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Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View from Europe Hardcover – November 1, 2006

3.8 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* From Europe's point of view, Google's proposal to digitize the contents of America's leading libraries raises questions beyond the copyright issues that presently beleaguer the project. This brief salvo from the president of France's Bibliotheque Nationale challenges directly Google's assertion that its venture offers a source of universal knowledge. Jeanneney finds such a claim spurious and utopian. For by the very nature of the library collections that Google proposes to put online, American and British works will dominate, leaving behind that portion of the world's hundred million books not in English. Moreover, the character of digital search engines necessarily ranks results according to algorithms that reflect prejudices that lack universal validity. This quarrel is at least as ancient within librarianship as card catalogs. Jeanneney believes that Google's retrievals as presently constituted pass to the reader the merely noetic, not truly the intelligent, insightful, thoughtful, and genuinely helpful information implied by the notion of universal knowledge. Google's commercial status also troubles Jeanneney, for the commoditization of information by a single corporation inevitably subjects it to sale and to control by a less-benign owner. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


“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

(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."

(Carlin Romano Philadelphia Inquirer)

“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.”

(David Ng Forbes)

"Whether Google maintains its hegemony in the realm of book digitization or in fact a robust non-Anglo-American challenger emerges to contest it, designers of the next big digital library will benefit from a careful reading of the big objections of this slim volume."
(Henry Lowood Technology and Culture)

"A work that not only addresses a critical issue but articulates practical proposals that can, and should, command the attention of cultural policy-makers and decision-makers everywhere. It is also essential reading for the wider public. The issue is about which principles . . . should guide the processes of digitising the world's literary heritage."
(Colin Nettelbeck Australian Book Review)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 96 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (November 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226395774
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226395777
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,706,055 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Clifford Anderson on December 17, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Jean-Noël Jeanneney, the president of the National Library of France, sounds a clarion call to his fellow Europeans: organize a large-scale, Europe-wide digitization project or risk ceding the dissemination of Europe's cultural heritage to the whim of an American corporation. He argues not so much against the globalization of knowledge per se but more against what he considers Google's incomplete form of globalization, which inevitably favors Anglo-American cultural products above the rest of the world's. The alternative Jeanneney proposes relies primarily on public funding; although he does not exclude the participation of the private sector, he would like to see the European response to Google emerge from carefully crafted agreements between national libraries and other cultural institutions.

Jeanneney comes across as a savvy politician who knows how to organize European-wide initiatives. He puts together a long list of all the national and European agencies he thinks should become involved in the project. The number of people from different agencies and industries and nations who need to be consulted contrasts sharply with Google's straight-forward plan to get started. I guess a lot depends on whether you think good ideas emerge more frequently from garages in Silicon Valley or meeting parlors in Brussels. Pragmatists like William James and John Dewey taught Americans to exercise healthy skepticism against affording "experts" in any field of knowledge an undue level of influence. The democratization of knowledge should generally decrease the cultural weight of the elite, who tend to privilege their social situation more than they let on. Is the danger of political elitism not as serious as that of economic plebeianism?
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Format: Hardcover
This book gets five stars because of the way it so clearly expresses it's point of view.

M. Jeanneney has written this book as a tirade against Google publishing books on line. He seems to have three main arguments:

1. Google is digitizing books that are in English.

2. It is being done in America.

3. It's being done by a private company.

Taking the last point first, on Page 15 he says: 'A collection (of digitized books) whose permanence will be guaranteed over the long tern, as only public institutions can promise and ensure.' And on Page 62 he talks about what might happen if Google goes bankrupt. This is a good socialist view. But I find myself thinking that France capitulated to the Germans in World War II. Does he really think that the Germans would have left the collection in place if it contained the books that they had publicly burned not so long before? Does he think that the mainland Chinese would be good custodians of books written in Taiwan? Or that the Muslims who burned the Great Library of Alexandria would protect Jewish literature?

The book seems to make the assumption that thee are two alternatives, turn everything over to Google, or create a Government Agency to do everythign. This is not, however the situation. There are no standards of on line books digitization. Project Gutenberg does it one way, Google does it another, as does the University of Michigan and many others. There are (as of today) almost 50,000 entries in the Books-On-Line 'Card Catalog' of on-line publications.

Meanwhile, M. Jeanneney is forming committees, planning to set up a digital library, wanting to do a new search engine more suited for literature, and writing books. Meanwhile, others are skipping the committees and digitizing away.
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Format: Paperback
This is a book that I happened across while perusing the new books area at the library. Small, at only 92 pages, this is a book that you should read.

Jean-Noel Jeanneney is president of the Bibliotheque nationale de France, professor at the Institut d'etudes politique de Paris, past executive director of Radio-France and Radio-France International, and has also worked for the government of President Francois Mitterrrand as secretary of state for foreign trade and secretary of state for communications. I tell you this, as it is important to know Mr. Jeanneney's background. Especially as this book concerns Google Books. Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge takes a European look at the efforts of Google to digitize the world's books. There are two points to this, right off the bat. First, this book was translated from French. According to the author, very few books are translated into English (the major exceptions are the "classics"). Second, this is a thought provoking book from a totally different viewpoint. I think that we take Google for granted but Jeanneney does not. He talks about how Google's efforts are primarily with English speaking countries, that important works from European countries will be overlooked, and that by providing the search, you will lose important context. All very valid arguments.

Many people will disagree with his position, especially since the digitization is currently underway (and because he is French), but this is an excellent book examining the thought processes of librarians. They really want to get their information out to more people, and Google Books is one such avenue. However, Jeanneney raises important questions and shows the cultural issues surrounding Google's efforts.
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