Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Is Google's massive library digitization project a form of cultural imperialism?

A reminder perhaps not to get too enthusiastic about major projects that can make us forget we live in a multilingual, multicultural world...

An interesting international debate has arisen over Google's proposal to scan hundreds of thousands of books in the collections of major libraries. Harvard, New York Public Library, Oxford and Stanford are among the institutions that plan to contribute material to the effort.

The announcement has not been received with glee in all quarters however, especially in the French-speaking world. Very little about this discussion seems to have reached English-speaking info professionals.

Jean-Noël Jeanneney is president of the Bibliothèque Nationale de
France - we're talking mega-prestige here.

If I may quote from the Library Juice Feb 25, 2005 issue:

"Jeanneney does not like the 'crushing American domination' which he senses in Google's digital library project, he says -- and would anyone else, among the great institutions and cultures which populate the 'non-English-speaking world'?

-- and he is suspicious, of what he pungently labels, 'research-for-profit, cloaked in the appearence of disinterest'

-- so in these two respects alone, then, digital library developers everywhere might read, and carefully consider, Jeanneney's perhaps-representative and at-least-indicative and perhaps-very-influential remarks."

Jeanneney is not calling for the non-Anglo-Saxon world to stay on the sidelines of digitization of cultural heritage resources, on the contrary, but his "cri du coeur" (cry from the heart) against crushing domination is being heard in Canada, as Montreal's Le Devoir newspaper writes in its Feb. 23 edition in an article by Christian Rioux, "La bibliothèque virtuelle sera-t-elle en anglais? Devant l'offensive de Google, les bibliothèques francophones appellent à une contre-attaque" (Will the virtual library be English? Facing the Google offensive, French-speaking libraries call for a counter-attack).

Jeanneney's fears are echoed in North America by Lise Bissonnette, director of the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec (Quebec National Library in Montreal). She says "hats off to Google" but warns against any "Anglo-Saxon takeover of the definition of memory", according to Le Devoir.

Google aims to digitize 15 million books in 6 years. Bissonnette's institution can currently offer 1500 digitized books and Gallica, the French National Library's digital collection, at 75000 books including Baudelaire, Dumas, Voltaire and Molière, can't measure up to the American-led juggernaut. And there is little funding for digitization in France or Quebec right now, or nothing comparable to the bags and bags of cash the U.S. search engine giant Google can muster.

Here are a few questions Google seems to have missed and that European and French-speaking institutions are asking:
  • for more and more people, if it's not on Google, it does not exist and the fear is that Google will decide to digitize works that will allow it to sell ads. What isn't digitized will disappear, at least from people's awareness
  • if Google should ever go bankrupt, to whom will humanity's digitized heritage belong?

"Un pensez-y bien" (something to ponder), as the French say.

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posted by Michel-Adrien at 6:30 pm


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