Despite fierce resistance to Google’s plans to digitize the world’s books, observers say it is well placed to start scanning Europe’s cultural treasures — beginning in France, where the US giant got a digital foothold this week.
The Internet search giant last Monday began peeling open the pages of half a million books from the grand Municipal Library of Lyon and is contracted to scan them within 10 years, library director Patrick Bazin said.
French authorities have given mixed messages over the prospect of a similar deal to scan national holdings. They have vowed to protect France’s heritage from private interests but never openly ruled out a project with Google.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy last Monday said the government would spend 750 million euros (US$1.07 billion) to digitally scan “the content of our museums, our libraries and our cinematographic heritage” via a public-private partnership.
Sarkozy did not say who the private partner might be.
But observers say there is no one as well-positioned as Google for such a project — a big part of which would be scanning books from France’s National Library (BNF) so they could be consulted online.
“In my opinion, the National Library of France will probably accept to work with Google,” which would make it the first national library to do so, said Olivier Ertzscheid, an Internet and communications expert at Nantes University.
“France recognizes the importance of digitization and bit by bit is releasing extra funding,” he said. “But that will not allow it to rival the power and the economic and financial clout of Google, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile European countries have started their own projects to rival Google in scanning books — the EU site Europeana and the BNF’s Gallica offer portals to view old works scanned online.
Francis Balle, a media and internet expert at Paris University, wrote recently that “none of these projects, however promising it is, today constitutes an alternative to the Californian giant.”
“The only ones that will survive are those that refuse to be closed shops and don’t shut themselves off from the Google network,” he said.
The Lyon library — whose books are municipal and not national property — made a call for offers for the digitization project in 2006, Bazin said, but the US company was the only one to come up with a formal bid.
Microsoft and France Telecom had shown an interest but did not follow through with a proposal, he said, adding that Google offered “an excellent solution.”
Google last Monday began working through 500,000 of the library’s works at a location near Lyon — where the library can easily check on the work — hand-scanning each page of the delicate volumes individually, Bazin said.
The antique books include a 16th-century edition of predictions by Nostradamus, Isaac Newton’s 17th-century scientific treatise Principia and a work by the French humourist Rabelais from the same period.
Under the contract, the Lyon library will use the digital images of its books for its own purposes but notably cedes to Google the right to exploit them commercially for 25 years. Google in return scans the books for free.
The US company has been less welcome elsewhere in France, where digitization has become bound up with the sensitive issue of protecting French cultural and intellectual property.