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Tout Alors! The French Get Wound Up over Google Print

The eponymous blog On Language has an amusing discussion, complete with translations, of a rather nervous Le Monde editorial about Google Print by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, head of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF).

Jeanneney is worried to the point of near-hysteria about “the risk of a crushing domination by America in defining the idea that later generations will have of the world […]” Even if you agree that Google Print has long-range ramifications the participating libraries may not have thought of, Jeanneney is way over the top. “This is the hour for a solemn appeal. It rests with those responsible for the Union, in its three major branches, to act without delay — for soon, the place will be taken, habits will be established, it will be to late to move.” You decide: is he responding with his observations about a digitization project by a major search engine, or calling for the French Revolution, Part Deux?

However–and honest to Pete, here at FRL it isn’t really Pick on Michael Gorman Month–Jeanneney’s anxious and misplaced concerns aren’t that far off from the comments Michael Gorman voiced in the Los Angeles Times on December 17, 2005. Gorman’s commentary, “Google and God’s Mind,” is now hidden behind the iron database curtain, but it is (still) legal to quote from it, within reasonable guidelines, Tulsa World be damned.

Gorman, after a snide comment about “the boogie-woogie Google boys,” argues not simply against Google Print but against any digitization of recorded knowledge: “The books in great libraries are much more than the sum of their parts. They are designed to be read sequentially and cumulatively, so that the reader gains knowledge in the reading.” Who made up that rule? And do librarians really force people to check out books in sequential order? Books don’t come with operating instructions; if I want to read Harry Potter V before Harry Potter IV, the Fiction Police will not descend on my house. Just recently I read Thoreau before I read Emerson, and I am really none the worse for wear.

Gorman apparently missed the last five years, as well, since he argues, “Are you going to [read books] online, assuming it’s out of copyright? (In the Google scheme, hundreds of thousands of books in copyright will not be available to be read as a whole.) Not many would choose to stare at a screen long enough to do that.” Tell it to Overdrive on their way to the bank. And furthermore, isn’t the real tragedy of our expensive integrated library systems that they can only search the bare bones of metadata? If nothing else, the findability of recorded knowledge should expand dramatically when it is no longer held captive in paper.

Jeanneney and Gorman would be merely amusing if they did not have bully pulpits by virtue of their position of power. However, I can laugh when Jeanneney panics over Google. He’s French. I can’t laugh when Gorman represents librarianship, my profession, with outlandishly reactionary comments about information technology. I can only worry.

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