GBS: French Surrender

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France is apparently about to sign a deal with Google that would merge the BNF’s book-scanning effort into Google’s own. This would mark the end of the most concerted resistance to the Google scanning project. The BNF’s former director, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, was a fierce Google critic, wrote a book attacking the Google Book Search project as a grave threat to non-Angolophone culture, and launched the BNF’s own scanning project. Thus ends one of the stranger oppositions to Google Book Search.

Now, there may well be a role for a “public option,” as Frank Pasquale would call it, in book scanning. Libraries, particularly the Library of Congress ought to take the lead (and be given more legal room) to produce preservation-quality scans. Greater library involvement could do good things for privacy, pricing, and competition. July’s Berkman conference was in large part about public values and public involvement in book scanning, search, and distribution.

But whatever a well-theorized and well-executed public library involvement in book scanning and search would look like, this wasn’t it. The original concern motivating the BNF—that Google Book Search was in and of itself a cultural evil to be resisted—never made much sense. Boiled down to its essence, the argument was that Because Google Book Search won’t have enough French works in it, we must not collaborate in adding French works to Google Book Search. As I wrote in my How to Fix the Google Book Search Settlement:

One last point of accountability concerns an issue raised by Jean-Noël Jeanneney: what books are scanned and in the collection at all. Jeanneney’s specific concern—a lack of Francophone sources—has an easy and obvious response: the Bibliothèque nationale de France, of which he is the president, could join with Google to scan its collections. Indeed, Google has indicated its broad willingness to partner with libraries interested in scanning large corpuses of books to get them into the digital collection more quickly.

As the Times reports, though, the French project was massively underfunded:

The decision was purely financial, said Denis Bruckmann, director of collections at the library — which will be joining 29 other leading libraries in opening its shelves to Google’s project, including Oxford’s Bodleian. France provided only €5 million a year for digitising books for Gallica, the national digital library, yet the national library needed up to €80 million (£68 million) just for its works from 1870 to 1940, he said.

The Bodleian Library at Oxford, very properly, only permitted Google to digitize works that were out of copyright. (The same was true, I believe, of the library at Harvard.)

An important issue here, which I haven’t seen covered in the press, is the question of whether the Bibliothèque Nationale plans to make in-copyright works available to Google in the manner of the university libraries of Michigan, California and others, or whether this is a project to digitize works that are clearly out of copyright. I should imagine it is the latter; I should think European legislation would be required otherwise.