12.80 FYI France Resource List: "How to Digitize a Nation..."

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

An Online Essay,

with Selective and Partially - Annotated Lists of Resources, Online and Off-

(The essay and its notes and references and links are presented in 7 files,
"fy1280a-g.htm", designed for use online or for printing and reading offline.)

Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Ejournal subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: kessler@well.sf.ca.us. The text contains a selection only: additional online digital information resources develop in France every week, on the Minitel and the Internet -- one can be sure only that there are more, not fewer, than what follows online in France now.

Here this file is one of a number made available -- hopefully attractively, all in one place, and relevant to libraries and online digital information work in France and Europe -- as part of FYI France (sm)(tm), an online service to which anyone can subscribe by postal mailing a check for US $45 payable to Jack Kessler, to PO Box 460668, San Francisco, California, USA 94146 (site licenses also are available): please write your email address on the front of your check. Please email suggestions for improvements to me at kessler@well.sf.ca.us .


How to Digitize a Nation...

France: National Patrimony, "Foreign" Digits

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

(Continued -- file #3/7)


II) Some Arenas (a selection)

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As important as the identification of the "actors" in any social process, such as "digitization", is the definition of the "arenas" in which they act: you have to know who the people are who are involved in "digitization", but you also have to know what they do and where and when they do it. The French are somewhat unique people who do things very often in very unique ways.

* Fêtes

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France dearly loves a party. Political events, there, and Olympics openings and bicycle races and soccer tournaments, all are made occasions for parties which often become more important to participants than the events themselves.

Even something as mundane and technical as "digitization" has provided the occasion for throwing a national "fête". More practical cultures simply do a thing, less practical cultures merely talk about it a lot and never get around to doing anything. The French throw a party in order to get a thing done.

In digitization's case the party was the "Fête de l'Internet '98", a coordinated series of national events -- meetings, lectures, demonstrations, classes, debates, "happenings" -- held March 20 and 21, energized by the very - energetic national Ministre de la Culture et de la Communication , Catherine Trautmann, and by a vast array of local dignitaries across the country.

There is much precedent for this sort of "national happening" in pursuit of a cultural objective in France. Former Minister of Culture Jack Lang's "Fureur de Lire" event still is held annually in libraries throughout the Hexagone: noise, balloons, excitement, in and around the supposedly - staid institutions of the French library establishment, all designed to upset, attract, pique curiousity, promote.

There is precedent elsewhere as well, of course: NetDay happenings in the US, during which personnages no less than the President and the Vice - President of the country have been seen carrying cable and pliers through high school corridors and poking bemusedly at computer terminals, have been used to promote the use of the Internet in US schools.

The question to be asked in the French case is the relative degree of importance of the "party" to the long - term success of the innovation. Digitization development in the US would continue fullspeed without NetDay -- NetDay in fact was created to channel a digitization trend which seemed to be galloping past important parts of the society, such as its schools. The motivation of "Fête de l'Internet" in France was different: there the innovation itself had to be launched, and a national promotion effort -- involving the nation's leading political figures -- was undertaken to initiate it. For France and for other countries perhaps a national promotion of this sort -- a "show" -- is a catalyst needed in the beginning for an innovation process which occurs in very different ways in the US.

Then again, perhaps even in the US as well, a "party" or a "show" could be a valuable catalyst for channeling a trend initiated in other ways. Consider a national campaign for "Digital Literacy", or one for "Preservation": neither of these might be the initiators of digitization generally, as the French intended their "Fête de l'Internet" to be, but each could force the broader trend to concentrate on some neglected but much - needed aspect, as NetDay did with regard to digitization in schools -- similar events might do this for "Digital Literacy" and "Preservation". Let the commercial market promote "digitization" in the US, in other words: refining and directing the result may be the job of "Fête de l'Internet" - style promotions better able to focus on a particular issue or problem.

* Arts

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In France the fine arts are sacred. French governments always find the means to support them, French education always includes them in the curriculum, French literature and discussion assumes their existence and some audience familiarity with them, an artist in France can hope for both social status and financial support, and the country is filled with galleries and museums.

This "sacred" status is not always a good thing for art. The sanctification of court artists by certain kings, and the apotheosis of a figure like Victor Hugo at the end of the last century, demonstrate the dangers of "official" art in the French context: numerous writers in France have warned against the simplicities of distinctions like "sacred versus profane" or "raw versus cooked" in their popularized versions, and railed against artistic conventions in France, calling for and even declaring "museums without walls". France loves controversy, and controversy over art is one of its passions.

Digitization has entered these traditional debates about art in predictable ways in France. Most of the major museums now have Web sites, many of the minor ones are developing them, and galleries in France are busy developing ecommerce techniques, as they are in the US and elsewhere.

Music institutes in the country have developed sophisticated digitization projects, providing access methods, composition techniques, and instructional materials using all of the latest methods for digital sound. Digitization projects for still and moving images abound, and "multimedia" combining various traditional forms of expression is now in such common use in France as to have become a journalistic buzzword there for digitization itself. In France now engineers say they are doing "digitization", artists say they are doing "multimedia" -- same wine, different labels.

Older French art controversies have not disappeared, however. The battles surrounding "official" art, one of the oldest and strongest of these, still are being waged, and digitization has brought several new possibilities into these very old fights.

When the print collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale leave the Rue Richelieu, for example, the great spaces to be vacated in the old buildings are then to be occupied by a national institute of art -- some sort of combination of the teaching, research, public exhibition and collection functions of a large number of central Paris institutions, now scattered but potentially to be united at the common site.

The advantages of such an artistic unity at the Rue Richelieu would be obvious: duplications to be avoided, economies to be realized, the sharing and collegiality of a single institution taking the place of the rivalries and suspicions among the several institutions which it replaces.

And, predictably, even as the first thoughts about the idea and its advantages were being aired, the rumblings of dissent -- fears of the idea of centralized, authoritarian control of the arts -- were heard in Paris: a national library of art -- such a good idea for any visiting scholar who has had to traipse all over central Paris to consult related materials held in multiple locations -- met resistance from the outset, from jealousies among the libraries which were to be combined to fears of the staff which might be "downsized" to worries of the specialized users who might see their narrow niche disappear amid a new and unvariegated whole.

Some people interested in opera costumes might want to consult associated works about the music, but some others might not and would want all attention and resources focused on the costumes alone -- all of the users cannot be pleased all of the time. Predictable problems -- old ones, which long antedate the development, or even the invention, of digitization.

Digitization does provide techniques for avoiding the necessity of centralization. One of the keys to its success so far after all has been its mobility, and its decentralization -- a CD-ROM is easier to transport than a printed book or a statue or an oil painting, and the image which it carries can with allowances for some quality reduction be transmitted to the other end of an Internet connection, removing the necessity for some users to go to any location, much less an inconvenient "central" one.

There always will be art scholars who will need to see the original oil on location in Paris, but there are many more art students who always will be unable to travel to Paris and now nevertheless can enjoy and learn from its online digital image -- an image more accessible to them via the Internet now than any printed image ever has been. France has many projects under way now devoted to providing the latter access.

An even better example of the effect of digitization on the art world in France is offered by the adventure of one of the Internet's leading Web sites. For a number of years the "WebLouvre" pages of Ecole Centrale student Nicholas Pioch, which offered digital image reproductions of some of the most beautiful works in that museum accompanied by interested textual description and commentary, bore a plaintive banner requesting support in case the giant Louvre Museum continued its harassment of the student through his college headmaster.

The use of the famous name was the issue, in an ingenious application of a new technology of which the giant museum at the time was totally. The scenario now is familiar, having been repeated in countless examples as the Internet has grown: the Louvre found out about the Internet and digitization, and the student's site, decided that it could exploit this new medium itself, and pressured the student through his school to relinquish his claims.

In some cases there is a fight, in others the student already works for the museum or goes to work there as a result of his project -- the hiring of hackers by governments is a variation on this theme -- in Pioch's case there was Parisian "tant pis": his "WebLouvre" became "WebMusée", covering far more now than just that particular Parisian collection, and Pioch himself went on to awards, Internet stardom, and lucrative hi - tech employment, and the Louvre now has its own excellent site.

The general point, for art in France in the age of digitization, is that the new tools are in use -- France is producing interesting things in art as it always has, now using digital techniques as it has used other technical innovations before now -- but the old issues refuse to die. Centralization and totalitarian tendencies, the battle of the independent artist against the official salon, eccentricity versus conventional taste and wisdom, all are very much alive still in the French art world, even in its digital incarnation.

* Preservation

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One of the greatest ironies of the supposed Age of Information is that it may well become responsible for one of the greatest erasures of information which any age ever has known.

There have been deliberate acts of censorship in the past, and accidental cataclysms. The first Chinese Emperor "burned all the books", in one of many misguided attempts throughout history to exert political control by destroying information. The "burning of the Alexandria Library" is one of a similar number of accidental catastrophes which have had the same result -- the current era has a poignant example in the recent photographs of the ruins of the library at Sarajevo.

Few of these information - destroying events, however, have had an impact as great as that posed, in the current era, by the threats which confront the printed text. One recent inventory of the Bibliothèque Nationale estimated that that collection alone contains over 3 million "endangered volumes". Similar figures may be compiled for any other library, in France as elsewhere, and the "danger" counts can be proportionately much worse for unbound printed material in archives, and for newspaper collections.

Long - known perils such as paper acidity, and the molds which the French describe quaintly as "champignons", have been bad enough. Dampness has been a perennial but at least a well - known problem for paper -- from the old BN collections, stored in Right Bank subterranean chambers on an ancient flood plain, to the new Bibliothèque François Mitterrand storage much of which will be below the water - level of the Seine, separated from the river water only be a hopefully - "imperméable" dike. Paris preservationists and conservationists -- and, on many sad occasions, restorers -- have developed sophisticated techniques for dealing with water.

Acid paper is a more intractable preservation problem. The French have been no less or more successful than others with mass "acid bath" deacidification -- the techniques work, but they are unwieldy and expensive, and incremental treatment of isolated volumes is no way to cut into a 3+ million - volume backlog. In the meantime, from this acid paper cause alone, much of the entire corpus of civilization's texts, most of it printed on acid paper from near the beginning of the 19th century to near the end of the 20th, literally disappears before our eyes -- turns yellow, becomes brittle, and crumbles. This deteriorating corpus includes books, government records, newspapers, business correspondence, church records, love letters...

Umberto Eco worries, "...the issue which gives me the greatest anxiety of my life: the conservation of books... I am terrorized by the idea that all the books which have appeared on cellulose paper since the 19th century are destined to disappear because they are so fragile... When I pick up a Gallimard from the 1950s, I have the impression of having in my hands a lamb being burned as a sacrifice... who, what authority will decide which books to retain: Plato and Dante have known their periods of disgrace..." (FYI France ejournal, February 15, 1993).

At least for acid paper the depredations are selective: the loss from this cause will be that of only two centuries, the 19th and 20th, records of an era which a cynical few might argue history will be better off without.

Yet another trend threatens the preservation of printed texts even more, however. Simply the move itself -- the BN proposes to move over 10 million volumes this year, and there is a general trend, among large libraries everywhere now, to build grandiose new buildings and move the volumes around [MelotM] -- poses many dangers.

If the "80/20" rule is to be believed -- that an "active" 20% of the collection supports a "dormant" 80% (for an inventory as large and as old as that of the BN the proportion may be more like "90/10") -- many of the books to be moved will never have been handled since they first were put on the shelf, or at least not for a very long time.

The process of removing an old, never - or seldom - used, book from its shelf, depositing it in a bin or plastic sleeve, loading and unloading, removing, and re - shelving it in its new location is fraught with perils, even if allowance is not made for occasionally dropping it along the way, hopefully onto a dry and even surface.

Digitization is one of the solutions offered to these many perils confronting printed texts in the current Digital Age. The French are experimenting with all of the latest techniques, and have a number of impressive projects to show for their efforts. Among these are "Gallica" -- http://gallica.bnf.fr -- of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and "Enluminures" -- http://www.bm-lyon.fr/ (select "Services en ligne" and scroll down) -- of the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon.

These are "access" projects, designed to bring image treasuries to a broader public via digitization and the Internet. But they also preserve. Digital access could increase user traffic to the site to view the originals, and thus user - handling which could endanger those originals. But even at the site the originals are protected: for a long time the BN has insisted that microfilm copies of Réserve items be used in lieu of the originals, unless a pressing need for viewing the latter can be demonstrated. And at least the digital copy, like a bibliographic record, offers a scholar one additional if occasionally imperfect information source in the event that the original ever is lost.

The real problem for preservation posed by the use of digitization, currently, is one of priorities. It is a problem which is "hidden". There is so much excitement now over digitization, in France as elsewhere, and so much feverish activity particularly in the commercial sector to shift all forms of current and future publication to digital media, that preservation of the past gets left out.

"Ecommerce" alone dominates most strategic thinking in the digitization fields now. The commercial developer of a digital technique -- whether hardware or software or systems -- is far more likely to be thinking about ecommerce applications, in today's "policy" climate, than about historic preservation.

In an era which has cut back or eliminated government arts supports, in France as well as in the US, until someone thinks of ecommerce possibilities for preservation -- possibilities which not only will cost - justify the effort but will outstrip the profit margins of competing digitization opportunities -- historic preservation seems likely to remain sitting on the shelf, to the tragic loss of previously printed paper - based societies in France, the US, and elsewhere.

The trend away from preservation does not appear to be open to change any time soon, moreover. The next candidate after ecommerce, digital entertainment, already is on the horizon: no sooner will developers have dealt with the avalanche of demand for ecommerce applications -- still not concluded, as much remains to be done in areas such as handling online payments, digital watermarking and intellectual property, and online security -- than they will confront an overwhelming flood of new temptations from the giant entertainment industry and its enormous audience. There will be little time or money left over at that point for the preservation of old printed texts.

Someone, somewhere, has to think up incentives which will motivate digitization developers to channel their energies toward preservation. In the current political climate that incentive had better be economic and commercial, as other perhaps more altruistic incentives for the moment carry relatively less weight, and as government -- the traditional fount of support for preservation activities -- currently is much - reduced, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The BN move, for example, gradually -- glacially -- has moved toward the idea of establishing a "collection de sécurité", on real estate which the Etablissement Publique de la Bibliothèque de France acquired early on out in the Paris suburbs, in Marne la Vallée, far from either the Rue Richelieu or Tolbiac, just down the road from Euro Disney. Originally this was to have been the location of only the ateliers de restauration: 50,000 square feet of space were provided, more than ample for restoration activities and some associated storage.

Over the several years leading up to this year's move, however, more and more thought has been given to the over 600,000 square feet of space potentially available on the BnF's Marne la Vallée site. Now the plan is to house there a "collection de sécurité", containing one exemplaire of every item in the BN collection, access to which simply would be unavailable.

The BN never having been an undergraduate lending library, containing multiple copies of the texts in its collection, one wonders what would be left over if "one copy of every text in the collection" truly were to end up there? But then one wonders also whether the users, particularly the French historians who so powerfully have interceded at several stages in the BnF's development, will permit even the "collection de sécurité" truly to be off - limits. The answers to both questions no doubt will not be clear until well after the move is completed.

* Continuing Education -- resources / keeping up

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One outstanding challenge of the digitization "moving target" is the task of keeping track of its development. The information and views presented here will change, as do any other. But in the case of digital techniques they change with a rapidity which has had few parallels among any other technical developments in history.

"Moore's Law" (1965) said that the number of transistors on a microprocessor would double every 18 months. Larry Ellison's recent dictum updates Moore's Law to read that generations in hi - tech development now last less than six months: every half year, in other words, something new comes along now to replace the old, and its commercialization guarantees that it will -- new techniques and information must be taught and mastered, staff must be retrained or replaced, new employment must be sought, new organizational structures must be devised.

This hi - tech time - pressure is madness. Nothing human -- nothing human that is significant -- changes so rapidly. Corporate restructurings and staff retrainings are hard enough to accomplish once in a corporate or personal lifetime, much less on a regular basis, and least of all every six months.

Yet hi - tech -- digitization as its leading component if not the ultimate end of all of it -- currently demands such a process of nearly - continuous rebirth: phoenixes arising out of ashes, regularly, with too few people giving any organized thought to the process which produced the ashes.

Still, how to keep up with the digitization juggernaut, particularly as it rolls along far away, in France? There are techniques: illogically most of them are digital -- anything else will be "out of date" -- the dangers inherent in any technique's relying upon itself exclusively for its own renovation should be obvious, but for now they exist in the case of digitization.

W3 sites and econferences, primarily, are the best resources for updated information - - the one you must remember to go to, the other comes to you -- regular reading of a few very good online resources will get someone familiar, and more importantly keep them familiar, with a fast - changing world like "digitization".

Printed books and even magazines will not: printed book texts are written the year before they appear, researched even earlier -- this places their information five generations back, in Larry Ellison's "6 month" hi - tech world -- printed texts are, for our purposes here and to use the expression which my computer - expert 17 - year - old uses to describe them, "too old".

a) W3 sites

I will recommend three W3 sites here, for keeping up with "digitization" developments in France, both for the excellence of their presentation and for their longevity possibilities. Many other good candidates exist -- in France and elsewhere -- covering events in France specifically in addition to digitization generally. But it is good, still, to get some information from the local source: cyberspace is not a seamless web yet. Also, just as soon as you've found a good W3 site it goes out of business, so often: at least the following three won't --

The French Ministry of Culture not only will be around for a long time -- France will close all of its other ministries before it closes this one -- but it has maintained one of the pioneering and best sites in all of France's W3 adventure. "culture.fr" provides extensive and up to date lists of links to all sorts of activities related to digitization.

The idea that the old BN would evolve into something "leading the way" in digitization would have been laughable to the many critics of the venerability of that institution who lampooned it in the past. From Daumier to Umberto Eco, BN critics -- who have been its greatest lovers as well -- have complained bitterly about how antiquated it always has been. Administrateur Le Roy Ladurie observed wryly, at the dawn of the BN's current "digital" era, that from a technological point of view "We French have been called dinosaurs -- but the dinosaur is a very sympathetic animal, and at least now we will become electronic dinosaurs..." (FYI France ejournal, April 14, 1992).

But now comes one of the better W3 sites available online, certainly one of the best among large libraries, and a "portal" to much of the most interesting developments in digitization in France. The site offers its own giant digitization projects, such as "Gallica", and also coverage of such general text and image "recon / retrospective conversion" discussion and work as is going on now in France. Any librarian needing to stay up to date with the profession in France needs to visit "bnf.fr" regularly, but so does anyone interested in digitization in France generally, as the BnF has become a national leader in the effort.

As a "portal", though, a third source of current information needs to be added to "culture.fr" and "bnf.fr" -- a source which invented the "portal" concept itself. Yahoo has pioneered the concept of "one - stop - shopping on the Web", an idea much appreciated by any librarian and now increasingly by users who have "voted with their feet" to make Yahoo an enormous and fast - growing enterprise and so far the leading "portal" on the Web.

Yahoo added a site in France early in its development -- mercifully, for French users, structured and supported in the local national language, unlike so much of the rest of Cyberspace. They "mine" the Internet, regularly and efficiently, for specifically French sites -- their rules are that a site must be mounted in French -- so that someone in need of narrowing down a search on "digitization" to French resources most easily can begin with "yahoo.fr".

As the general Yahoo enterprise grows, and adds new features, these gradually are added to the "national Yahoos" as well. Soon for example, hopefully, "yahoo.fr" will support the "My Yahoo!" feature which allows a user to tailor a personal "portal" page for her password - enabled use: news, daily searches, links to "digitization" sites, all of or concerning France, all "one - stop - shopping for information" with a vengeance...

But then librarians already know about all of this, at least in principle -- it's just the old "SDI / Selective Dissemination of Information", given a less - indecent name and gone digital -- the French term is "réinventer la roue..."

b) Electronic Conferences

More valuable than any information resource to which a user must go, though -- particularly in the era of "information overload" -- is a resource which will come to the user. This is only the greatest among the many advantages of a well - disciplined, topic - drift - sensitive, broadly - based electronic conference, particularly to a busy professional user.

It also helps, immeasurably, if the econference is supported by a good, complete, easily - searched online archive: one plugs in the particular term sought -- "digitization" -- and reads along at one's own speed, instead of wading through extraneous messages on tangential or irrelevant topics. (This last is not always an advantage: serendipitous reading -- "browsing" -- is one of the great losses in successful machine - assisted information retrieval -- the loss one of many sacrifices being made to the "soundbyte" and superficial culture of which digitization too often can become a part.)

Biblio-fr is an econference which offers all of the advantages just listed. Full instructions, archive, and access all are available at,


There are many good econferences in France -- too many, as there are elsewhere. Biblio-fr's ultimate advantage for purposes here is that it is composed primarily of French librarians -- over 2500 of them, at latest count -- people who remember what SDI was, and what its possibilities and problems were...

* Commentary

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There is a logical problem in "keeping up" with digital techniques exclusively by using digital techniques: self - fulfilling prophecies -- "never ask the barber if you need a haircut" -- a researcher who looks for confirmation of the successes of digitization purely among digital resources always will find it.

France, however, specializes in controversy and commentary, and this has been forthcoming throughout the development of digitization. A growing number of French journalists -- and book writers and satirists and cartoonists and artists -- are paying attention to digitization, with trenchant criticisms and occasionally savage commentary, "from the outside", writing as French writers always have from an informed but detached and sometimes deliciously clever point of view.

As one wades through the verbiage of the "true believers", the people encountered online and in the digital community in France most of whom believe that digitization will save the world, it is refreshing and even necessary to read what the sceptics say, and French writers always include a fair number of sceptics.

In the online version of the current text a "short list" will be presented, showing one reader's selection among the vast and growing number of authors in France writing about digitization today, and hopefully a bit of bibliography and even live links where those exist. My own current favorites include Pierre Lévy [LevyP], Elie Cohen [CohenE], Michel Serres [SerresM], Simon Nora [NoraS], Alain Minc [MincA], Pierre Nora [NoraP], even a writer named Régis Debray [DebrayR] -- others will have other candidates.

The general point, though, is that to understand digitization, anywhere, one must understand it in its cultural context. In none of the arenas mentioned above has digitization thus far resolved, or even disturbed, any of the very old and very general cultural questions which preceded it -- it is only a technique, albeit a superb and magnificent one, and it only helps in the resolution of basic questions without easily resolving any of them.

In France the cultural context is French: appreciating digitization in France requires an understanding of questions and problems there which are very non - digital, some of which are very old. French writers who look at these most general problems provide a very useful supplement -- perhaps the most useful basic text -- to any study of a question as narrowly technological, ultimately, as digitization still is.

* Chronology

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It might be interesting and useful, finally, to present a chronology of the development of digital techniques in France. "Digitization" too often is treated as a phenomenon lacking a history. It may be young. But even something young can look back upon a learning curve, to successes achieved and errors made, at least in the hope that the latter will not be repeated. "Push technology" could learn from "SDI", "browsers" could learn from "Minitel"...

The neglect of history in current digitization developments -- "information overload" to users who remember the burdens of "SDI", "browser" interface design decidedly less "user - friendly" to the general public than the Minitel was, the examples could be multiplied -- may be the result of nothing more than the enormous pressures of digitization's current growth curve. People in hi - tech are too busy to think about the past. They remember the old English poet's observation,

while they repeat some of the mistakes of that past. At the very least, some competitor may come along who will take advantage of their ignorance...

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M. Eiffel

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Last update: November 29, 2007