By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005 10:45 AM
France's decision to create an online repository of European literature got critical backing from five other European nations this week when the heads of Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Spain joined French President Jacques Chirac in asking for support from the European Union.
European media reported that a letter signed by the leaders asks EU President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to coordinate the effort and, more importantly, cut a check to fund it. The letter comes after the national libraries of 19 European nations agreed to support the plan as well.
"The leaders of the undersigned national libraries wish to support the initiative of Europe's leaders aimed at a large and organised digitisation of the works belonging to our continent's heritage," the heads of the libraries wrote in a statement carried by the Associated Press. "Such a move needs a tight coordination of national ambitions at EU level to decide on the selection of works."
I first wrote about this idea earlier this month. At the time, the plan had what one British writer termed a "distinct Gallic spin," and seemed designed to wage a war of cultural defense against Google, that big, bad American search engine-company that got the jump on Europe by announcing a library indexing project of its own late last year.
Here's the set-up, courtesy of the Agence France-Presse: "Google's plans have rattled the cultural establishment in Paris, raising fears that the French language and ideas could be just sidelined on the worldwide web, which is already dominated by English. ... Chirac has asked Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and France's National Library president Jean-Noel Jeanneney to study how collections in libraries in France and Europe could be put more widely and more rapidly on the internet."
Jeanneney has refused to characterize the move as aggressive or defensive, but this is the same man who said that Google's project "is the confirmation of the risk of crushing American domination in the definition of how future generations conceive the world."
After my first column on this topic appeared online, I was besieged with letters from Francophiles and French citizens who suggested none too gently that I wasn't helping U.S.-Franco relations by calling this a war on Google.
But what else is this? Jeanneney charitably called Google's Print project a "shock" that spurred Europe to action, but anyone who refers to the U.S. influx of entertainment and culture as "crushing American domination" clearly isn't devoting too much attention to "rapprochement." That said, I felt comfortable characterizing the French move as less than friendly. Some American readers with dim views toward the French thought this was my way of confirming the stereotype they have of those mincing, carping and annoying, well... French.
It's time to set the record straight.
What France -- and soon Europe -- is doing is a good thing. To successfully digitize and place online the collected libraries of Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Sweden is no small feat. (Latvia, Portugal, Malta, Cyprus and the UK are still on the fence.) But it is a public works project with the highest goal in mind -- promoting knowledge around the world. We can only benefit by bringing so much invaluable literature online.
That's why it is so strange that the European project was sparked by fear, a misplaced fear at that. France's reaction was based on the fact that Google is an American company. I agree that it is legitimate to worry that Google's interests are not entirely motivated by philanthropy. Yes, Google is doing a great thing by devoting $150 million to working with the Bodleian Library at Oxford as well as the New York Public Library and other repositories, but the company also stands to make a profit based off the ads it serves up when people use the resource (see the middle item on this sample screenshot Google provides on its site). Someone could argue that the online collection of world literature shouldn't be the bait that gets people to sign up for online dating or find great deals on eBay.
But wouldn't Chirac and the other heads of Europe be even more dismayed if the U.S. Library of Congress announced its intent to do what Google is doing? Or announced that it hired Google itself as a government contractor? Imagine the horror of a U.S. government-funded Google insisting on digitizing Marguerite Duras or Andre Malraux. It would make the student riots of 1968 look like Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe."
The fact remains that Google is a company that is based in the United States. That makes it an American company, not an agent of American imperialism. It's quite a stretch to label Google Print as a sinister attempt to finish what America has already started -- the export of the best and worst that we can offer.
Maybe the answer is that we will end up having two online libraries of world literature -- one run by a company that dares to think big and do it unconventionally, and one that is a massive effort by nearly two-dozen countries that figure their subjects, er, taxpayers will gladly foot the bill to preserve knowledge for future generations. Perhaps there's no need for a battle at all, but if this is the way things are going to be, then the only rule ought to be that these online treasure troves be open to everyone, regardless of nationality.
And let's not forget that once this "tempete" in a teapot is over and done with, there's a lot more literature all over the world that we haven't even begun to think of yet. What about South America? Africa? Asia? All those books written in alphabets that many of us can't even read? What will we do then? As always, I'd love to hear your ideas. Maybe Google is listening too.Body Spray and the Teenage Blogger
If you must spend all your time blogging, the least you can do is smell fresh and clean. AdAge.com reported that Procter & Gamble Co. is using blogs for the first time ever to hook more teenaged girls into using its Secret deodorant. Here's the lowdown: "P&G is using Secret Sparkle Body Spray and its range of teeny-bopper-oriented scents to lure entry-level consumers for the segment-leading women's deodorant. To do so, it's using an unusual campaign that includes sampling and iPod giveaways via fast-growing tween fashion mecca Limited Too as well as animated TV ads and... blog marketing."
"The Limited Too effort includes samples for all customers along with a co-branded sweepstakes giving away 300 iPod Shuffles," Ad Age reported, paraphrasing Dave Knox, assistant brand manager at P&G in charge of the project. "The Shuffle is an entry-level product with a value price point, too, making it a natural fit with Sparkle, Mr. Knox said. The body sprays are also integrated into a popular tween online hangout, Neopets.com, as a reward for which girls can redeem the Neopoints they earn. P&G last week launched Secret's first blog-marketing program at SparkleBody-Spray.com."
Knox said that "Girls have started using deodorant younger and younger. ... It used to be 12 or 13 was kind of the entry point, and that's slowly ratcheted down each year. ... If you don't target the consumer in her formative years, you're not going to be relevant through the rest of her life." Hey, man, anything for a free iPod.Low Blow in the Lowlands
Citizens of the Netherlands soon could find themselves paying a new tax targeted at their iPods and other digital music devices. The UK's Register reported that the proposed tax on MP3 players will become law within months, barring intervention from the European Union. "The idea of all levy based legislation is that some form of copyright collections agency collects tax by imposing a surcharge at the point of sale for any storage devices that could possibly be used to store pirated works. This certainly extends to the iPod which has up to 60 GB of storage, and which can store MP3 files," the Register reported. "The charge will be levied against every MP3 player, and is effectively a tax on the MP3 format."
The tax could come to as much as $4.30 per gigabyte, which the Register said could tack on more than $200 to the cost of a high-end iPod -- which already runs as high as $450.
Just in case you wonder where the Register comes down on this topic, be enlightened by this sentence: "Levies are an outmoded and unfair way of rewarding existing monopolies and are only ever put in place to keep ancient publishing copyright agencies in business."
Dutch readers -- if you know more about this than The Register, drop me a line.
Send links and comments to robertDOTmacmillanATwashingtonpost.com.