Google's library cultural biased, says head of Bibliotheque Nationale

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Feb 24 14:55:54 UTC 2005

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Google's Library Project Is Culturally Biased, Says Head of French

The head of the National Library of France says he worries that the vast
digital library that Google is building in partnership with American and
British institutions will quickly become a dominant force in scholarship
-- and that it will have too much of an American tint to it. The Google
project, which was announced in December, involves the New York Public
Library and libraries at Harvard and Stanford Universities; the University
of Michigan at Ann Arbor; and the University of Oxford, in England. It
will eventually make the content of millions of volumes searchable online.

The move to make so much material digitally accessible was hailed by
researchers and academics and received extensive news-media coverage when
it was unveiled. Now, however, at least one European scholar is warning of
the potential pitfalls of such a project. In an essay published in January
in Le Monde, Jean-Nol Jeanneney, a prominent French historian and
president of the national library, argued that the Google project would
inevitably be biased in favor of English-language and "Anglo-Saxon"

"The libraries that are going to be involved in this enterprise are
certainly generously open to the civilization and works of other
countries," he wrote. "It does not matter: The criteria of choice will be
powerfully marked ... by the view of Anglo-Saxons, with its specific
coloring with regard to the diversity of civilizations." Mr. Jeanneney
called on European countries to build their own large-scale digital
library in response, in what could become an international e-book arms

Ronald R. Milne, acting head of libraries at Oxford, said he was surprised
to learn of Mr. Jeanneney's opposition. "That sort of accusation had never
crossed my mind," he said. "You have to remember that all of these five
libraries that Google has an agreement with are among the most significant
in the world -- they don't just have English books." Oxford's role in the
Google project will involve digitizing up to 1.5 million 19th-century
books whose copyright has expired. "There will be French material among
the works being digitized," said Mr. Milne, emphasizing that Oxford's
libraries hold "a huge amount of stock in the French language, and that
will be true of Harvard, Stanford, and the others" as well. That stock is
constantly augmented, he added, because Oxford spends a lot of money each
year purchasing foreign-language publications.

'Deleterious and Detestable'

That the Google-affiliated libraries have material in French or about
France is unlikely to quiet Mr. Jeanneney's unease about the cultural
hegemony that he foresees. In his Le Monde essay, he imagined what it
would be like to construct a history of the French Revolution based only
on British or American sources. Mr. Jeanneney, a former French secretary
of state for communication, was in charge of the lavish bicentennial
celebrations, in 1989, of the modern French republic's defining historical

"It would have been deleterious and detestable for the equilibrium of the
nation," he wrote in the newspaper, for such a momentous historical
occasion to have to depend on the depiction of "valiant British
aristocrats triumphing over bloody Jacobins, the guillotine obscuring the
rights of man," toward which, he said, Anglo-Saxon sources tend to be
biased. Mr. Jeanneney said action must come swiftly. If there is too much
delay, he wrote, it will be too late. Once scholars start using Google's
library, he said, it could become a bad habit that will be impossible to

Mr. Jeanneney, in his essay, proposed a Europe-wide digital-library
project. Europe alone, he argued, is equipped to take the reins of such an
endeavor and establish itself as "a center of radiating culture and
political influence without parallel on the planet." The National Library
of France has already placed 80,000 works and 70,000 images in its own
digital library and will soon make available online reproductions of all
major French journals since the 19th century. Those efforts, wrote Mr.
Jeanneney, have earned the gratitude of online researchers and helped to
spread France's influence around the world. But, he noted, "our annual
spending amounts only to a thousandth of what Google has announced."

"The battle is too unequal," he said.

Beginning this year, he suggested, the European Union should set aside a
guaranteed annual budget for a project that will do no less than provide
"citizens and researchers protection against the perverse effects of
research for profit dissimulated behind the appearance of disinterest."

For his part, Oxford's Mr. Milne has no objection to a European e-book

Mr. Jeanneney's remarks were "a bit of a storm in a teacup, to be honest,"
he said. "But if it provides some sort of leverage that will lead to the
European Union deciding to invest in a project involving other European
languages, that's all to the good."

Copyright  2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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