Lyon’s 400,000 Library Books Going Online

Back in July 2008 when Lyon’s local library forged a deal with Google to digitize its entire book collection, the outcry from French intellectuals served again to highlight the schizophrenia underlying Franco-American relations.

Lyon has beaten the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in getting its collection online thanks to Google (Credit: Wikipedia)

France, which in 1789 took inspiration from American constitutional ideals,  is a country that in equal measure obsessively delights in and detests the United States.  So it was no surprise then when French concerns were summed up by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, a contemporary historian, former president of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (2002-2007), founder of Gallica and the European digital library Europeana  in a pamphlet entitled: When Google defies Europe, Quand Google défie l’Europe.

He wrote at the time “Le moteur de recherche Google est une réussite universelle et il rend bien des services. Mais lui confier, et à lui seul, qui vit du profit de la publicité et est enraciné, en dépit de l’universalité de son propos, dans la culture américaine, la responsabilité du choix des livres, la maîtrise planétaire de leur forme numérisée, et la quasi-exclusivité de leur indexation sur la Toile, le tout étant au service, direct ou indirect, de ses seuls gains d’entreprise, voilà bien qui n’était pas supportable.” “Google’s search engine is a universal success and certainly makes life easier. But to entrust to Google and Google alone –an organisation that lives off advertising and, despite the universality of its propositions, is rooted in U.S. culture — responsibility for selecting the books (to be digitized), global control of their digitized shape, and the almost exclusive indexing of these works on the Web, all in the service, directly or indirectly, of its own business model and profit, is clearly not a sustainable proposition”.

A Rue 89 report says the Lyon/Google agreement was described in various reports at the time as a “Faustian bargain”, one that would “undermine the French cultural exception” or open the door to “documentary eugenics“. In Lyon one councillor Etienne Tête expressed alarm that “Lyon’s library heritage could become owned by Google”. (In fact, as the books are in the public domain and their content is freely available the digital version of the books cannot in effect be privatized particularly as the originals are the property of BML-Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon). As for exclusivity regarding the digital versions the arguments tend to focus on the fact that for 25 years after the digital versions have been delivered BML will not be able to commercialize the files. But the library points out there is no barrier to building non-commercial public partnerships to make them available, a fact confirmed by Google in a letter to the Lyon council in November 2009, after it was tackled about the exclusivity clause.

Controversy and cultural imperatives aside today as Lyon’s Bibliothèque Municipale proudly prepares to bring the contents of its stacks, reserves and shelves online for the world to access — a total of 400,000 books by 2015 — those so quick to criticise have sheepishly climbed down.

Indeed the move is now hailed as a success for cultural policy and many voices heap praise for his daring on Patrick Bazin, currently director at BPI, Bibliothèque Publique d’Information de Centre Pompidou and who in his earlier post as director of the Lyon Library negotiated the deal.

So what is the main reason for the climb-down? Opponents and supporters alike agree that in these times of The Great Global Recession the state simply does not have funding available for a project which Google’s Library Project, also known as Google Books has embarked on globally and on a massive scale — the aim being to scan the world’s 130 million unique books.

Jean-Noël Jeanneney (former president of BNF) was highly critical of a cultural ‘sell-out’ to Google. (Credit: Wikipedia)

So it came to pass that for the first time in Europe “the largest digital library in the EU” is headed online as almost the entire printed collection of Lyon’s city library is made available via the Internet – thanks to Google.

More than five years after it contracted the US search engine giant to digitalize its library collection Lyon has launched its Numelyo digital library currently with some 200,000 items online.

At the outset just 432 books were digitalized by Google but Eboli Gilles, Director of Lyon Municipal Library said that by end 2013 “there will be 60,000 digital books available. This will rise to 200,000 in 2014 and 400,000 in 2015.”

This will make Numelyo the “the most important digital library in Europe.” He added “The contract signed with Google opened a new era, a new paradigm for library use, a revolution in that for the first time in Europe almost all the library’s print collection (all its pre-1920 works) will be available online” .

Lyon deputy mayor for culture Georges Képénékian told Rue 89 “what we are trying to achieve is to make our collections of books accessible to all” something the Utopians of the 19th century dreamed of.

Clearly without Google, this Utopia could never have become a reality.

Last spring, Lyon had planned a symbolic celebration when Google presented the city library with the first delivery of digitized works, more than 250,000 titles – however it subsequently decided this was inadvisable given that France ‘s library of record — BNF – Bibliothèque Nationale de France has to date managed to digitize fewer than 200,000 titles!

However, the Californian giant was not invited to the launch of Numelyo although it was informed that it was taking place. According to Rue 89 this was not because the socialist-dominated local authority was shy about its collaboration with the capitalist giant Google — the Socialist mayor of Lyon, Gérard Collomb became the champion of public/private partnership, to the chagrin of the left wing of his council — rather France’s relations with Google are currently said to be “a little sensitive”.

The Californian giant is, according to municipal sources quoted by Rue 89 currently in a “delicate” situation with French tax authorities; in conflict with French and European media owners (over demands for a share of advertising revenues); and exposed to the hostile public opinion over an alleged lack of transparency.

Thus Lyon now describes its relationship with Google as one between a client and a service provider.

“We pay Google by giving it exclusive commercial rights to the digital files for 25 years,” said the former library director Patrick Bazin.

While back in 2009 the Telerama website published a critical report under the headline Lyon se livre à Google (Lyon caves in to Google) today leading figures in the world of books, including that holy of holies, the BNF – Bibliothèque Nationale de France, now chaired by Bruno Racine, agree that the Lyon library took the right decision in doing its deal with Google.

As Albert Poirot, director of the Bibliothèque nationale universitaire de Strasbourg noted: “It is extraordinary that the authorities have not been able to deploy sufficient resources to do what we all hoped to do: showcase our collections in the online world. Well, the private sector has managed it! Lyon was right to embark on this path. You can see all the benefits that this represents for readers.’

If suspicion remains that Lyon may have been a little too generous in the contract it signed with Google, today it is widely recognised today that the agreement is a priori, a good deal.

On the one hand, by concluding the 60 million euro arrangement (the cost to Google of digitizing the collection) with Lyon library, Google improved its attractiveness to users and advertisers by increasing the number and language diversity of the collections presented on its Google Book Search which “currently offers 22 million books”.

On the other, the Lyon library will at no cost, have at its disposal within ten years, a digital library that would have taken more than 150 years to complete if it had been paid for out of scarce public funding.

Lyon has thus met its public service mission of “making the universal Lyonaise heritage and  knowledge freely available to the greatest number of people” the library says.

Speaking on behalf of Numelyo, Gilles Eboli said: “There were those who spoke of a dispossession of our heritage. On the contrary, it is now more possible than ever to share this with everyone”.

Even the Marc TESSIER report to the Culture Ministry in January 2010: La numérisation du patrimoine écrit, which is concerned with the digitizing of France’s written heritage, came out in support of Lyon’s approach of using a public/private partnership.

Despite this it seems that following the contact with BNL – the 2nd most important French library in terms of the wealth of its heritage collection — Google has no interest in contracting with any other French libraries. So along with 43 other libraries in the world from Harvard and Columbia to Lausanne, Lyon seized a window of opportunity that is now closed.

Indeed libraries are moving on. “On the subject of scanning books, the big bang is over,” says Nicolas Georges, Deputy Director of the Book and Reading at the Ministry of Culture.

Lyon: Roman ruins (Credit: Ana Rey)

Patrick Bazin goes even further: “Today, the issue of digitizing  has moved away from books. It is more related to games, apps, and augmented reality … The real area for reflection is not digital books but rather digital practices. We should probably be thinking now beyond text.’ Increasingly, we can communicate, think, express ourselves in forms other than text we are in the verge of a multi-expressive civilization” says Bazin, a keen futurist.

Detailing Numelyo’s features, Gilles Eboli sought to defuse all criticisms made about Google’s digitizing. Among issues raised have been the “weakness of optical character recognition (OCR)” for some of the older works in the collection: This he says is “a problem that no-one currently is able to overcome.” The charges of poor scanning quality he says have been debunked by BML’s quality control which shows that the “rate of unusable files is low, about 3%.”

He adds that at regular meetings between the libraries involved in the Google project he notes Google’s openness to library suggestions and wish lists.

Numelyo offers users access to a great variety of documents (manuscripts, illuminated texts, regional periodicals, books, etc.) and also invites users to share content. The sharing part of the site, has been particularly successful via its Windows of Knowledge programme and the Rhône-Alpes Photographers (a database of 22 000 images, including 8000 contributions from professional and amateur photographers).

BML plans shortly to make Numelyo content available for Kindle readers and tablets.

SIDEBAR:  Google’s so called delicate difficulties in France

As French News Online reported earlier: French publishers have relaunched a discussion about the republishing of headlines and the first paragraph of articles by Google and other search engines without compensating the provider of the content. Plans to craft a law that allows publishers to charge search engines are back on the table after the German cabinet gave its support last week to a draft law that aims to do precisely that, said the French National Magazine Publishers’ Society (SEPM).

Google has rebutted efforts by governments to force it to share advertising revenues with national media outlets indexed in its vast search engine telling France it will stop linking to French media if the government pursues its planned tax. Google sends millions of hits to French and other online newspapers every day, a major source of page impressions and readers and in turn the main reason advertisers pay for space on their websites. Read more:  and Follow us: @frenchnewsonlin on Twitter

Story: Ken Pottinger

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