[FoRK] French hit back against the Google invasion

James Walker james.walker at stockland.com.au
Thu Feb 24 18:15:29 PST 2005


This is the classic "history written by the winners" argument...very interesting.

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Irish Times 23rd Feb. 2005

French hit back against the Google invasion By Lara Marlowe

Paris Letter: I don't know if it's the legacy of Gen de Gaulle, or competition between the twin revolutions of 1776 and 1789, but scarcely a day passes in France without one hearing about the need to stand up to the Americans, writes Lara Marlowe

The other day I went to a magnificent Napoleonic room at the French Senate for a press conference about the plan of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France to digitalise 2.1 million pages of old French newspapers. I didn't realise I was about to be ambushed by the politics of culture and the US hyper-power.

"France and Europe must ensure that their place is maintained," Jean- Noël Jeanneney, the chairman and president of the BNF, said in his opening remarks. "Not by being protectionist, or on the defensive, but with the ambition that this collective memory not be refracted exclusively through an American mirror."

Jeanneney says he realised how culturally biased English-language sources were when he presided over the bicentennial celebrations of the French revolution. Les Anglo-Saxons "emphasised the plight of aristocrats and the dark side of the guillotine and la terreur." The notion of the advancement of the common man - so prevalent in French accounts - was absent.

More recently, Jeanneney was alarmed by the December 14th agreement between the American search engine Google and five of the most prominent US and British libraries. He placed the BNF's newspaper project in this context.

"The memory of the world proposed, recorded and offered by the marvellous invention of the Internet - even if there are not only American books - will obviously represent the selection of an American mind," he explained.

Seventy-five per cent of research on the Internet already goes through Google, Jeanneney noted. Now the New York Public Library and the libraries of Stanford, Harvard, Oxford and Michigan University are providing 15 million books - that's 4.5 billion pages - to be digitalised by Google.

Are the French the only people in the world who worry about this? "The risk of a crushing domination by America in defining the idea that future generations will have of the world is affirmed," Jeanneney wrote in an opinion piece in Le Monde entitled "When Google Challenges Europe".

France saved its cinema industry by imposing quotas on the importation of American films and television programmes. But protectionism is not an alternative when it comes to the Internet. Instead, Jeanneney proposes a European "counterattack", planned in Brussels and financed by European taxpayers. The goal is to flood the Internet with European texts and search engines.

Ironically, two of the newspapers being digitalised by the BNF were inspired by les Anglo-Saxons. When Le Temps was founded in 1829, it took its title from the Times of London. Later in the 19th century Le Temps and Le Figaro developed networks of foreign correspondents, again following the English model.

The BNF's digital archives will take four years and cost €3.5 million to complete. Twenty-two newspapers will be scanned and entered on the library's website - gallica.bnf.fr - starting next year.

Four national newspapers, the Catholic La Croix, the socialist
(later communist) L'Humanité, Le Figaro and Le Temps (the precursor of Le Monde) will go online first, followed by regional and specialist papers. It says a great deal about the evolution of French society that the circulation of La Croix and L'Humanité today is a fraction of their original print run.

Because most contemporary French newspapers are now digitalising their archives in reverse chronological order, the BNF decided to make available the newspapers of the 19th and 20th centuries, stopping at the end of the Second World War. "Their archives will meet ours somewhere in the 1950s, like Stanley and Livingstone in Africa," says Jeanneney.

Saving these first drafts of French history is not easy. Newspaper editors in the 19th century didn't care about readers' eyesight, much less providing headlines, pagination or tables of contents. The paper yellowed and became brittle and transparent, so ink shows through the other side.

Internet versions would be easier to read if the BNF could afford the "text mode" of digitalisation, but it costs 10 times more than the "image mode" that puts a virtual facsimile of the newspaper page on screen. The French Senate is providing €450,000 to develop navigation software to pick out key words from those square kilometres of newsprint.

Forget about holding century-old French newspapers in your hands. "We are obliged to turn down requests for direct access," says Agnès Saal, the managing director of the BNF. "We understand the frustration of researchers; it's a real heartbreak, but the originals are in danger of falling into dust."

The British Museum has undertaken a project similar to the BNF's. The US Library of Congress has put back issues of the armed forces' newspaper Stars & Stripes on line.

The National Library of Ireland has no plans to digitalise its collection of Irish newspapers. So if you want to compare ancient copies of this newspaper with its French counterparts, you'll have to trundle into Kildare Street, Dublin 2 to consult the microfilm archives. The "newsplan" heading on www.nli.ie provides a list of what's there.
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