France joins race to digitize world’s books – sort of

Amid the flat, wide fields of central France, a team of re-trained secretaries and IT experts is packaging Europe’s literary heritage for the digital era…

The company they work for, Safig, is one of the few European firms to digitize books, using automatic and human page-turners. That places them right at the center of France’s plan for a massive online library, and its attempts to negotiate a digital books deal with U.S. internet giant Google…

Fans of France’s 750 million euro scheme to digitize its libraries and museums see it as a union of cultural pride and industrial strategy — Bruno Racine, head of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, is also a strategic advisor to NATO, the military alliance.

Skeptics point out that Google’s 10 million digitized books dwarf any French effort so far, such as Safig’s three-year contract to scan 300,000 books for the Bibliotheque Nationale.

One possible outcome is a compromise with Google that would accelerate mass digitization…

France has said it is ready to talk to Google over a joint project, but wants to extract far more generous terms than other partners — for example, through a free book swap.

That stance marks a shift in attitude following the departure of Jean-Noel Jeanneney as director of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in 2007. Jeanneney was a fierce Google critic and even wrote a book attacking the company’s book project as a threat to non-Anglophone culture.

Under the deal, the Bibliotheque Nationale could let Google use the digitized books and in return would have free access to Google’s far bigger collection.

“We welcome the spirit of the proposal,” Google spokesman Simon Morrison said. “We are happy to talk.”

It’s always good for a chuckle to watch nations fight cultural battles against global communications. There are people in French letters who still oppose translations into other languages. Or they will only allow specific languages in translation.

I had a friend in Warsaw who quite legally translated French classics into Polish – and also enjoined by the owners of IP rights not to translate the same works into English on occasion.

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4 comments

  1. Mr. Fusion

    These antique books are prized for two reasons.

    The first is their intrinsic value as an antique. The beautiful calligraphy. The beautiful hand stitched binding. The soft vellum pages. Tooled leather covers.

    The second value is for their content. Having the contents readily available saves the actual books from human contact. Now anyone can read the book as it was originally published (if they can follow the language and hand writing/typeset).

    How can anyone disagree with allowing these classics to be opened to the public?

  2. Richard

    The only reason some French refer to any possible agreement with Google as a “Faustian bargain” is because Google is in the private sector and hence, per se and a priori, presumed evil (street-side pattiseries are too small to be evil, but any large foreign firm must be). Worse, Google’s project dwarfs that of the French government. Maybe France’s state foray into technology will work out as well in this instance as Minitel did 20 years ago (and we all know the French invented the internet as it exists today even before Al Gore).

    • Mr. Fusion

      As I understand, Google is putting these books into the public domain. They are not keeping any rights for them self.

      • Cinaedh

        To be or not to be – that is the question:

        Another great question is: doesn’t reading makes you hungry? How about a Quarter Pounder from McDonald’s?

        Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
        The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
        Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
        And, by opposing, end them.

        You can end your hunger at Taco Bell – Think outside the bun!

        To die, to sleep⎯
        No more – and by a sleep to say we end
        The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
        That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
        Devoutly to be wished.

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