FYI France

File 10.2009a FYI France Essay :


August 5, 2009

Letter to a new scholar on old issues:
preservation & access in a digital age.



Hello again,

Thanks for your note, which follows. Without necessarily defending the BHVP actions, in this particular instance -- I do not know enough about the details -- I can at least suggest the general rationale in use: you said,

First step in the library-thinking would be "duplication": if the information exists elsewhere, albeit in other formats, a budget-pinched & space-impacted librarian's initial thought would be, "weed the duplicates"...

First choice would be to dump duplicates within one's own collection, but if some institution nearby has a set, that would count too: neighboring institutions often maintain cooperative policies -- tacit or even formal -- regarding who will collect, and maintain, what.

And in central Paris, everything is "nearby"... So I easily can imagine some BHVP librarian looking at her/his cramped central Paris shelf-space, and "80/20-rule" lending records, and thinking, "I'll send them to the Arsenal, for this one", or "to the Forney..."

The BnF entry for The Art Journal, for example, shows not only a couple of sets nearby but also that online access is readily available as well --

-- and in-print they have --

-- with copies available at both Tolbiac and the rue Richelieu...

And print copies -- and probably online / digital too, per the same EBSCO vendor -- appear to be available in a great many French university libraries, many of them also "nearby" the BHVP right there in central Paris --

-- and I expect many bibliothèques municipales, and specialized libraries, and even major galleries and collectors, maintain sets of this periodical as well.

So The Art Journal, even nicely re-bound as this former-BHVP set appears to have been, would not be a vanity item, in the BHVP collection -- a workhorse, maybe, if this particular set really does get a lot of use from this particular library's patrons, but then the librarians are in a better position to assess that than isolated users might be... Upshot is that for every one retired professor who insists on seeing the printed edition, every few years or so when he comes in, they may have dozens / hundreds now of young students who happily and preferably use the digital edition online: that's a story repeated in many instances daily, nowadays, in every library anywhere...

This "workhorse argument" applies less to "book as a thing" concerns: grand exception -- old printings and bindings and bibliographies of interest are unique. But bound copies of old print journals rarely qualify there.


And then you said,

Yes, we are in Digital's "Age of Incunabula" and all sorts of technical mistakes are being made: from lo-res scanning to faulty OCR capture to omitting the "illustrations"...

At the same time, though, "collections de sécurité" are being assembled: the digitization and the désherbage are accompanied, in many cases now, by the establishment of excellent suburban HVAC collection preservation -- fewer collections and less duplication, and so less risk-spread than we had before, but those "overflow facilities" which have been established now preserve the physical collections better than they ever have been preserved in their histories, arguably.

The exacting scholar wishing to examine the artifact must travel the distance and through considerable hoops to see it, perhaps, but the information contained therein can be reached more easily by the hoi polloi online now and at least the "original" now will be better-preserved... or so runs the argument...

This does neglect the perennial counter-argument that it takes an "original" really to inspire a curious student, however -- and curious students are the life-blood of intellectual activity -- that happened to me, perhaps it happened to you as well -- I'm not sure the preservation & access people really have addressed this important consideration well.

But these are issues with which, as a graduate student yourself, you no doubt are personally familiar.


This I would doubt. French librarians agonize constantly over the effects of digitalisation & désherbage & Googlisation etc. -- certainly in their professional literature, but also personally -- and they generally are acutely aware both of digital access, and of what neighboring library professionals and publics might think.

I expect instead that someone did check, found cites, and then -- perhaps too casually, yes -- consigned these sets to the dumpster. But it was an interest-balancing decision: s/he figured the periodical in question is so readily-available elsewhere, and perhaps is not directly in line with the institutional mandate -- "the BHVP, does it really need The Art Journal", would be the question, and there can be so many answers to that -- but most importantly, weighing all such interests against space-problems and money-problems... and even in La Capitale -- every capitale, as the US itself recently has discovered too -- there are and perhaps even ought to be such problems...


Perenially the biggest budgetary problem, in labor-intensive library service work, is not shelf-space but staffing. France has high unemployment now and libraries have been hit hard. The staffers who checked etc. perhaps were not bibliothécaires...

But some librarian there "knew or should have known", assuredly; and they do know these issues, and would have assembled some sort of defense of their action. I can't imagine bureaucratic France, certainly not a City library, doing this simply haphazardly.


Not before, maybe, but that will be forthcoming now thanks to your posting: the historians -- that is a powerful group, in LaCulture-conscious France -- I am sure that a few of the H-France folks, themselves French or foreign, will make inquiries now of BHVP direction or admin and will be letting you know -- I suppose not until the rentrée, so look for follow-up by October.


But I hope you'll go easy on the librarian, and on the library, in this... The various commentators you cite -- Trouilleux, Rykner -- do a good job of raising the issues. But only the librarian on-the-spot, Toulet, has the difficult task of making the choices, the decision.

It is my impression that she decided properly, here: I do not really know, as I said, not being on-the-spot myself -- but I can imagine severe space restrictions, restrictive budget, impacted staffing problems, and then this large set of largely-un-used volumes easily-obtained at sister institutions down the street and around the corner and in every major town, and furthermore nowadays even online... so other librarians might have dumped it too.

And as for selling the set, or donating it... Those are "American" questions, better-suited to our own entrepreneurial and capitalistic mindset than they are to bureaucratic and by-comparison-at-least socialistic France: over there simply filling out the forms, on a "donation", might cost the library more and even get it into trouble.

Let alone holding a bakesale... My wife once tried to get a French friend to help in a school bakesale, here in California, and was mystified to find her friend horrified at the thought... Come to think of it the tax forms, for a French library wanting to "sell" something, probably don't even exist: in France libraries "don't do such things" I expect. A senior French librarian once rebuffed my early-1990s Internet enthusiasms with the chilly comment, "Personally I do not type, I maintain staff for that..."


Anyway, there's a little input. I hope that it helps. There will be sound & fury on this, as there ought to be -- the issues are fascinating, and of course controversial -- but ultimately space and budget decisions do have to be made, even in,

-- it is in fact the fanciful idea that they do not, which I believe is the real danger -- hubris -- always the greatest danger, to the US or France or Ancient Rome or China new-or-old or any other civilization which indulges it.

Best wishes,


Jack Kessler,






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