10.1998b FYI France Essay: "Books and bytes, bricks and digits : does a 'digital library' still need a 'building'?"

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us



Books and bytes, bricks and digits :
does a "digital library" still need a "building"?

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

Samuel Beckett was a hopeful poet; and he wrote in French, in France. The future which he feared is portrayed in his plays: not too many libraries, or books, or information of any kind at all -- only a few lost and lonely people, with nothing to do and nowhere to go to do it.

Beckett's nightmares were filled with loss: the loss of definition, the loss of meaning, the loss of any "sense of place."

The French have recent and poignant memories of their own which match Beckett's nightmares, and a long history punctuated with the very disasters which he feared.

The Bibliothèque rationale de France's sometimes - maligned new Bibliothèque François Mitterrand building, and now its even newer Gallica online "digital library" exhibit of French culture, perhaps are two of the latest and best attempts to provide France and the rest of the 21st century with something very worthwhile to do, and an interesting and impressive "place" in Paris in which to do it.

The online world swims now, and occasionally drowns, in "digital libraries" mounted in the US, Canada, the UK. The BnF's approach deserves attention, at least because it is "foreign."

Gallica, the BnF's new digital library, is the beginning of a well - planned and ambitious effort to document French culture by bringing a practical maximum of what is available in digital formats to general public users via the Internet.

At Gallica, which has the internet address of:


and is also found at:


a user now can see, online, a large and growing selection of the digitized documents collections of the Bibliothèque rationale de France: "monographs, dictionaries, periodicals...from the simple page of poetry to collections containing over a thousand pages, from 16mo to quarto, from the popular press to bibliophiles' editions" -- it is the BnF's intention to make Gallica "a laboratory for the evaluation of, access to, and distance consultation of digital documents."

The "collection" which may be reached online eventually is to include 100,000 digitized printed volumes containing 30 million pages, for now supplemented by extracts from 250 volumes, and 300,000 digital images. These digital images come half from the BnF's departments and half from other French museums, libraries, and organizations.

Several general questions can be asked of Gallica, as they might be asked of any project calling itself a "digital library." These questions deal with such matters as compromises made in quality, quantity and selection; bibliographic instruction of its inventors, developers, promoters, and users; technical criteria; and dynamics such as institutionalized change, integration with other digital resources, and preservation.

Let us explore a another question: books and bytes, bricks and digits -- does a "digital library" still need a "building?"

Gallica probably has been expensive. The BnF's new Bibliothèque François Mitterrand building at Tolbiac certainly has been. Do we need both? If a digital library like Gallica can exist out in Cyberspace, and eventually can satisfy most of our information needs, do we still need to construct and maintain expensive buildings, like the BFM?

Predictions have been made of the death of books, of paper, of reading, and of libraries -- also of education, of culture, of intelligence -- all at the hands of the revolution in digital information. The new techniques make many threats.

Such threats are not taken seriously by many in the US. But France, unlike the US, is a place which has known and suffered through many "transitions in media" and cultural and political upheavals throughout its longer and more violent history, transitions and upheavals which have destroyed documents. For all the riches in the current collections of the BnF and other repositories of the national "patrimoine culturel," there is much more that is missing from the French historical record.

This marks a fundamental difference between the perception of the risks involved in "transitions in media" as viewed in Omaha versus Lyon, or for that matter in any US location compared with Sarajevo, Hiroshima, Hanoi, Berlin or Moscow, or anywhere else in the world which has both recent and longstanding memories of severe cultural loss. Outside the US there is real and justifiable fear involved. The question of cultural loss from an accidental or purposeful loss of the BnF books is a very serious one in France; budgetary amounts for buildings or "digital library" projects there must be examined with this difference in mind.

Now leave aside for the moment, though, the question of whether "digital libraries" which replace the buildings can happen or should, and assume that they will -- would that even be a "Good Thing?"

Some sort of "neutral place" is needed -- for work, for the voracious appetite for hours exhibited by all of the new "digital information" techniques: not the old office but not the home either.

So perhaps the local library? Perhaps a neutral, congenial, comfortable place. And why should that space not, on occasion, be magnificent and monumental, like the new BFM? Was monumentality any more necessary for printed books than it might be sometimes now for the Internet?


(Note: This article by Jack Kessler was drawn from the January, 1998 issue of FYI France, a monthly electronic journal published since 1992 by Jack. His email address is: kessler@well.sf.ca.us .)



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