Peyrefitte on December 12, 1962: "The market has some good points. It keeps people on their toes, it rewards the best. But at the same time it creates injustices, establishes monopolies, favors cheaters. So don't be blind to the market. You mustn't imagine that it alone will solve all problems. The market isn't above the nation and the state. It's up to the state, the nation, to keep an eye on the market."
Excerpted from GOOGLE AND THE MYTH OF UNIVERSAL KNOWLEDGE by Jean-Noël Jeanneney Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Jean-Noël Jeanneney was the president of the Bibliothèque nationale de France from 2002 until 2007. Teresa Lavender Fagan has translated more than a dozen books for the University of Chicago Press.
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