Tuesday, December 15, 2009

France Takes a Stand on Digitization

In the context of Robert Darnton's efforts, in the latest issue of The New York Review, to make sense out of the legal muddle over the digitization plans behind the Google Book Search effort, yesterday's news from Paris, as reported by Scott Sayare for The New York Times, throws an interesting light on one of Darnton's key points. Consider first the French side of the story:

President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged nearly $1.1 billion on Monday toward the computer scanning of French literary works, audiovisual archives and historical documents, an announcement that underscored his government’s desire to maintain control over France’s cultural heritage in an era of digitization.

The French National Library announced in August that it was engaged in discussions with Google over the digitization of its collections, part of a global effort by Google to digitize the world’s literary works. This provoked an uproar among French officials and the publishing community here, and the discussions were suspended.

“We won’t let ourselves be stripped of our heritage to the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is,” Mr. Sarkozy said last week, apparently in a reference to Google.

On the surface this may sound like little more than nationalist grandstanding. However, it taps into issues considered not only by Darnton as to what American citizens have to expect of a public library in the digital age but also the analysis of the nature of social democracy by Tony Judt (which, coincidentally, immediately follows Darnton's piece in the print edition of The New York Review) that addresses the general questions of what constitutes a public good and how the provision of that good should be divided (if at all) between public and private sectors. Darton's proposed resolution to the current legal disputes over digitization places the public good above all other interests:

The most ambitious solution would transform Google's digital database into a truly public library. That, of course, would require an act of Congress, one that would make a decisive break with the American habit of determining public issues by private lawsuit. The legislation would have to settle ancillary problems—how to adjust copyright, deal with orphan books, and compensate Google for its investment in digitizing—but it would have the advantage of clearing up a messy legal landscape and of giving the American people what they deserve: a national digital library equal to the needs of the twenty-first century. But it is not clear how Google would react to such a buyout.

It seems to me that the penultimate sentence of this paragraph gets to the heart of Sarkozy's decision, which is that the government should take responsibility for giving the French people what they deserve by way of "a national digital library equal to the needs of the twenty-first century." In an American setting, on the other hand, I suspect that Darnton's proposal will be seen as idealistic and naive. An American people obsessed with reality television and Twitter does not necessarily see a national digital library as part of the public good; and my guess is that those who represent them in Congress, for whom the act of representation should take a broader view than that of immediate gratification, are unlikely to see things any differently, particularly now that Google has discovered the effectiveness of lobbying. On the other hand, if we accept Judt's arguments that the very concept of a public good has now been corrupted beyond recognition, should we expect matters to be any different? Perhaps Sarkozy has taken one small step towards reversing that trend that Judt now views so pessimistically.

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