Europeana: European Babel Takes on Google Empire

By March 12, 2007

A common cultural identity for Europe? Europeana, the European Digital Library (EDL), wants to collect a vast number of European scientific and cultural works and make the collection available for free at a single site with 2 mill

ion documents by 2008 and 6 million by 2010 (source: Bibliothèque Nationale de France). The project began to take shape back in 2005 in reaction to Google’s plans to digitize millions of works then charge fees to access them. Long in Web limbo, the European Digital Library could soon become a reality, at least in France. Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF), the country’s representative on the project, has announced a March launch for the French EDL interface. Does Google Book Search finally have cause to worry? Backstory of a long gestation Google’s December 2004 announcement that it was launching Google Print elicited a reaction in Europe, namely fears that culture would be redefined through an Anglo-Saxon prism and deformed. In the January 23-24, 2005 issue of Le Monde, BNF President Jean-Noël Jeanneney published the article Quand Google défie l'Europe. He wrote this op-ed piece to wake up Europe, fight for preservation of the universal and inalienable right of access to knowledge, lay digital claim to the BNF collection, and organize European access to culture. His appeal was heeded. In 2005, Jacques Chirac and the heads of state of Germany, Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Poland instigated a movement to digitize works held in European collections. Twenty-three national libraries throughout Europe joined BNF in signing the motion that it initiated. In September 2005 the European Commission took action, soliciting public comment and publishing i2010: Digital Libraries, an analysis of the stakes raised by the Internet in building a European cultural heritage. In a March 2, 2006 press release, the European Commission stated that Europe’s collective memory would be “put on the Web via a European Digital Library” using the TEL (The European Library) infrastructure, a platform that provides access to the catalog of every national library in Europe. The digital library is finally becoming a reality! As French Minister of Culture Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres announced on January 23 in his review of digital cultural projects underway (in French), the EDL project is, after a long delay, “now entering its operational phase. BNF is putting the finishing touches on the beta version of the French building block of the EDL. The official launch—with access to 10,000 documents—is to happen in March, timed to coincide with the Salon du Livre book trade show. By the end of November 2007, 30,000 works should be available. From that point forward, another 100,000 are to be added to the online collection every year until the number reaches 500,000. Progress is less concrete in the rest of Europe, but 19 national libraries have already made their digital collections available through the TEL site, and the 45 member libraries of the Conference of European National Librarians (CNEL) are expected to join the project over the next five years (source: BNF). Europeana versus Google Book Search: free or fee? Isn’t this first version of the EDL, which upholds the original aim of the project to make the cultural and scientific heritage of Europe available to all citizens, a lot like the well-known founding objective of Google to make information available to all? For those involved in the European project, the answer is clear: Google Book is perceived as offering a non-hierarchical search method based on a non-transparent algorithm. On its website, the BNF asserts in the FAQ "La bibliothèque numérique européenne en seize questions" that the EDL will be a coordinated and organized collection of documents, including full text, that can be accessed through multiple search methods including by subject or various attributes. But the main difference resides in the fact that the new institution, a nonprofit, will make this information available to everyone free of charge. In addition to providing documents in the public domain, BNF and its partners are working on legal and technical solutions for offering access to copyrighted contemporary works. In contrast, Google Book Search, long accused of violating intellectual property rights, has faced litigation in France as well as in North America. Now the search engine is offering limited access to copyrighted content. For web users who want to read more, Google provides links to commercial sites where they can buy the work in question. With a view to universal access, the EDL has, for French, just signed a partnership with France Telecom. The operator will provide technological and financial assistance and France Telecom subscribers will get cell-phone access to the digital collection. Meanwhile, Fondation Orange also plans to provide assistance so that the visually and hearing impaired can access the EDL as well. Knowledge for everyone just a click away! But will this philanthropic aim highlighted by the EDL be enough to give it an edge? Aside from the clear lack of coordination that has delayed this ambitious project, the digital documents offered thus far have only to do with Europe, potentially attracting only a limited audience. Google, meanwhile, like a big supermarket, offers access to all forms of literature, from manuscripts in Catalan to just-released novels.  

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