FYI France

File 10.2014a FYI France Essay :

 

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Les Houches!

Les Houches!

 

Chamonix libraries: a personal view

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com

for the International Federation of Library Associations / IFLA,
Information Technology / IT Section Newsletter, July 2014
http://www.ifla.org/files/assets/information-technology/newsletters/tilt_2014jul.pdf

 

May 1, 2014

 

W
hen tourists visit France they arrive in infinite varieties. Some come as skiers, seeking an energetic holiday, others as sharp-eyed entrepreneurs in search of a "deal" over in Paris-Est or out at La Défense -- and some of those are parents-with-children, or children-with-parents, looking daily for diversion from the confines of some cramped 2-star hotel room.

Perhaps the parents were in France before as lovers, too, returning now to seek a quiet corner where they might renew all that, where again they might enjoy one another and what together they have created... France famously offers many such quiet corners... And many tourists nowadays visit online, virtually, digitally -- Petite Poucette* "searching", always, for something, and very often finding it in France.

Villages

I first saw Chamonix in several of these ways. Visiting France for only a single "purpose" rarely happens -- there is so much there, so many attractions and distractions. In 1992 I visited Chamonix digitally-armed, knowing Minitel and Internet, fully-equipped with a carload of family and books and magazines, all of us excited about skiing and hiking and mountains... as are most Chamonix visitors still, French and foreign, we arrive bearing many expectations, all we've read about elsewhere and more...

Turning the tables, then, what of the local, the Chamoniarde, who must prepare for such onslaughts? What to offer à table, how to entertain, and direct, how to help visitors up the mountains, how to rescue, how to help them down again -- and above all, these being French specialties anywhere in their fabulous Hexagone, how to entertain and distract and instruct? A day-in-the-life of a Chamoniarde, very much including any Chamonix librarian, can be a many-faceted adventure...

Libraries

I first visited the Chamonix libraries not for their Minitel or Internet, which had attracted me to France, nor for the business deals I'd been doing down in Paris, nor for our two little boys who were busily skiing at Les Houches, but as relief from a hospital bed: one event of a family holiday which cannot be planned is a bad-back -- I had been bed-bound in pain for a week, I badly needed "something good to read", I told the Chamonix librarian...

Answer to a librarian's dream anywhere, that question... One of the axioms of library science is the expression, "Do you have a book about horses?": it summarizes the reference-interview, the magical epistemological moment when the librarian divines the real-intention behind a user's search...

The librarian response can be so different, depending whether the question comes from a 7-year-old little child, or a svelte youth in jodhpurs & redingote, or a local veterinarian, or a writer, painter, zoning official...

That morning in the BM de Chamonix, I was a middle-aged American businessman, obviously in-pain, up from Lyon with my family, speaking halting French with a rrolling Dordogne accent, wondering about of all things the Minitel, and whether the library had an "Internet connection": "Cest quoi, 'internet'?", was the first response, back in 1992... but the new-hire in the cataloging-room knew... and he knew how to rig a power connection to accept my weird American electric plugs... I know the Chamonix librarian's reaction to me: "The questions they try to prepare you for, in library school, but never do completely..."

That is what libraries in France are all about, though -- libraries anywhere -- expecting the unexpected, anticipating the strange question, parsing the "reference interview"... I have found most librarians to be very good at it, although many libraries are not.

The libraries in the Chamonix valley, for an example of a very good regional system, are arranged in a network. The French love networks -- when I first learned about the Minitel, in Europe, and taught there about the new "Internet américain", heads in the audience nodding knowingly included all the French -- systems, ah yes, we understand that -- and systems of systems, interlocking and often conflicting, "Well, that just defines French civil administration", a smiling French friend once wryly explained.

From the French I received the best metaphor for the Internet I've ever encountered: "la toile", "the spider's web" -- never-mind that the digital Ouebbe has no center, while the spider's does, picture instead layers on layers of overlapping and interconnecting, literally inter-networking, spiders' webs, elegantly-beautiful yet sometimes-sinister, immensely-practical design, although like the spider's too occasionally-sticky...

During that backache-recovery visit to Chamonix I learned about all these things and much more, touring the extraordinary little valley and its little string of networked libraries. The route from Argentière to Servoz covers 22 kilometers which you can do in 28 minutes, my GoogleMapsApp solemnly and as-always too-definitely declares -- but not in winter, I know from that 1992 back-ache experience, I remember heavy snows -- and never in summer, with all the tourist hordes -- and not in Spring or Fall with all the meandering school kids -- when does Google "time" its maps, maybe at midnight on Tuesdays in June...

Nostalgia

The Chamonix library network was more primitive, as I remember, back in 1992 -- both physically and virtually, things have changed greatly in both respects since. There as elsewhere, what once got recorded on cards, and held in & on cardboard & paper containers, and transported to branches in little trucks or in the backseat of a librarian's car on-the-way-home, nowadays gets magically-managed by The Digital, manipulated via tiny buttons as by users' grimy fingers poking at little "screens" forever in need of cleaning, even though the users & librarians & reference-interviews haven't really changed much, fundamentally.

Mountain-towns anywhere, too, subsist upon strict individuality, and jealousy, both among themselves and in uneasy symbiosis with The City... Two towns visible to one another across a valley could have no telecommunications connection at all, as recently as 1960s France: trunk lines for systems such as "road" & "rail" & "authority" all "led to Rome", back in those days -- from village A you called Paris Central and "booked" your call to village B -- in-sight, across the valley, as you were shouting to the Paris operator -- and she would promise to call you back, hopefully that same afternoon... and when her call came in, André at the café would go find you, wake you, so you could run down to the café and take her call... that was the 1960s... the little separate earpiece for your other ear, at which French friends would swear as they shouted to be heard, was given all sorts of rude names...

By 1992 all that had changed: France by then had better telephone connectivity than the US -- California calls from Berkeley to Sierra Nevada towns still could be scratchy, but calls anywhere in France and even international were crystal-clear, and the maddening little extra-earpiece was long-gone.

Mountain towns in both places hadn't changed in other respects -- they have since -- in 1992, however, Tahoe City still could be as different culturally from Southshore, or Quincy, all high in California's beautiful Sierra Nevada, as Argentière from Chamonix from Servoz, high in France's soaring Alps.

So it was no mean trick to set up a library network, linking things. Every tiny town has its unique lieux de mémoire, fonds local, user eccentricities, local opening hours anomalies, local collection requirements -- MARC format compatibility, so much the flavor du jour of library tech conflict during the newly-digital 1980s and 1990s, doesn't begin to address the realities and complexities of physical linking of libraries with competing traditions and cultures, in tiny towns and neighborhoods -- "local notes" and "holdings" data -- anywhere, in Haute-Savoie or the Sierra Nevadas, or London or New York City -- sometimes "international" can seem far easier than "local".

In France the process of library networking has a long history. The recent story, the Internet part of it anyway, was greatly assisted in France by the Minitel. Thanks very much to "la-petite-boîte", by 1992 French librarians, plus a sizeable portion of French information-users, already were hands-on experienced with fundamental digital information tools & concepts such as keyboards, screens, and online access to glowing colored characters via weird little "codes" -- to alpha-numeric images and ASCII, then Extended ASCII, and eventually Unicode -- and most important with the basic idea that information, or at least data, useful to them in their daily lives, might be available to them via a tiny television...

Standards

What cemented the online digital experience -- the glue which held the toile together, connected each toile to every other, in "The Matrix"* -- was a strange consensual thing called "standards"...

In 1992, most of us grand-public "users", grandly-ignorant of the new technology itself and even more of its internal structures, took it for granted that the new information technologies simply would provide what we, the clients, wanted, in formats to which we already were accustomed, decorated with pretty pictures, speaking our language... But what if "our" language was french?

When the Internet first appeared it "spoke" only ASCII -- American Standard Code for Information Interchange -- 26 mostly-Roman letters, majuscules & miniscules in initially-few but increasingly-various fonts, no sign therein of anything non-American, such as an "e accent-aigu" or "accent-grave", let alone anything in Hindi or much less remotely-Chinese.

And such mere character-set deficiencies were tips of enormous cultural icebergs, in the early Internet: just as there were no "funny-looking" cedillas and umlauts, so there were plentiful baseball-metaphors -- early Internet developers knew what one another meant by "home run" -- but none from soccer or cricket or mahjong. And cultural gaps and misunderstandings ran far deeper, to basic notions of network structure, commercial content, government participation, copyright, privacy, confidentiality... politically-correct, and politically-corrected deconstructions of networking-speak structuralisms and outright biases have been many... The early Internet was américain, until 1992-3 -- and few of us, Americans or other, then realized how much so.

The way the Internet has dealt with that limitation during its first 50 years, has been with radically-evolving "standards" -- rules, of structure and of conduct, formulated by technicians sharing a roughly-common professional knowledge-base and training in their use, rules commonly-shared and usually followed... The Internet has been the product of countless hours of IETF and ICANN and NISO, ISO, many others, TCP/IP vs. OSI, a tyranny of acronyms librarians too know well, with their own MARC and other professional standards.

Thanks to these grand efforts of many, we now have a global toile, one "speaking" the languages of many, working cross-platform and over multiple platforms simultaneously. This approximation of Umberto Eco's "lingua perfetta"* was one of the previous century's, a century of wars, most remarkable achievements. And we have come a long way from when we had to write our French online "comme c,a".

Over the years since, French libraries in small mountain networks like that at Chamonix, and like non-networked jealous little villages in the Dordogne, now offer the full panoply of digital techniques*. Most wisely have conserved their print collections as well. Visitors to France may access and use information there easily and in all media varieties: data is online, but may be reached in print and on ancient manuscripts and in wonderful old print and video and audio formats too.

Conclusion -- microcosmos

France, for me, has served as a microcosm of the Entire World -- Out There, to my somewhat-isolated American compatriots of the US digital world -- insulated as we are by our two great flanking oceans, refreshing innocence, and innovations, and our congenial if sometimes naive notions of universality, political fundamentals, and baseball-metaphors...

Voltaire wrote of Pangloss with scorn, but of Candide fondly... The worldly-wise and cynical French must think of Candide, still, when they see Americans approach, with US ideals of brotherhood & democracy bulging from our pockets, albeit relatively-less money than before...

But the digital world is different now from our 1950s postwar era, the 1960s invention of the Internet, and the 1990s presentation of it to the Outside World: it is typically French that they have been in the forefront of the nouvelle vague of each of these developments, with their Minitel and digital library networking adventures.

And it is typically-French, as well, for them to present to the foreign observer their unique perspectives on the world's newest technologies in the context of such interesting and beautiful scenery, such as Paris, and Lyon, and one of the world's most remarkable mountain-valleys, Chamonix.

 

Jack Kessler, kessler@well.com

 

Footnotes:

 

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--hjlm--

 

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M. Eiffel

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Last update: July 16, 2014