Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge
A View from Europe
The recent announcement that Google will digitize the holdings of several major libraries sent shock waves through the book industry and academe. Google presented this digital repository as a first step towards a long-dreamed-of universal library, but skeptics were quick to raise a number of concerns about the potential for copyright infringement and unanticipated effects on the business of research and publishing.
Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of France’s Bibliothèque Nationale, here takes aim at what he sees as a far more troubling aspect of Google’s Library Project: its potential to misrepresent—and even damage—the world’s cultural heritage. In this impassioned work, Jeanneney argues that Google’s unsystematic digitization of books from a few partner libraries and its reliance on works written mostly in English constitute acts of selection that can only extend the dominance of American culture abroad. This danger is made evident by a Google book search the author discusses here—one run on Hugo, Cervantes, Dante, and Goethe that resulted in just one non-English edition, and a German translation of Hugo at that. An archive that can so easily slight the masters of European literature—and whose development is driven by commercial interests—cannot provide the foundation for a universal library.
As a leading librarian, Jeanneney remains enthusiastic about the archival potential of the Web. But he argues that the short-term thinking characterized by Google’s digital repository must be countered by long-term planning on the part of cultural and governmental institutions worldwide—a serious effort to create a truly comprehensive library, one based on the politics of inclusion and multiculturalism.
“Jean-Noël Jeanneney is horrified when he imagines how our children might come to see the world: Will future generations think no great books have been written in a language other than English? And even worse: Will they see history only through American eyes?
The president of the French national library has made himself the frontman in what he sees as a struggle to save cultural diversity. In the postmodern world, the battleground is the internet. Here, search engines determine what tomorrow's generations will click on, learn and think.”--Financial Times
"A take on world Googleization you're not likely to get from your broker. . . . [Jeanneney] brings his own high-wattage bulb to enlighten us. Be thankful we didn't ban French fries, French wine, and this very illuminating French book."
“Provides a crucial dissenting opinion. . . . The Google war chest has all but secured dominance over smaller library efforts, like the author’s own project to digitize the French national collection. History judges societies by how they treat their most disadvantaged members. This book asks only that the Google economy be held to the same standard.”