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Subject: e-France
Date: Mon, 21 Mar 2005 11:49:46 -0500

France Plans to Digitize Its ‘Cultural Patrimony’ and Defy Google's ‘Domination’

By Aisha Labi, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 March 2005

President Jacques Chirac of France has asked the head of the country's national library and the minister of culture and communication to plan a French-led project that would make millions of European literary works accessible on the Internet.

The move appears to be a response to a warning from Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the National Library of France. In an essay in the newspaper Le Monde in January, he said that plans by Google and five leading academic institutions and libraries in the United States and Britain to digitize and make available online the content of millions of volumes posed a risk of a crushing domination by America in defining the idea that future generations will have of the world (The Chronicle, March 4).

Mr. Jeanneney and Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, the culture minister, met last week with Mr. Chirac, who told them to begin laying the groundwork for a European endeavor similar to the Google project.

In a statement released by his office, Mr. Chirac said that he had asked Mr. Jeanneney and Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres to analyze the conditions in which the wealth of the great libraries of France and Europe could be made more widely and quickly accessible on the Internet. Mr. Chirac said that because of their exceptionally rich cultural patrimony, France and Europe must take a determining role in such a project.

In an essay, Google Is Not the End of History, that ran in Le Monde the day after his meeting with President Chirac, Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres described as a clap of thunder in the numeric sky the December announcement that a powerful, efficient, and popular American search engine was going to digitize and put online 15 million books from the patrimony conserved by some of the most prestigious Anglo-Saxon libraries.

The event comes in an intellectual and cultural climate in which the digitization of documents and works seems to be the key to all problems, Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres went on. He stressed that facilitating online access to such resources is one of his priorities as minister and cited existing projects to digitize artwork in French museums and 19th-century magazines and newspapers in the national library.

We probably have a lot to learn from Google, whose success comes largely from the simplicity and ease of access it offers, Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres acknowledged.

Yet French officials insist that their project should be seen not merely as a reaction to Google, but in the context of existing French and European efforts to make information available online.

I really stress that it's not anti-American, said an official at the Ministry of Culture and Communication, speaking on the condition of anonymity. It is not a reaction. The objective is to make more material relevant to European patrimony available.

Everybody is working on digitization projects, the official continued. Google's announcement made a big splash, but it has not yet digitized one book, to my knowledge, he said. The French National Library was founded by Charles V in the 14th century. It cannot compare itself with Google, which was founded in 1998. We don't know whether [Google] will be there in five years.

But future cooperation between Google and the European project could well occur, the official said. The worst scenario we could achieve would be that we had two big digital libraries that don't communicate, he said. The idea is not to do the same thing, so maybe we could cooperate, I don't know. Frankly, I'm not sure they would be interested in digitizing our patrimony. The idea is to bring something that is complementary, to bring diversity. But this doesn't mean that Google is an enemy of diversity.

A spokeswoman for Google responded to the French announcement by saying that we are supportive of any effort to make information accessible to the world.

Sidney Verba, director of the Harvard University Library, one of Google's collaborators, also welcomed the French project. It's a fine idea, he said. The more of this sort of work that can be done around the world, the better off everyone will be. And I certainly wish them the best of luck.

The other institutions involved in Google's project are the New York Public Library and the libraries of Stanford University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the University of Oxford, in England.

Mr. Jeanneney and Mr. Donnedieu de Vabres are expected to present a preliminary proposal as early as May 2, when Paris will play host to a European cultural summit, with representatives from the 25 European Union countries. This subject is one of the key issues in this meeting, the ministry official said, and there will be some announcement at that point.