by Jack Kessler, firstname.lastname@example.org
for the American Library Association,
Western European Studies Section
|Date: ven. 23-avr.-10 14:19|
|À: Heather Moulaison|
|Cc: Jack Kessler [mailto:email@example.com]|
|Objet : Re: Discussion Group at American Library Association conference 2010|
|I am indeed flattered by your very nice invitation, but I will not be attending ALA this summer. There certainly is a unique and interesting situation in France now regarding ebooks, though: much legislation and many archaic and rigid administrative practices are going to have to be moved aside, if the French are to both preserve their printed texts and disseminate their contents digitally, and I am afraid I am not too optimistic.|
The concerns, back then, were primarily for the books: the perils of acidic paper, the sheer enormity of some collections, the depredations of years of sticky-finger use.
But these interests were mixed-in with "access": how to reach the information, if the old bound-paper printed book is falling apart -- the challenges of "search & retrieval", the increasing "information overload" of same, the famous / infamous "garbage in / garbage out" characteristic of digital databases, and above all the user-friendliness and un-friendliness of the then-new and to most of us very unfamiliar digital world.
One great break-through in all this has been the ebook: not the devices so-called, so much -- there have been so many of those, too many -- but the functionality, per Wikipedia now extended to images and sounds and multimedia as well, the new idea being, "information that is available in a digitally encoded human-readable format and read by electronic means" 2.
Or so Wikipedia reads at the moment, anyway, as things-Wikipedian change continually... Somewhere along the line, though, someone -- maybe Michael Hart at Project Gutenberg, or maybe it was Roland Barthes, or maybe even it was some medieval scribe -- figured out that looking at "texts" divorced from their "containers" would be a good and useful thing.
And it was: it taught many of us both that "preservation" of "the book as a thing" might be possible, and that ongoing "access" to the "text" of that book could be available in the meantime and going forward -- "A win-win situation that will be good for everyone", as Bill Gates might say.
|The euro, alone, has been an enormous drag recently on the industries involved:|
|foreign "new" technologies now suddenly are far more expensive, in Europe, a trend which I think will continue.|
|And there have been the adventures and misadventures -- consolidations and re-consolidations -- of the publishing industry in France|
The best summary account of the Éditis machinations -- plots within corporate high-finance plots -- is a read-through of the French-language article at Wikipedia 3. And Éditis has not been the only modern corporate "merger & acquisition" misadventure to which French publishing has been subjected, just one of the biggest and perhaps the most painful: see François Rouet 4 for the broader and deeper and more "longue durée" picture.
|Underpinning all that, too, has been a long-term legal structure -- one heavily-entrenched -- which prevents the products of French publishing from competing effectively abroad.|
And there has been an offense side, at work on this protection strategy, not just a defensive line: "la francophonie" long has enjoyed its own government office, and budget, within the French administration -- the Alliance Française for years has educated generations of francophones, at home within the Hexagone and overseas -- the Instituts Français do good work, as do the the ambassades, the armée helps French military allies -- and la culture française has enjoyed its own ministère, since Malraux even at the highest governmental level.
In trade, too: I fondly remember the early days of the "personal" computer / ordinateur, mid-1970's, when I was in the Hexagone and trying to procure parts for one myself, and French-made "Bull" parts were plentiful, but parts for my little Toshiba laptop were not. The urban legend at the time ran -- French store-clerks forever having been the strongest critics of the French government "administration" -- that entry-permits for La Douane, French Customs, for any inbound shipment of Japanese computer equipment, were obtainable at only one port in France -- that being Limoges, a "port" located far from any water, where the single douanier authorized to grant tech-import permits took very long lunches, never answered his phone, and his office-hours were "irrégulières", so Toshiba shipments were piling up and parts were getting back-ordered...
No I never did succeed in confirming that particular legend. But in trade myself later-on I heard similar from other countries -- how land-bound Kansas somehow became the US Customs clearing-house for certain imports during protectionist eras in the US -- and how China's inexorable bureaucracy, the world's oldest 5, has become adept again at screening unwanted foreign influences from its enormous and now-burgeoning two-way trade era -- so I believe the Limoges legend, and I never did obtain my Toshiba laptop parts.
All this, as well, is just the surface, as anything Black Letter Legal always is: the extreme tip of the broader and deeper social iceberg, of administrative regulations and bureaucratic practices and cultural habits and attitudes, which codified law only minimally represents. The effort to protect, and project, French language and culture has been a significant part of "France".
|In an evolving world economy and culture, in which anything not digital and globalized is outmoded, the French have become the holdouts.|
And yet the initial and immediate reaction still is negative, protectionniste... Consider the most well-known recent affaire exemplaire, that which pitted "GoogleBooks vs. Jeanneny" -- Jean-Noël Jeanneney, at the time président of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and since become journaliste extraordinaire in the GoogleBooks Wars, which have been for some time and still are somewhat raging 7.
The current problem being whether all this contrariness and protest amounts to just protection, and defensiveness, or is part of a more balanced French policy pro and con, toward digital information and new technologies. Sometimes I think it is more balanced, and some days I think it isn't. I was an early fan of the Minitel -- 1989 -- and in those early times OPAC access to the BnF and the BMLyon fascinated me. French Internet cafés too provided "grand public" access, early-on, in ways inaccessible to normal US citizens until the prices of personal computers and ISP charges came 'way down, many years later, in the US.
Still, though, preservation has been a problem in France as well: the collections of the BMLyon and of the BnF are filled with acid paper, and per the 80/20 rule with crumbling un-used books, as much as the collections of NYPL and Harvard U and the Library of Congress or any other library are.
Yet when an exceedingly-bright, unforgivably-young, intentionally and self-consciously naïve -- "Don't Be Evil" 8... -- and vastly-over-educated, and brilliantly-imaginative, US firm like Google comes along, with ingenious new ideas for providing access, at last permitting the preservation of the old media and even providing improved access to all of that too, the French scream... gasp!... and all of us are shocked, shocked...
The issue then becomes whether we are shocked at the implications, at the costs in all senses, and at what we fear the innovations may do to our societies -- since Tocqueville at least, the French have been expert at perceiving these risks, in the follies of their friends across the Atlantic pond -- or whether we simply are shocked at what is "new". Both are under question with ebooks: whether this is just novelty, shocking us yet again, or what the real risks are and whether they are worth taking, as some may not be.
These difficult problems must be parsed, deconstructed, dissected finely and examined closely: what part is pride, what part paranoia, what part hubris -- what is defending, what protecting, and do they really defend and protect -- what part is nationalism, imperialism, competition, cooperation, or just Le défi americain encore une fois -- and what part simply is "new".
|Which may be a very good thing... Mistakes are being made, among the pioneers, in both digitization and globalization, so le retard français in these arenas may be protecting French collections and education and readerships from those.|
A direct French library analogy for the latter problem could be Paris and the considerable costs, and risks, of centralizing all things there: "Paris et le désert français" 10, famous phrase describing the long-held attitude fought unsuccesfully by generations of French urbanistes -- imagine how much in printed book terms might have been lost if, as some had hoped, the enormous confiscations révolutionnaires all had been centralized in la capitale rather than held locally in provincial bibliothèques municipales -- very likely lost, then, in 1815, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1914, 1940, 1944, or on many other near-miss Paris occasions... think "one stray bomb"... Maman's "Never carry all your eggs in one basket!" admonition forever has been good advice, for libraries, and now perhaps for information systems as well...
|Others have suffered badly, while in France "reading" still is healthy, at least, as are healthcare & community life & many other things-cultural.|
At the emergency entrance to the hospital at Bergerac they admitted us immediately -- once they found we were "American guests", anyway -- that was the phrase used, "invités" -- no "file d'attente", no gruff "papiers svp!", no demand for or even mention of "insurance" -- just friendly faces, great warmth shown our son, halting "foreign" English bravely spoken, and a total charge for ER exam and treatment of zero -- imagine such courtesy being extended to a confused and panicky "foreigner" at a US hospital...
Of course when the diagnosis came down the French doctor's "varicelle" got translated to the near-hysterical mother as, "Don't worry, it's just smallpox..." -- which took some quick verbal footwork to straighten out -- nothing the fault of the French, only of his father's limited language skills...
|As E. Le Roy Ladurie has pointed out, "Technologically we French may be dinosaurs, but we are such congenial dinosaurs..."|
|Ultimately though protectionism is its own reward, and that is not ever a good thing. No Maginot Line ever lasts for long.|
Just so with protectionism, then: that too has an audience, in France -- has had in the past, and does so now once again. But any such extremist policy is bound to garner at least a few adherents, in any country so large.
In the US it does as well, nowadays: moreso than in France, perhaps, plenty of US folks greatly fear the "foreign", now, and seek "protection" for the domestic, the native-born, the homegrown, the time-tested and familiar -- in the US it's a long-standing and perhaps-generational trend, one which resurfaces every 20 years or so, inflames passions, and then scuttles back beneath the social surface once again... -- whether that involves manufacturing industry in the Rustbelt, or agriculture subsidies in the Midwest, or hitech gastarbeiters in Silicon Valley and "foreign" students in the universities, or foreign-"looking" people in Paris or Arizona, or "nativist" plant gangs cutting down trees and pulling up flowers at night in city parks, or highly-elaborate "language policies" both pro-and-con being bitterly fought-out in sadly-substandard schools...
Even a Ligne Maginot and the attitudes which go with that: the US has its own "fence", now -- a "wall", one every bit as high or at least as socially-destructive, as the one now imprisoning Jerusalem -- the US Wall stretches across California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, a 2000-mile distance in places virtually if not yet actually, to keep "the Mexicans", US euphemism for "anyone who does not look like us", out. Complete with new local legislation, along the US Wall's "civilized" side, for the arrest of any barbaroi based upon "looks" alone... That's a Ligne Maginot, of sorts.
Certainly it's protectionism, and even more certainly it is defensive; but such "lines in the sand" drawn to keep others out constitute a barrier for some and an interesting challenge for the "others" -- as the US and Israelis are learning now with their "walls" -- although they could have learned their lesson more easily had they read their histories, from the French with their Alps and Pyrenees, from the Berliners with their Wall, from the Emperor Hadrian, from the old Chinese...
The issue for books being whether all this is really just paranoia, and whether it all extends, as well, to "culture"...
And always remembering that in a polyarchy, such as we have in most of our political systems, small elites are able to grab power and rule the rest of us -- as Robert Dahl and examples from Ancient Athens to modern Weimar have taught us about "democracy" 12.
|And France ever and always has been pragmatic, ultimately, throughout its very long history. And so with digitization & globalization, as well, I believe France will end up being pragmatic again.|
|For now though France is behind, and is playing her "conservatrice" role: the initiative, in ebooks as in affiliated areas -- where the French initially pioneered, as usual, with Minitel and INIST and Gallica, the BPI, other fine projects -- has passed to les américains, and soon I believe that baton may pass to China and India and other "Asians", but not back to the French or other Europeans in the foreseeable future.|
Now, nearly two decades later, the bilan is not so clear. Certainly great strides have been made in France, as they have in the US and UK and in Germany, Scandinavia, and the other early digital information leaders: computer and Internet household penetration figures all are up, the Internet-connected mobile smartphone has saturated societies, youth now considers digital information access a necessity of all life, and even thumb-impaired "old age" at last is getting tied-in via their new iPads. The old XeroxPARC dream of omnipresence and invisibility 13, as measures of technological success, has been realized, at least in large part and in some places.
But that is not the big story: as in economic and geo-political development generally, the real headline is the closing of the development gap between the Third World and the other two -- now, "20 years later", China and India and the rest of Asia have smartphones, Latin America has digital access, the Middle East shops online, France and the US are doing better but now the rest of the world is doing so too.
So does that mean France and the US are slipping? Well, yes, although as is too often said, "only relatively-speaking" -- relative to China and India, for example, who now are catching-up. The insecurities all this change engenders, however, are legion in the former-leading countries -- the rich man in fear of losing what he has.
|There are remedies for this. But they all require the unification of European finances and political & cultural & other resources, all of which are pursuing an emphatically non- or even anti-European direction now: just ask the Greeks, this very day in fact, or the Portuguese or Italians or Irish or Spaniards, perhaps as early as tomorrow... or ask the discouraged kids in any given hitech start-up in east Paris now... For them neither the money nor the goodwill are there, any longer; so many of the young have emigrated, in fact, to Canada or California or Asia. And while others wait for current trends to reverse, or some other dénouement, Asian economies grow annually by double digits.|
-- "rumors" because the figures shift daily, hourly in fact -- in fact among different commentators, as one nowadays literally can "shop" for optimistic or pessimistic prognostications on GDP the way some folks do for sports predictions or weather reports.
Still, if you were a young person in east Paris, or in Greater London, or in Athens, where would you stake your hi-tech future at the moment, given the above spreads? They say fairly dramatically where things are "growing" and where they are not, in our Brave New Digital World, and youth forever has been interested in "growth".
There are the perennial naysayers, too, who question all statistics: "Asia is a bubble", they warn... But ever-optimistic youth rarely heeds Cassandras -- it's the promise, which interests them about the future, not the disasters of same which the grandparents remember. If you were age 25 and newly-minted with a fancy tech degree and bursting with new commercial ideas in need of financial backing and new markets, where would you go to launch them now?
|So for now, at least, and for several more years, ebooks in French and other languages will continue to arrive on French iMacs and iPhones and iPads, but via US, and increasingly via Asian, epublishers -- having been scanned-in by Project Gutenberg or GoogleBooks or Baidu, perhaps, or "Kindled" by publishers themselves and sold to the globe by Amazon.|
|Or by La FNAC... There are a few, in France, willing and able to buck the system. And there are after all barriers to such activity in China and other "new" places, too. So there are some opportunities for some nimble competition. But France needs to get, and stay, more flexible -- rigidity forever having been the classic French vice, famously per Élie Cohen le colbertisme 14 having suffocated their hitech and so much more in their industrial policy -- otherwise, online searches for their "révolution française" may continue, as their BnF président pungently feared, to cough up "The Baroness Orczy" before they ever burrow down through the long and growing retrieval lists to locate "Victor Hugo".|
|So that's some of what I would have said. It is worrisome. Perhaps the best suggestion I could give to you and your WESS membership is to buy, buy, buy -- "acquire" European paper texts, journals, ebooks, image archives, anything -- get it, and preserve it, before it all disappears over in Europe, as they run out of money -- but then you folks know that better than I do...|
That is one great purpose served by books, and by the texts within them -- informing -- not as to how things must be done now and in the future, necessarily, that nearly always is chiefly trial-and-error -- but warning at least as to what happened in similar situations in the past, and getting those error-margins built-in, to current trials -- suggesting life jackets, such as naked short-selling bans 15, or at least stockprice-swing circuit-breakers 16, or Strategic Arms Limitation Talks 17, to present & future sailors...
The financial time of troubles through which Europe is passing will end, and ebooks can be a great help in such a time, both during the process and after the transitions are over -- they help both to preserve and to provide access, to the information people need.
But there are risks: that digitization will not get done, or that it will get done improperly or be improperly managed thereafter -- and that existing great collections will suffer, or more likely simply dwindle as funds get re-prioritized, re-budgeted, or just run low. Libraries in the US and elsewhere need to assist the Europeans now: theirs is a collective memory which needs preservation and access, whether to survive wars and revolutions or other transitions, including digital revolutions, and whether it is Victor Hugo or the Baroness Orczy.
|Cheers, anyway :-)|
|And best wishes,|
|Jack Kessler, firstname.lastname@example.org|
* General Note:
A number of confusions surround the concept of an "ebook". Primary among these is an overlap between discussions of "form" and "function": a book is a form, reading is a function, the one does not require the other -- elderly leather-bound books, containing printed or even manuscript-inscribed papers, may be highly-prized with no regard whatsoever being given to their contents -- texts, too, may be read without considering the "container", whether leather-bound or computer or ebook-reader or cellphone, in which they come packaged.
The best summary discussion I've ever read myself, of such underlying and fundamental issues of "ebooks" is, still,
"The battle to define the future of the book in the digital world", by Clifford Lynch, in First Monday Volume 6, Number 6, 4 June 2001 --
* General Note #2:
And as for the "ebook-as-a-thing", that moving and amorphous target -- the form rather than the function -- well, the current text was researched and composed on an iPhone G3 via ample use of a Kindle app there, in numerous cafés both "Internet" and non-, also though thanks to G3 on various park and sidewalk benches...
The whole then was submitted to editing and formatting on an iPad -- somewhat for its elegant keyless keyboard, although more perhaps to accommodate the writer's ageing eyesight. Fight, fight against the dying of the light...
Finally, one email away lay a friendly Unix vi editor -- for dealing with the "ASCII extension" weird characters which somehow still creep in, yes even in these supposed Days of Unicode -- also for the wonderful screen on my DOS-partitioned Mac...
All of which I believe is not untypical, nowadays: the users are multi-platform, even if some manufacturers and service providers wish this were otherwise, wanting to "corner" this particular market into their particular hardware-corner -- the creation of my text here has gone through an Apple iPhone, an Amazon Kindle app, Project Gutenberg and several other online resources, Google, an Apple iPad, a fancy Mac laptop, a couple of Dell desktops, Microsoft Windows XP, a few big server clusters and Unix and vi and pine, lots of TCP/IP, and I'm sure 20 or 30 other "ebook" features I don't even know about -- it's not the form, it's the function -- not about readers finding the ideal ebook, but about the many ebook approaches finding the readers -- the customer, still, is king.
2^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E-text -- although, as I said above here, please note my generalization of the definition proposed by this article. The Wikipedia article is concerned only with ASCII-related e-text, it says, but that now seems artificial: my iPhone and iPad don't really care, any longer, whether the "information" they purvey to me is "text" or "image" or "sound" or "multimedia" -- or I qua user don't care at all, at least, which perhaps is more the point. Those are old distinctions, from an earlier era: the techniques for handling each have merged with those for the others, and all of it has become "invisible" to the user -- see Note 13, below. Old e-text & e-book & digital library distinctions grow increasingly out-of-date.
5^ Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy : Variations on a Theme, Translated by H.M. Wright; Edited by Arthur F. Wright (New Haven : Yale University Press, March 1967) 336 p., ISBN: 9780300094565, ISBN-10: 0300094566
7^ Jean Noël Jeanneney. Google and the myth of universal knowledge : a view from Europe (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2007), translation of "Quand Google défie l'Europe" -- The président of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, vs. Google's digitization of the world's libraries, also vs. "information retrieval" which might (?) pull up the Baroness Orczy's version of La Révolution Française ahead of Victor Hugo's(!)... See also, by Jack Kessler:
And, by Jeanneney himself:
8^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don't_be_evil -- French culture, so wrapped up in its own great age and sophistication, per Candide finding naïveté to be one of the most difficult of human qualities... as difficult for the French, perhaps, as US americans find it endearing...
13^ XeroxParc: http://www.parc.com/research/publications/results.php?author=944 -- see inter alia, M. D. Weiser, "Some computer science issues in ubiquitous computing", in D. Milojicic and F. Douglis, R. Wheeler eds. Mobility: Processes, Computers and Agents (New York : Association of Computing Machinery, 1999) pages 421-430, also (Reading, Massachusetts : Addison-Wesley, c1999) ISBN 0201379287. Excerpt: "Ubiquitous computing enhances computer use by making many computers available throughout the physical environment, while making them effectively invisible to the user."; See also, M. Weiser, R. Gold, J. S. Brown. "Origins of ubiquitous computing research at PARC in the late 1980's", in IBM Systems Journal (Armonk, New York : International Business Machines Corporation, 1999) volume 38, number 4, ISSN 0018-8670, 188-670, pages 693-696 ; and, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PARC_(company)
-- see also Jack Kessler, "The Users' Internet, 20 years later", on FYIFrance, April 1 2008, http://www.fyifrance.com/f102008a.htm
Suggestions of additional France-related ebook "resources" welcome: "resources about" -- for instance,
Suggestions of additional France-related ebook "links" welcome: "examples of" -- for instance --
FYI France (sm)(tm) e-journal ISSN 1071-5916 * | FYI France (sm)(tm) is a monthly electronic | journal published since 1992 as a small-scale, | personal experiment, in the creation of large- | scale "information overload", by Jack Kessler. / \ Any material written by me which appears in ----- FYI France may be copied and used by anyone for // \\ any good purpose, so long as, a) they give me --------- credit and show my email address, and, b) it // \\ isn't going to make them money: if it is going to make them money, they must get my permission in advance, and share some of the money which they get with me. Use of material written by others requires their permission. FYI France archives may be found at http://email@example.com/ (BIBLIO-FR archive), or http://listserv.uh.edu/archives/pacs-l.html (PACS-L archive), or http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/Collections/FYIFrance/ or http://www.fyifrance.com . Suggestions, reactions, criticisms, praise, and poison-pen letters all gratefully received at firstname.lastname@example.org . Copyright 1992- , by Jack Kessler, all rights reserved except as indicated above.
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