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Last Updated: Friday, 24 June, 2005, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
French answer to Google library
David Reid
By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click Online

The French, concerned that the internet is in danger of becoming the exclusive preserve of the English language, are responding to Google's project to put 15 million books and documents online with their own French version. David Reid finds out about Gallica.

La Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Origins in the 15th century
Receives copies of all printed French works
Collection now includes more than 12 million books and manuscripts, 500,000 periodicals, 800,000 medals and coins, and 650,000 maps and prints
The French are far from relaxed about their creative treasures, and especially the contents of La Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF), their National Library.

It is an asset that France's rulers believe is under-represented on the internet.

With the Google Print project planning to put 4.5 billion pages of English onto the web, France has decided to do something similar with French, though on a smaller scale.

In fact, France started digitalising parts of its national collection as long as 13 years ago, and in 1997 they began to put this collection online.

Catherine Lupovici, head of the digital library department at the BNF, says: "It was a project with the new library to create a network that would be available for scholars, representing an encyclopaedic French library of French culture."

The project they call Gallica has already put some 80,000 works and 70,000 images online, and it is currently working its way through the BNF's basement of 19th century newspapers.

But it is a long way off from the scope of Google Print, which has got those at the top of the BNF wondering how France can respond to what they see as a cultural challenge from across the pond.


Jean-Noël Jeanneney, director of the BNF, believes it is only natural that Google Print should present an Anglo-Saxon or American view of history and the world.

Jean-Noël Jeanneney, director of the BNF
Culture is not chaos. Culture is a way of putting things together
Jean-Noël Jeanneney, director of the BNF
"I have no reproach; this is normal", he says. "But this will require a counterpart on our side of the ocean."

This counterpart, or counter-attack, to what the French press calls "omnigooglisation", would be organised on a different basis to Google.

Rather than using Google's famous algorithm, Mr Jeanneney proposes a panel of experts to rank works.

He says: "I am not confident in the power of the market, when it works along profit-making alone, to organise the best page-ranking or hierarchy of knowledge.

"I think this is dangerous. Culture is not chaos. Culture is a way of putting things together. A book helps to know another book and to understand it."

One book helping another book is similar to the way Google's page ranking works.

There, one page helps another. Pages are ranked according to the number of other pages that are linked to them or from them. Throw out a search term and it is more than likely that a homepage, with all its links to and from, will float to the top of your list of results.

It means that while Google's results are certainly relevant they are also influenced by a form of popularity, something that might not work for the obscure subject matters and bibliographies of the BNF's collection.

Shared goals

Mats Sarduner, the director of Google France, says: "We find it an excellent idea because it is about making sure that there is a representation of the cultural diversity on the web and we do the same, we want the diversity to be there.

Gallica is not the first example of French cultural pride
"Their principle is to gather a committee of experts. We do it differently. It is more about technology and algorithm, but the result will be the same, so we have the same goal."

There is nothing new in France's ruling elite treating its culture as if it is an endangered species. Indeed, there are already laws and subsidies to protect the country's film industry.

While this looks like it could be more of the same, the BNF says it has not ruled out being part of Google once its own print project is set up.

Google is the first port of call for 74% of French people doing a web search. If the BNF's aim is not just to preserve but also to proliferate French culture, they may well choose to go with Google.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

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