10.2006e FYI France Essay :


Internet & digital library history -- BIBLIO-FR


In the interests of Internet history and "digital libraries" development, the following is a document composed in 1998 by Hervé Le Crosnier, memorializing his experiences as the organizer and first Moderator of BIBLIO-FR, a discussion list / econference for French librarians, which was one of the Internet's first ventures outside of its initial Anglo-American realm.

To his 1998 recollections Hervé appended the minutes he compiled of the initial May 28, 1993 meeting, in the offices of Michel Melot, then President of the Conseil Supérieur des Bibliothèques, minutes which may be said to be the founding document of the project to construct and launch BIBLIO-FR.

Much about the Internet has changed since, while much of it remains sometimes-distressingly the same: all of it may be of great interest, though, to anyone wondering what "the early days" online were like -- some things are easier, now, while other things have grown more difficult. Either way here is Hervé, "for the record", describing vital aspects of the Internet's growth and growing pains, as it "scaled up" to international and multi-lingual applications.


Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com




Four years of experience with a francophone econference

By Hervé Le Crosnier, LeCrosnier@unicaen.fr
(Translated by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com)
(En français: for the original in French, please see http://www.fyifrance.com/f102006f.htm )


The BIBLIO-FR econference was created in May, 1993, following a meeting of librarians who wished to establish a francophone service for colleagues new to the Internet network, a system then just beginning to be installed in France with the launching of RENATER.

Today, in 1998, this econference involves 2,500 subscribers and distributes a dozen messages per day. [2006 update: now 14,000+ subscribers...] This account will describe the first steps taken in establishing this virtual community. I will explain both the initial objectives and the praise or criticisms expressed now by its users.

The "list" is moderated, so it also will be useful to review the functions of a Moderator in the establishment and maintenance of a virtual community.

The account which follows is subjective. These reflections would benefit from being combined with quantitative analyses of the various communications made online -- the number of messages, types of messages, effect of certain categories of message on the list, such as the job announcements grouping JOBILISE, and so on -- and by an analysis via questionnaire of the expectations and realizations of the list according to those who have taken part.

The existence of list archives in digital format since 1993 is one resource for this type of research. The text presented here is a synthesis made from the point of view of the Moderator, and for this reason it is bound to be far less objective for being less "arm's-length" than quantitative analyses would be. I hope that the avenues of investigation suggested here will inspire others to undertake quantitative studies which will verify, or refute.

We are at the very beginnings of a new form of communication, and subjective and objective points of view complement one another, in the effort to understand the originality in these discussion groups and their potential in education and professional training, and also more generally in the extension of the democratic agora.


1) Before BIBLIO-FR: first steps on the Internet

The Internet network was massively implanted throughout French universities via the birth of RENATER, in 1993. The users of the 1980's had been concentrated in the scientific disciplines, particularly those of physics, mathematics, and information science. The connectivity of RENATER allowed the network to reach other categories of university personnel. This first made possible the even more general idea of extending the network to other sectors of the population, within a few years. Librarians became the central elements in the "banalisation" of the Internet, and also the organizers of digital information, without anyone's imagining at the time how large the job would become -- this was before the birth of the "general public" Web, the launch of Mosaic not having taken place until the end of 1993.

Terminal VAX-VMS:
l'Internet, vintage 1993...
VAX VMS 1993

As a librarian, I was one of the elements in this chain of generalizing the Internet in France. I had experimented with the network since the end of 1992, proceeding step-by-step through the learning of various protocols available at the time, primarily telnet and ftp, using a 9600bps modem and a VT220 screen. I subscribed to several econference lists concerned with library subjects. I discovered an unsuspected horizon: from my little provincial city I could follow debates under way on a global scale about the development of the network, and about the role of libraries in the democratic diffusion of knowledge.

My outlook on the United States changed profoundly in a few months. I found there preoccupations which were close to those of Europeans, and I discovered a social group devoted to defending social interests -- the "third sector" -- a role which particularly concerned librarians. Subjectively, I sensed the emergence of a new preoccupation, and of new forms for resolving conflicts and for providing mutual aid. I also sensed a means of promoting my city: I was at the center of the world, like everyone else is in any particular sphere.

On reflection, it seems to me that one could not understand the excitement favoring the Internet without considering that sudden promotion of the "local" on the "global" scene. The famous Internet proverb, "act locally, think globally", for me took on an instant meaning. And without the new pleasures of multimedia communication I would not have found the energy necessary to fuel my own activities on the nets. It seems to me that an enthusiasm for technology continually is at work among the new generations of Internauts. The explosion of Internet activity also is the product of its ongoing reminder of the initial impression that at last one is not alone, that one has a voice equal to those of all the others in this multimedia scene.

I also gauged the role of econference lists in education and professional training. Because I was not in love with bibliographic formats and cataloging, through reading several daily messages on the USMARC list I could follow the evolution of the profession's stance on digital libraries -- even though that term was not yet in use, at the time -- one spoke of virtual libraries, and of new frontiers in the abstract sense... or rather in the electronic sense. I heard talk, in my own offices, without participating myself in workgroups, of Z39.50 and the inter-operability of bibliographic systems, of the field of electronic resources, and of the incorporation of digital documents into library catalogs. This was an introduction which remains with me, as these subjects have emerged to become vital questions at the heart of the profession.

I looked at, too, the problems of distance technical education, including capacities for learning about the network via the network itself. It was in reading the bulletin of the URFIST de Paris (Unité Régionale de Formation à l'Information Scientifique et Technique, http://www.urfist.info/) -- their print bulletin, "Les petites nouvelles de l'URFIST" -- that I came across a text by Pierre Barthélémy, of the Université de Marseille, offering a list of Internet services of use to librarians. But how to obtain a document "in FTP" when one hears of this for the very first time? That is how I came to understand the importance of local knowledge: and it was thanks to the administrator of my own local Centre de Ressource Informatique that I was able to first dip my own toes in.

But soon, moving right along, the network itself became the primary source of information and technical education about itself. I decided to follow the advice of Pierre Barthélémy and subscribe to econference lists -- particularly PACS-L, which at the time was the model for my entire profession, with nearly 15,000 librarians from all over the world possibly participating daily in my little universe. But my first desire became my first frustration: it was impossible to figure out how to subscribe. I always will be grateful to Jack Kessler who, by I do not know what Internet miracle, came up one day with my request which I had launched into the stars -- Stevan Harnad speaks of "skywriting" -- I never had received any reply to my demands for subscriptions, and I was trying to figure out why. Examining the "headers" of my email messages, Jack discovered that my email address was incorrect: my name containing French accents. that good old ASCII code didn't know the diacritical signs. I could have gone on writing for a very long time without ever receiving a response.

That simple event is heavy with meaning and would guide for a very long time my personal efforts with the Internet, notably in the operation of BIBLIO-FR:


2) The creation of BIBLIO-FR

The old interest which I had in digital publishing, which had spurred me to publish several texts on that theme, caused me to be contacted in April 1993 by Michel Melot, then the Président of the Conseil Supérieur des Bibliothèques. He had had the occasion to look at the Internet, during his travels and meetings with foreigners in the profession, and he wanted to assemble a working group to prepare the introduction of the network into France. Michel Melot, with his great personal modesty, long has adeptly recognized and summarized the most significant new developments in our profession.

A meeting was held on May 28 at his offices, gathering together several persons interested in French libraries. To prepare for this meeting I drew up a list of about thirty people, by consulting the subscriber lists of US econferences. I sent each of them an informal message asking about the possibility of forming an "electronic discussion group" in France... and in French.

The minutes of this meeting, distributed to these people, can be considered the "acte fondateur" of what would become BIBLIO-FR. The text may be found appended here. It is interesting to look at it today, with five years of experience now, and to judge the thoughts and projects in light of that experience.

Three essential points emerge:

  1. The importance of a French presence, in French, on the Internet;

  2. Professional education, undertaking this as more and more libraries are added to the network;

  3. Inter-personal communication, its place in the documentary architecture of the Internet.


The first point envisaged documents in French on the Internet. Already there was the example online of Project Gutenberg -- public domain texts made available in ASCII -- which would be taken up later by the "bibliothèque électronique de Lisieux" (http://www.bmlisieux.com/), and by "l'ABU" (Association des Bibliophiles Universels, http://www.abu.asso.fr/). One has to consider that this question nowadays is classic, even if regularly debates still arise over the place of digitization in the structure of digital libraries. In substance, questions of the format of digital documents -- as images, as text, as "markup mode" -- and of the quality of digital text publication are the key points in this aspect of the work of librarians, and of commercial and academic and organization publishers.


The second point merits some close attention. In light of my own experience, described above, one has to gauge the success of distance education on the network by means of the network. It seems to me, on reflection, that this point -- emphasized from the first by the working group -- was essential, yet it remains relatively under-estimated. In 1993 little education about the Internet had taken place in France. The first dates from the end of 1993, in the URFIST classes which became the central points for education about the Internet in the universities.

This simple observation also justifies, after the fact, the creation of the URFIST centers themselves, which evolved along with and accompanied developments in digital documentation. The idea of proposing a service which would be available to welcome new users was visionary, and it is due to Michel Melot. Now, five years later, his acuity can be recognized: to the extent that librarians are connected to the network, they begin by "joining BIBLIO-FR" to find solidarity with the others there, to locate and use network guides to which they get referred, and to obtain a chance for the mutual exchange of knowledge.

So, BIBLIO-FR, in its basic definition, has tried to escape becoming a network of specialists, already expert in the rules and issues of the network. Even if with time the two functions have come to cohabit the list, the attention given to the questions of beginners, even on questions posed before, and even if the questions come in again and again and seem repetitive to the old hands, is a central element of the list.


The third point has been essential, even if it has been poorly comprehended by the great hierarchies which run French libraries. All global projects concerning the Internet are composed of three elements:

  • An industrial aspect, concerning the networks, the means of access, the bandwidth, and the equipment and software of work-stations;

  • A documentary aspect, which concerns the writing, the publishing and the making accessible of new documents, principally the development of websites. Questions regarding this involve relations of human/machine, of person-to-information system;

  • A communications aspect, which concerns relations of person-to-person at the very heart of the information network. This stems from the simple "give and take" -- comment on any text no matter where it is on the network, reach the Webmaster... -- involved in group communication via econferences.

These three aspects are inseparable. Without the infrastructure and its state of permanent evolution, one could not benefit from all of the possibilities of the Internet; without the availability and the organization of vast document collections, digital libraries could not fulfill their mission; but also, without taking into account the human presence on the networks, the group exchanges among actors / users of any Internet project, the network would lack the vital fluidity which sustains such projects, enlivens them, and broadens their impact.

The developers at the ENSSIB (École Nationale Supérieure des Sciences de l'Information et des Bibliothèques, the French national library school, http://www.enssib.fr) assert that a simple announcement of their site and its offerings, on BIBLIO-FR, greatly increased their site visits during the days which followed. This makes even more sense if such an announcement is followed by a discussion, whether that be one which offers blame or one which offers praise.

So, the great projects presented often are followed by numerous postings, for example in the initial days of services mounted by the INIST, such as their Articles@INIST (http://www.INIST.fr) or those of the BNF such as their Gallica (http://gallica.bnf.fr). Such debates allow the developers to adapt their ideas to the needs of the community better, just as they enable users to understand better what they can find at a website, whether that is more than or less than what they expected.


3) The Development of BIBLO-FR (1993-94)

The first debate on the list was over the choice of its name, in June and July of 1993. This is not a superficial issue, in the construction of a virtual community. Nothing was decided in advance, and each participant was able to influence the development of the list. The name settled upon represents the two principal issues chosen as "axes de travail": libraries, and the French language.

The question of libraries posed few problems, no one wanting to establish a group which would be too scattered, one which would not be linked to some substantial working community. But the question of French language was not so easy. A great number of texts in English were circulating on the network, texts often of great interest to any beginning French librarian. Many of the list's first users distributed English texts "of possible interest to readers here".

My attitude was very firm, at the time -- allowing me to become a little less firm later on -- it was that yes, such texts might be interesting... but the librarians who knew English ought to join English-language lists as well. The readers of BIBLIO-FR were expecting introductory texts, texts easy to understand and therefore presented in French, not to speak of the linguistic difficulties involved in learning and implementing the digital techniques of networked computers. Often I regretted this choice, which limited our capacity to carry to French readers the often more advanced ideas of librarians in the anglophone world. Happily, with the development of the Web, it became possible to guide an individual reader toward a document without imposing upon the other participants in a group discussion.

The other decisive question concerned the role of a Moderator. As the minutes of the CSB meeting indicate, from the beginning the Moderator was seen as a technical facilitator for the communication: this was a task for which a paid position was envisaged (see the Annex, below). But in what, concretely, does "moderation" consist? We had to improvise. The provisional list was managed under an alias, in my personal email account. So for several months I worked as an "executive secretary", grouping together the messages and "presenting" them, in a sort of summary format. What appears naïve, in retrospect, was the initial idea of econference lists closer to commercial news reporting than to newsgroups. That remains, anyway, one image of BIBLIO-FR, one today difficult to modify.

The first months of "moderation" were also a time for learning about the new media and the new forms of communication which are involved. The editorial approach was taken up too by other lists -- by BIBDOC-LOR in 1994, although the approach was rejected by ADBS-INFO. The circumstances of creation of these other lists and the personalities of the developers both were factors, everything being far from any pre-established communications model. We would have to wait until 1996 to see a real rise in resistance to "moderation", which by then became associated with censorship. The resistance became general, and lists such as that of Monde Diplomatique (Internet Nord-Sud) experienced the same criticisms, all at the same time.

These criticisms themselves were made possible by the users' increasing familiarization with the network. Sensing themselves to be more at ease, some users wanted to see and use everything, and they resisted the organizational formats which had been set up before. This resistance was very understandable. "Moderation" is not a necessity but a choice, in the organization of communication, one which casts the virtual community in a certain form, and one which is not really in competition with other models for organizing discussion. The questions of the objectives of the particular list, and of the personalities of its developers, are the only factors to take into account, although with all the imprecision which such factors imply.

Two important discussions of the question of "moderation" took place at nearly the same moment, in 1996, on BIBLIO-FR and on ADBS-INFO. In the first case, an experience with non-moderated discussion over a ten day period turned into a collective psychodrama, with a third of the readers dropping their subscriptions. In the second case, "spam", plus many problems associated with email "attachments" -- which sent out viruses -- blocked the list's distribution, making technical intervention and a phase of "moderation" necessary.


4) Developments later

The first months of the list were also the first months of technical education. We had to wait until September 1993 to learn of the services of the CRU (Comité Réseau des Universités), and that a real "list robot" could be put into place by Odile Germès and Serge Aumont. Without their work, the list certainly would not have survived. Nearly one hundred users already had been gathered by the end of summer 1993, just at the beginning of our use of the CRU service (http://www.cru.fr/listes/). Since September 1993 the messages have been archived and readers may follow the development of discussions there, a service which constitutes an important resource for anyone wishing to trace the eruption of the Internet in France.

The BIBLIO-FR list developed steadily from 1994 to the end of 1997. The number of subscribers grew, from several dozen in 1993 to 1500 by September 1997, steadily increasing -- then to 2500 within a few months, with the announcement of the get-together, "Rencontres de BIBLIO-FR", at the end of 1997. This growth is explained, too, through the number of messages circulating, even if the "moderation" limited this to between only 10 and 15 messages per day. The quantitative evolution of the list certainly is a reflection of the penetration of the Internet in France, and more particularly of its introduction into the professions associated with the book and with documentation.

The BIBLIO-FR list became the first place of call for librarians new to the Internet. The ease of subscribing, then the daily receipt of specific messages, organized in a typology -- "questions", "responses", "announcements", "employment"... -- enabled a new subscriber to catch on quickly.

But messages specifically concerning education did not make the grade -- nor did the launch of a "Foire aux Questions" (FAQ, Frequently Asked Questions), many times suggested but never successful.

In the first year education messages, introduced in subscriber questions about the many new Internet techniques, were very successful. But this work was very long, and repetitive. Those who took on the job preferred to mount webpages, which are more stable, and which may be used for longer periods of time and in different situations. It is not the same thing, to respond to a specific question in public, using real queries to introduce new concepts or present new tools, as it is to send out educational texts, written in response to abstract questions.

If one often receives the same question formulated differently, it is because each user likes to see their personal approach analyzed by someone more experienced. This is one of the basic notions of all teaching, for which digitization has yielded a mixed result because of lack of available time -- in other words because of a lack of teachers, for whom the daily work could be replying to questions and otherwise educating using the networks.

For a long time the BIBLIO-FR subscribers were librarians and documentalists from small institutions. An informal questionnaire in September 1996, the responses to which were published on the list, showed that the econference had come to be a means of verifying their participation in their own profession: "Lists breach the solitude of the documentalist's life: through them one may become current with the latest debates, news, professional issues -- and all this in a forum less difficult than when one discusses these things with one's masters. If someone has a problem, she or he knows that it may be shown to the community, and in that bunch there doubtless will be someone who will know the answer, even if only a partial answer." (BIBLIO-FR member Hanka Hensens, http://listes.cru.fr/sympa/arc/biblio-fr/1996-09/msg00037.html.)

On the other hand, professionals from larger organizations -- the Bibliothèque Nationale (BN, http://www.bnf.fr), the Agence Bibliographique de l'Enseignement Supérieur (ABES, http://www.abes.fr), the Institut National de l'Information Scientifique et Technique (INIST, http://www.inist.fr), and large university libraries... -- remained subscribed for longer periods, and generally were less active online. Often their announcements appeared first in the conventional print press before being posted on BIBLIO-FR.

This situation is contradictory, even though now it is beginning to change. It reveals a level of unease in confronting the interactive character of the network: every idea posted online finds some sort of detractor -- online this is normal, and in fact to be wished -- and this detractor may distribute her or his criticisms via the same channel, a situation poorly-appreciated by large institutions, which demand "correctness" above all. Institutions never want to be cornered and backed-up against the wall. It is preferable, even if it is not always the case, to consider all criticism to be constructive: a desire by the public to see the institution do more, and do better. The criticism may play a role in the definition and design of projects, something which may be useful to everyone.

The large institutions maintained an ambivalent relationship with BIBLIO-FR, revealing the great rigidity in the French library profession. Instead of using the collective energy expressed in the list, for a long time the institutions viewed its existence as a danger, even if this attitude changed notably with the success of the "Rencontres de BIBLIO-FR" get-together in 1998 -- without, however, deciding to create their own channels for distribution and debate. Such paralysis, which cannot be found at all in the case of US lists, has negative effects on the collective use by the profession of projects, of other undertakings, and of experiences of value to the institutions. The early-1998 debates over the launching of Gallica, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France project for digitization and online distribution of 19th century French literature (http://gallica.bnf.fr) -- or of Article@INIST, the Institut National de l'Information Scientifique et Technique project to digitize periodical citations http://www.inist.fr) -- are further demonstrations of these misunderstandings.


5) The role of the Moderator

The experience of BIBLIO-FR has shed much light upon the role of a Moderator in the establishment of a virtual community. From the first the idea of a moderated list was taken from the example of lists in the US. The model of PACS-L was followed, largely, somewhat because it was documented (see Kovacs, Diane, and Willard McCarty, Michael Kovacs. "How to Start and Manage a BITNET LISTSERV discussion group : a beginner's guide", in The Public-Access Computer System Review, 1991, volume 2, number 1, p. 128-143) by articles setting forth the precise means of operating such a list, and clarifying the roles and qualifications needed for Moderators. I would like to acknowledge here, in retrospect, the great importance of these texts, which were published in e-journals, in aiding a newcomer like me to take the initial step, and put into place a similar project.

The first image which arises of a "moderated" econference is one of censorship. The question is regularly posed, in real-world conferences as in the virtual world of the list, revealing the general disquiet concerning the democratic aptitude of the Internet.

My experience tells me otherwise, and that is what I would like to transmit here. First we assume the terms and the situation: censorship envisages a decision to reject a message for motives having to do with its content -- political, religious, violent tone... In fact cases of censorship in five years of experience have been very rare. I remember one very "négationiste" ["Holocaust-denial", considered racist and a violation of laws on "crimes against humanity" in France. JK] message, which I returned to its sender indicating that I might post the rest of his text -- even though I did not agree with its content -- but that I wanted to see some revision of the "négationisme". The reply certainly treated me as a censor... but I learned shortly that the sender was the chief of all French "négationistes", and had raised difficult discussions on the list, and was generally-known... But these experiences have been rare. The term "censor" to me seems inadequate to describe the complicated situations which it is used to cover.

The Moderator generally performs four functions on an econference list:

  1. Administrator. On an un-moderated list, very regularly several thousand people are told that someone is taking a vacation and wishes to be placed "on hold", or that someone else wishes to subscribe, and that a third someone wants to know how the server for the list works... Overseeing a list such as this is a real work of administration, involving relations with the server administrators -- to refine the technical system which is the substratum of this form of communication -- and paying constant attention to the subscription, de-subscription, and general reassurance needs of the users.

  2. Supervisor. The choice which I made was to group messages which dealt with similar subjects, and to group messages containing similar questions. I believe that too many messages would repel a new user, and that the role of the Moderator is to maintain a constant flow. So one must re-organize, re-group, and sometimes re-design the users' presentations: at the beginning, I even would correct the spelling errors and typos which I could spot... a task quickly abandoned, inasmuch as my own personal skills in such areas were insufficient, as my own messages demonstrate. The main work of the supervisor is to suppress the overly-lengthy quotation, which appears in so many responses -- and, for a long time, to edit out the HTML code transmitted by software announcing itself as "MIME multipart".

  3. Mailroom Clerk. A number of the messages which arrive in the in-box of the Moderator -- definitely a different location than my personal email in-box -- are not destined for the list. These often are direct responses, better sent simply to the person who posed the question, or messages which appear to involve a private discussion. There we have an ironic result of the "redistribution" function of email software: if a person A redistributes a message sent originally from BIBLIO-FR to a person B, when B replies... instead of going back to A the message is sent to the original sender, the Moderator of BIBLIO-FR. One might consider whether that is a flaw in the original idea of the software, one which often escapes the notice of the users: the attention given to the destination is too under-emphasized, in the automatic response mechanisms of email.

  4. Mediator. The simple presence of a Moderator encourages participants to take their debates more seriously. It may be said that at least one human being will read each message which will be sent to the list. As a result, the sender will tend more carefully to his text, and generally will not send a message which he himself believes will not be accepted. It is the presence of the Moderator which makes the task of moderating less necessary. One might reflect further upon this phenomenon of social conformity, in our systems of mediated communication.

For, far from provoking censorship, the Moderator in fact is a cause of self-censorship, or more precisely of forbearance, of politeness... of "netiquette". Someone who sends a message of which he himself is unsure, of whether or not it will be acceptable to the list, is demanding of the Moderator first of all to judge the pertinence of the message. At the birth of the list, when the formalities of written asynchronous communication were not yet well-developed or well-known, it was not uncommon for a user to consider the Moderator as an editor of traditional media. To address the entire list, such a user would employ the rhetorical device of addressing the Moderator. Even though this still happens, the practice has lessened, as the social familiarity employed on the new media has increased.

One often imagines the Moderator dampening the exchange of views, appealing to the participants for calm: the fireman appeasing the flame-wars. I need to correct this view, which does not correspond to my own experience. Many times I have had to demand that two users suspend some debate which appeared to me to be exhausted. But more often I have intervened to pour oil on the flames. The Moderator also is an Animator of the debates. Without some specific effort to re-launch them, to provoke, to support, the debates tend to wear down, to become narrow. The list cannot become simply a tool for purely practical questions. This tends to distance the reader too far from the group.

The participation in a debate group is a social act, before is becomes an act of communication. This phenomenon has been very well-analyzed by Lyliane Deroche-Gurcel, who relied upon the work of Georg Simmel in sociability (Lilyane Deroche-Gurcel. "Cybèrespace : les nouvelles formes de sociabilité", in Universalia, 1997, p. 318-321). The general tendency in debate groups, far from being the exacerbation of the passions, is toward consensus and in the end the absence of debate. The phenomenon may be observed in relations of "presence": one speaks of the rain and the nice weather more easily than of grave news subjects. And one avoids subjects of "sex, politics and religion" during a Christmas party, for fear of their effect upon the family reunion.

The same goes for an econference list. While simple exchanges of information go on easily, debates concerning general situations often are criticized as being beyond the purview of the list. This can be contradictory. When the rhythm of the discussions diminishes, the interest of the readers becomes dulled, and finally the simple exchanges of information no longer find a sufficient dynamism and themselves become victims of the general impoverishment in the communication. It is up to the Moderator then to re-launch the discussions, often by using strategies of provocation. Some balance between discussion and simple information characterizes each econference list. Some attention must be given to the real wish of some participants to debate, and to the wish of others that the list not become simply a platform for entrenched and closed positions.

The Moderator must remain attentive to two these necessities of communication, and notably he must continually monitor the frontiers of the group. The definition of these frontiers, the interpretation of the charter of a discussion group, is the main goal requiring constant vigilance. The Moderator must evaluate the messages he receives in light of the declared goals of the group and not as a function of his own approval or lack of approval of their content.

  • If the Moderator is too timorous in this evaluation, he tends to restrain the progress of the group, and allows the development of discussions which ultimately will rob the group of energy and create a lack of interest. This is one marked tendency of un-moderated groups: after an initial start-up phase, the participants try to avoid anyone's going too far, and thus limit their postings to strictly utilitarian subjects which discourage most users. Ultimately there will be silence.

  • But if the Moderator is too adventurous, he distances himself from the group, which comes to feel that it does not belong, that it no longer has a vested interest itself and an active part in the quality of discussion and the debates. Another means of achieving silence... or on the other hand noise and invective, the notion of organized discussion becoming displaced by that of the public square, each using the group to announce his own ideas, opinions, and positions, but without any sort of collective synergy. (This last was my own experience as Moderator of the list, isoc.vie.publique -- not having correctly assumed my role I let the list wander at random, which led it to silence and to a lack of interest among its users.)

Other sources of polemics are the professional critics. Must one believe in this or that medium -- in CD-ROM, or DVD, or in networked computers -- or in this or that system -- the eruption of "free software" in the preoccupations of decision-makers -- or in this or that centralized organization of bibliographic information -- the Pancatalogue and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France for a long time have had to endure fire from their critics. It is interesting that such choices are not simply approached according to someone's technical vision, but develop as a function of expectations of professionals just as they do of the public. Behind each technical choice lurk social opinions and forms of organization and the control of information, with some question of the autonomy of the users with regard to their own knowledge.


6) The get-together, "Rencontres de BIBLIO-FR"

Is it possible for a virtual community to sustain itself over the long-term without its members meeting one another face-to-face at least once? The question was open when the time came for the fifth anniversary of the econference list. Why not get together?

The term "get-together" -- in French "rencontres" -- was chosen deliberately. It was thought inappropriate to mount a structured "conference", with "presenters" tediously reading texts assembled months in advance... on the contrary, what was needed was the establishment of fluid and free speech, as expressed on the list itself. The hope was to encourage discussion, conviviality, the emergence of collective ideas.

The "get-together" was held at Caen from 3 to 6 April, 1998, and it was a great success. In the relaxed atmosphere the discussions were very popular. One participant said that it felt like being online on the list itself.

For the Organizer, the days just prior to the "get-together" were nervous: "Will anyone say anything?" In rejecting the certainties of a programmed "conference", we also took the risk of any informal gathering, and the possibility of a lack of communication. At the event itself, on the contrary, we discovered a hope among the participants for situations which would permit intense discussion -- sessions covering in a short time ideas which had circulated more episodically on the list. The participants left with a more global idea of the impact of the Internet on their profession, and of the economic, social, and cultural impacts of the network.

These remarks ought to attract our attention to the effects of lists in education, and notably to the balancing of in-person meetings with online discussions. Electronic communication creates a strong epistemological expectation among the participants, one which extends itself rapidly into a better understanding of the subject, and people regroup. Also there is a more egalitarian mode of education, the information emanating from the meeting-room being perceived with the same interest and the same value, a means of reproducing in physical space the same situation as that of the virtual electronic space.


Conclusion: econference lists, a new tool for education and for democratic debate.

The development of the information networks creates complicated issues for the transmission of information. One may consider that the documentary aspect of the network -- how to find good information -- is organized by the communication among individuals. Education cannot be reduced to the mere furnishing of documents and interactive hypertexts. On the contrary, the circulation of information and the debate over education are key elements in a generalized social situation involving the distribution of knowledge.

The lists create a feeling of participation, in the group involved, which reinforces the social function of the documents in the network. (Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid. "The social life of documents", in First Monday, [journal électronique], volume 1, number 1, 6 mai 1996 ; http://www.firstmonday.dk). Collective intelligence arises from the interactions among the members of a list, who need to "subscribe" and thus indicate their wish to build something together, over the long-term. This simple gesture has consequences for the organization of the communication: working together is part of participation in the group. And working together provides an atmosphere favoring epistemological "will", opening the participants to listening and to learning.

When one speaks of telework and distance learning, it is a good idea to gauge the conduct of these groups within a larger context. New methods still need to be put into place, new teaching innovations remain to be found. But already one can see the importance of relationships among participants in the transmission of knowledge, and find a new balance between in-person communication and that mediated by the information network.

Finally, the experience of BIBLIO-FR indicates that its survival is, in itself, a goal for a discussion group. And this depends on great flexibility in the ongoing interpretation of the initial aims of the effort. The group must evolve, take new developments into account, avoid folding in upon its own local "culture". Ongoing reinterpretation of the frontiers of the effort is the central task. In accepting that the frontier always may be re-evaluated, surpassed, one permits communication to exist, one enables the sense of collective effort in the exchange. And this is even more true when the limits are well-defined and visible, as then they constantly rub up against the normal daily life of a user community founded for limited and specific reasons: professionals, or at least users with some original common interest.


This last remark throws us into the crossroads between communities of choice and communities of fate, the place where the form to be taken by the new democratic "agora" of the era of the Internet is being designed. Our life always is tied to these communities of fate: the biosphere and humanity, first of all, and the necessity of protection against the ecological dangers which menace us; nations, as well, to which each of us belongs at our birth and which require that we live together, whatever our own desires, understandings, and attitudes. Communities of fate are the places where our democracy gets organized.

Communities of choice are the means of protecting our individuality, in finding others who accept us as similar and with whom we share symbolically. Discussion groups are expressions of these communities of choice, collective tools of our reach for our own autonomy. Their strength in education and their interest in the homogenization of the group attract us, and permit newcomers to join an existing community which can accommodate them.

But the risk always is there that all this will translate into a voluntary disconnection, far from the communities of fate and the troubles which beset them. The resulting idealization, of the debating society which must be isolated from the furies of the real world, may be found in the debate about frontiers emphasized earlier. One needs to avoid the myth of a digital democracy which might be built simply by an agglomeration of communities of choice. Community life requires the confrontation of opponents, of adversaries, and the combat of ideas, and the implementation of political structures enabling us to try out our ideas, so that we ultimately may choose between one or some other orientation. And then we can start all over again, debating.

The Internet offers, more particularly, groups for public debate which allow us to imagine new structures, which weave into a single social project questions of education, of autonomy, of social information, and of the emergence of opinions: it is a tool for redefining the place of the citizen and the democratic organization of the society, and more generally the articulation between debate and decision.


Caen, June 23, 1998.

Hervé Le Crosnier




Annex: The Founding of BIBLIO-FR -- May 28, 1993

(There no longer exists any digital archive of the very first era of BIBLIO-FR, end-May to end-September, 1993. The following text may be considered the first message of a discussion group which eventually became BIBLIO-FR. It comprises the minutes of a meeting which took place on May 28, 1993, in the offices of Michel Melot, President of the Conseil Supérieur des Bibliothèques. HLC.)


From Hervé Le Crosnier (LeCrosnier@unicaen.fr)

Good morning,

As I indicated to you in my preceding message, a meeting was held on Friday May 28, at the Conseil Supérieur des Bibliothèques, at the urging of Michel Melot, its president, with a view to establishing a francophone econference. This list would concern librarians, and more generally anyone interested in the techniques of information circulation on the research networks.

The text which follows is an account of this meeting. It represents only my own recollections, although I believe these would be shared by all who were present.

Persons present:

The meeting was an informal grouping of individuals. Several messages have demanded what "organizations" participated. In fact, we all were there simply on our own. The sole organization prepared to engage in this at the time was the CSB, which invited the rest of us. I believe there already had been one meeting of this type, held about two months ago. There certainly will be others.

At this meeting, those present:

  • Michel Melot (Conseil Supérieur des Bibliothèques)
  • Marie-Dominique Nicolas (Conseil Supérieur des Bibliothèques)
    Nicolas@ccr. jussieu.fr
  • Claire Panijel (URFIST Parsi)
    clpa@frunip62 (Bitnet-EARN)
  • Jacques Faule (BPI, editor of "Brèves", newsletter about the networks published by the BPI)
  • Jack Kessler (American library consultant on sabbatical in France to write a book about the networks, who acted as a resource)
  • Hervé Le Crosnier (science librarian, Université de Caen)

The Bibliothèque de France was invited -- Hélène Waysbord -- but no one was able to represent her.

Structure of these notes:

The notes are divided among three points which do not follow the order in which they were raised in the discussions. Given the small number of participants, the discussion was informal but nevertheless effective.

I will address, in order:

  1. technical problems

  2. the question of content

  3. the strategy of implementation

  4. the transition period


1) Technical problems

Under this rubric we raised several questions:

  • It would be necessary to obtain software with would manage the list automatically. LISTSERV software, in general use on the BITNET network, appeared to serve our purposes:

    LISTSERV manages:

    -- the subscription of new users (and de-subscription)
    -- the archiving of messages (with search & retrieval capacities)
    -- the distribution of messages to the entire list
    -- the functions of the list Moderator

    It appears that LISTSERV software was written by a French programmer, but that nevertheless it is not available in France. Michel Melot will contact M. Girard of the Centre de Calcul at Jussieu to learn what might be the best means of using the RENATER network -- an IBM personal computer working under VM is required.

  • The obtaining of an electronic address on RENATER -- I think, for ease of use, although the exactitude of this must be verified, that we can use the term RENATER to speak of the French part of the global research network. Jack Kessler speaks of "the Matrix" to define the entire global network -- cyberspace -- and considers the Internet to be simply the American part of that.

    For university librarians, the solution is to contact their respective centres de calcul. To facilitate these contacts, Michel Melot should compose a letter addressed to all directors of Centres de Ressources Informatique, the new official title for centres de caldul. One also needs to take into account the recent establishment of the Comité Réseau des Universités (CRU).

    For librarians of the bibliothèques municipales, or of isolated documentation centers, two possibilities were raised:

    -- the CSB could sponsor a number of email accounts on a computer in Paris;

    -- contacts could be established with organizations able to initiate, and eventually aid, the same process in the cities, in cooperation with the Centres de Ressources Informatiques of the universities.

    From then on the problem of obtaining an email address would be reduced to simply having to contact the CRI at the nearest university. Solutions of the type "Minitel en mode ASCII" might be envisaged as a first step, via local telephone.


2) The Question of Content

It was emphasized that the network offered three possibilities -- email, telnet, ftp -- and in addition various emerging new services such as WAIS, Gopher, WWW, Veronica...

The role of an econference is to establish a first step, onto the network. The other tools were discussed, as a means of demonstrating to librarians already online the many possibilities which are offered there.

Jacques Faule for example would like to provide electronic texts, as soon as possible, to develop ftp, gopher, and WAIS. Michel Melot proposes that the annual report of the CSB be made available. One also might contact periodicals which specialize in libraries and documentation, to evaluate the possibilities of "double publication", both print and on the network. But all this takes time, while the econference ought to be made operational rapidly so as to motivate the librarians and assist in their training.

The URFIST of Paris, and more generally all of the URFIST centers, will make the research networks a centerpiece of their training efforts.

Claire Panijel believes that the training of librarians will be a good means of generalizing knowledge about online electronic documentation among researchers.

The econference thus will have largely a pedagogical role, at least at first. The task is one of putting folks with documentation or technical problems in contact with one another, and with other colleagues who have had similar experiences. For this purpose Jack Kessler suggests that a "core" of resource-persons be created, people who can assist the list by responding to such practical questions.

The list will be, above all, oriented toward librarians, addressing their specific problems as well as the general state of their profession. It was emphasized that an econference concerns individuals: even if a separate structure for the list is necessary, it is up to each participant to maintain an email account and to contribute to the list's methods of operation and participation.

All were in agreement that the list should be provided with a Moderator. I also emphasized that, even if many people have things to say, the appropriate means of their saying it are not necessarily established, least of all for new media with specific techniques such as email. So a special effort must be made, in this regard, by the initiators and first participants on the list, to create an environment which will be welcoming to colleagues who will be joining us later on.


3) The Strategy of Implementation

To implement such an econference, as for now very few librarians have their own email accounts, and outside of computer science and mathematics departments few researchers yet have experience with email, several necessary and converging steps are required:

-- a program of presentation, of the network and its possibilities, aimed at beginners. It appears that a document written by Anne Sanouillet of the URFIST at Nice may be useful. Michel Melot will meet her and request that she summarize in a brief version -- two to four pages -- which the CSB then will format and distribute to all libraries.

-- a program of persuasion, targeting the large organizations -- Bibliothèque de France, Bibliothèque Nationale, BPI, Bibliothèques d'Université... -- and their ministries. Again, this is a job for the CSB.

-- contact also should be made, by the CSB, with various regional cooperation associations, which appear to offer a structure well-adapted to act as relays between the centres de calcul and the libraries, and also have financing in the regions (and by the regions?).

-- finally ("last but not least", as the anglo-saxons would say), the question of the moderation of the list, but also the work of promotion and simply the following of list development, require a librarian. The URFIST organizations, suggested by Michel Melot, seem to be well-equipped for periodic training purposes, but limited in their ability to provide regular Moderator activity. It seems to me, too, that this task ought to be taken up by someone able to follow, even if simply by keeping his ears open, various debates within the library profession itself. From this point of view, a position located in Paris would be preferable . containing as it does half the population of France whether this is a good idea or not ! Perhaps a post at the CSB ? An idea for Michel Melot to consider.

All of these tasks, and more specifically that mentioned at the beginning reagarding the implementation of LISTSERV software, should not be an impediment however to the implementation, now, of some first step. This is point of the following final section.


4) The Transition Period

It seems possible to begin, right away, with creating an embryo, a core, which would enable us to:

-- inform ourselves about the methods and techniques of this type of communication -- it seems there are no specialists in this sort of thing in France;

-- offer, immediately, a site for the most convinced among our colleagues who would like to obtain an email address as soon as possible;

-- test the thousand-and-one problems which realistically we will be encountering, in this. For example that of accented characters. So I have tried, although faults in it may exist, to compose this text with all of its diacritical characters intact: in the first place because I will use my printer for a "snailmail" distribution to several colleagues, hoping to interest them -- but also for all those who will receive this via email, directly or forwarded from someone else -- who will indicate to me the level of readability of this text.

-- meet those among us who already have some experience with the networks, so as to establish a network of skills at which to aim our colleagues who have particular questions.

In the absence of prior experience, an econference for librarians, which will be "generalist", needs a core group of initiators, of founders, who together will share the experiences of evaluating errors and of working out solutions to them. The rapidity with which the list grows will depend upon the success of forming this group, and upon the efforts of each of its participants in improving the list: the composition of its texts, the technical aspects of its operation, its policy decisions...

To assist in this work, and while awaiting a true LISTSERV and a Moderator who has more time available than I have, I suggested I would manage "by hand" a provisional econference, until this Fall. The function of this list will be as follows: today, anyway... it could change tomorrow... suggestions welcome.

-- with the help of my email program -- AlMail on a Vax VMS, for technical purposes -- I will set up a distribution list. For now it contains 35 email addresses: the current message will be distributed to all of these. It will be useful to me to receive a reply from everyone, even if these are not destined for general distribution, so that I may test the email distribution system itself, notably its connection with BITNET which can be problematic. I would also like this reply to indicate to me how well the accented characters came in... and eventual solutions to that problem. Finally, please indicate the size of the message, and any consequences of this size for the eventual structure of the list.

-- in addition to the purely technical aspects of this reply, it would be interesting if each person would express -- in a second message -- their impressions of the notes on our meeting, above, and any other ideas they may have about a francophone econference.

-- the email software AlMail does not provide, after my attentive re-reading of its manual, for a distribution list. The advantage is that this permits each user to obtain the list of addressees of each message. The inconvience being that a "Reply/all" will send your message to everyone. Even if I retransmit the message subsequently, then, we lose the notion of testing a "moderated list". So, at least at first, please try to respond only to my one address -- do not use the direct response to all recipients, as it will take too much time to follow all such messages.

So temporarily I will play the role of Moderator. As I have no experience, don't expect dependability and regularity, yet.

Anyone wishing to join this initial working group may send me an email message containing their email address, and I will add their name to the list. Let others know about this initial network.

Hervé Le Crosnier
Université de Caen





ps: BIBLIO-FR -- http://listes.cru.fr/sympa/info/biblio-fr -- has been since its 1993 establishment, and continues to be, the best single place to investigate and appreciate the role of librarians in France online. In addition, though, BIBLIO-FR dramatically illustrates two more general subjects: the introduction of the Internet into France, and the scaling-up of the Internet to international and trans-national applications in a non-anglophone world. In all three arenas the path has not been smooth, although it has been immensely useful and productive: via BIBLIO-FR -- its invaluable online archive as well as its ongoing discussions -- any researcher anywhere can come to appreciate the details of why, over time, this has been so.

Of course you have to be able to read French... but then that is one of the central points, of "scaling up"... if the international and trans-national customers do not use English, the Internet has to learn the languages the customers prefer -- not the other way around...


Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com




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