Jean-Noël Jeanneney: Google–And the Myth of Universal Knowledge

I happened to come across Jean-Noël Jeanneney’s book Google–And the Myth of Universal Knowledge (A view from Europe) (The University of Chicago Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0-226-39577-7) at work in the library. The little book is fascinating and polemic, and i will now publish some notes about it. I’m writing in english, because the topic is of global (or at least pan-European) nature.

Jeanneney might prefer me to write in my native finnish instead and then have this post translated to all the 27 or so  languages officially represented of the European Union. However i am not going to do that. The book itself, whose subject-matter is Google and most specifically Google Book Search, also talks about languages. At time of publishing, Jeanneney was the president of the national library of France and also apparently a true francophone; Bibliothèque nationale de France is not translated in the book, nor is la francophile. Telltale signs of the french 😉 Am i barking the wrong tree, and should be blaming the translator Teresa Lavender Fagan instead? Next time i will write a book, i’ll demand my use of the finnish terms suomen kieli and Kansalliskirjasto not be translated to any other language. Fagan herself notes that “as in any rousing eighteenth-century pamphlet, the question raised are stimulating and controversial, and answers rarely obvious and never easy.” And a pamphlet this 92 -page book truly is.

The book is based on his article “Quand Google défie l’Europe”, published in La Monde in April 2005.

Jeanneney’s text is a wake-up call for Europeans, and indeed to all the people of the world to take heed of Google’s announcement on December 2004 of their Google Library, later renamed Google Book Search. As we all now know, the big G. claimed to digitize 15 million books from collections of several associate academic libraries in the USA and have them organized and available to the public. Books that are have fallen (i personally prefer “risen”) out of copyright to the public domain (pre circa 1920) would be available in full, and snippets of the works still in copyright would be made accessible. Such bold announcement caught the attention of the world, and for a good reason! According to his own words, Jeanneney both started and kept nurturing the discussion and critique of the new Google product. I don’t want to comment on his actual role in the discourse, but Jeanneney sure is not the most modest of writers, i must say.

Jeanneney writes as a librarian, a shepherd of Enlightenment, a frenchman, a francophile, a nationalist and as a proponent of the European Union and pan-european cultural cooperation. He doesn’t try to hide his support for creating and fostering a mythical Great Story of Europe. This interest is inherent in the the very idea of all national libraries, the idea of which is rooted in the French Revolution in the late 18th century.

The selection of source material for Google’s digitalization efforts is of great concern to Jeanneney. Consisting of works published primarily in the english language, combined with Google’s biased search algorighms, the threat of USA’s hegemony to Europe’s precious cultural diversity is getting ever stronger. This is common cultural-imperialist rhetorics, popping up sooner than later when any group of people from outside the USA meet. To counter this, Jeanneney proposes all the nations and cultural institutions of Europe to join their forces by build a common resource of digitized materials.  Not only books are to be included, but also images, sound-recordings and movies too. Since the writing of Google–And the Myth of Universal Knowledge, such a gargantuan project has indeed been initiated and is now being worked on all around the European Union. This is to become  Europeana.

Unlike the Google product guided by commercial interests and market logic making the best known sites ever more popular and suppressing startups and the marginal, Jeanneney writes that this pan-european response must be run on democratic principles. It is to be guided by academics and the public sector, with the associates from private sector kept on a tight leash. Quality, preservation and continuation of this grand project is guaranteed by well-informed public officials in Brussels and elsewhere. Such a resource is built for the benefit of europeans and the human race in general, not some anonymous shareholders. This, according to Jeanneney, reflects the difference between the market-driven USA and Europe, republic in nature.

On selection for inclusion in the European digital library:

In practical terms, what criteria will govern the decision to digitize certain works? With respect to the vast legacy of works now in the public domain, that is, those published before 1923 in the United States (1930 in France), we at the Bibliothèque nationale think we should favor the great founding texts of our civilization, drawing from each of our countries; encyclopedias; journals of scholarly societies; major writings that have contributed to the rise of democracy, to human rights, and to the recent unification of the Continent; writings that have fostered the development of literary, scientific, legal, and economic knowledge, as well as artistic creation… (Two Facets of the Same Aspiration, p. 78)

The selection is material to digitalize will, in Jeanneney’s opinion, be made by national, scholarly councils overseed from Brussels. Their delegates form a pan-European agency,

[which] will no doubt be guided and inspired by the age of humanism and of the Enlightenment; this should protect it from any skepticism or discouragement. (What Structure? What Budget?, p. 81)

By now it is evident that Jeanneney’s book is highly polemic and he author is not afraid to be openly political. This is a very welcome in the library discourse, which at least in Finland is always very cautious, even apolitical. References to the unfortunate rejection of constitution of EU, and even to USA’s infamous warmongering in Iraq are made, and more importantly the effect such actions have had on relations between USA and EU and it’s member states. Jeanneney seems to be a proud european, who doesn’t hesitate to give USA a healthy bashing when opportunity appears 🙂

The text is soljuva and mukaansatempaava (the ever-ignorant french use their own adjectives, i’m doing that too). Even in such compact style some very interesting observations are included: Google was initially funded by Stanford University Library, National Science Foundation (NSF), micropayment needs to be developed to get in-copyright publications on-line, and that the book is the only medium that has always remained (almost) free of advertisements. The latter is about to change with Google Book Search, as Jeanneney points out.

Also some historical cases of protectionism are presented in the book. The french movie industry was supported, subsidised and eventually saved after the World War II from the invasion of movies from USA by methods that are out of the question now (btw. i’m avoiding the term “american”, since most of America exists outside of the U.S.A.; not all states of America are united as we all know). In 1948 France adopted an annual quota of 121 foreign movies, such measures are out of the question on the net. Just look at how China or othet regimes are combating cultural imperialism… not at all fashionable, now is it. Not from our perspective anyway.

Passages like this are sure to raise ones brow:

We Europeans are a republic. Only the foundation of popular involvement will ensure success. When a civilization believes in itself, it has a duty to invent the means to survive and to widen its circle of influence. It performs it’s duty better if it fully understands what is at stake. (p. 86)

Some of the blatant library-elistism goes like this:

Let’s consider the way a reader might use a traditional library, in which he or she is at liberty to wander around. The library’s organizing principle is seen in the way the books are arranged on the shelves, an arrangement that strongly influences what the reader might find. Imagination is not inhibited but stimilated. The project, the reader’s questions and hypotheses, engage in a productive dialogue with books grouped earlier by others, following well thought-out and long-matured principles These principles are, of course, always somewhat arbitrary; their development is necessarily outdated; their justification is temporary, in the endless flow of knowledge; but they result from an attentative thought process, and above all are explicit and well grounded.

And this is exactly the sort of system that should be transposed onto a virtual library, whatever it might be. Hasty classification of a list, following obscure criteria of classification, must be replaced by a whole range of modes, classification modes for responses and presentation modes for results, to allow for many different uses. (Disorganized Bulk–an Absolute Danger, p. 71-72)

The very idea of a dynamic hypermedia network, where the material itself defines and weaves itself to whatever context it sees suitable, is altogether discarded. Jeanneney wants to put material on the internet into a cataloguing system developed by librarians. He seems to fantasize about some sort of a World Wide Catalogue to replace World Wide Web. If the internet is ever to be re-arranged by librarians, i hope to die that very same day!! What a horrible destiny gasp!

As ever so often among librarians, the role of Google is at the center. Google is seen to have a dominating effect on what material people have access to. Sometimes you even come across statements, that Google has the defining monopoly what information people will or will not see. Though i do agree to a limited extend, this google-trauma of librarians always omits the whole existence of the most fundamental feature of the web: the hyperlink.

All-in-all the book is a praise of Europe, and also that of the European bureocratic system. The belief in need for regulation and state control over the markets comes out strongly in the text, and of course we’ve heard all about it during these turbulent times, bank crisis and regression. The author optimistically sees the Google Book Search as an incentive get Europe’s act together and organize co-operation of cultural institutions to promote european culture. The first steps that led to the political will to really form such a project are described in the beginning of the books.

I urge anyone interested in libraries, digital libraries, cultural politics, Google, Google Book Search or Europeana to read Jean-Noël’s book.

One last quote for you to ponder:

The Internet is a world of decentralized networks and we should take advantage of that. But those networks are formed according to guiding principles that governments must encourage, influence, and regulate. Flexibility, reactiveness, freedom of imagination are creation are indispensible, but so are validation and oversight for the collective interest. The libertarian spirit that appeared intrinsic to the Internet in the beginning seems to be stepping back in favor of a better balance.

Some more links to take a look at the book: at Helsinki ”Metropolitan” libraries, Google Book Search, LibraryThing, Amazon. This is also a good for opportunity for you to compare the usefulness of library webservices to other services on the book metadata-market :\