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LA CHATRE, France (Reuters) - Amid the flat, wide fields of central France, a team of re-trained secretaries and IT experts is packaging Europe's literary heritage for the digital era.
Put less grandly, they turn pages for a living.
The company they work for, Safig, is one of the few European firms to digitize books, using automatic and human page-turners. That places them right at the center of France's plan for a massive online library, and its attempts to negotiate a digital books deal with U.S. internet giant Google.
"We are in a politically sensitive period," said project leader Christophe Danna, referring to that process. "Whatever the outcome is, it will determine the future of the books market," he told Reuters as he stood against a backdrop of quietly humming scanners and paper-shuffling robotic arms.
Fans of France's 750 million euro ($1 billion) scheme to digitize its libraries and museums see it as a union of cultural pride and industrial strategy -- Bruno Racine, head of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, is also a strategic advisor to NATO, the military alliance.
Skeptics point out that Google's 10 million digitized books dwarf any French effort so far, such as Safig's three-year contract to scan 300,000 books for the Bibliotheque Nationale.
One possible outcome is a compromise with Google that would accelerate mass digitization.
"This is a bit like a factory. We don't make cars, but there's a strong parallel," Danna said. Safig is paid per page, regardless of whether it is scanning a bodice-ripping classic or "Belgian Legislation on Professional Unions", a yellowing tome awaiting digitization here.
Some analysts see a second parallel: just as in the car industry, France has been accused of protectionism and belligerence toward foreign firms as it re-shapes its 4 billion euro book publishing market.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed France won't let itself be "stripped" of its literary treasures; intellectuals have criticized one library, in Lyon, for signing a "Faustian pact" to digitize books with Google.
Many French feel Moliere's plays and Baudelaire's poems are even more of a national treasure than the auto industry, and that the state is right to give them particular attention.
Robert Darnton, director of the University Library at Harvard, even wants the United States to take France as a model.
"The technology is there and maybe the money is there to truly recreate the Republic of Letters," he told reporters on the sidelines of a conference in Paris.
"The state should support the cost of digitizing what they call the 'patrimoine', our holdings that belong to the whole nation," he added.
France has said it is ready to talk to Google over a joint project, but wants to extract far more generous terms than other partners -- for example, through a free book swap.
That stance marks a shift in attitude following the departure of Jean-Noel Jeanneney as director of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in 2007. Jeanneney was a fierce Google critic and even wrote a book attacking the company's book project as a threat to non-Anglophone culture.
Under the deal, the Bibliotheque Nationale could let Google use the digitized books and in return would have free access to Google's far bigger collection.
"We welcome the spirit of the proposal," Google spokesman Simon Morrison said. "We are happy to talk."
The issue has gathered urgency with interest in digitization exploding over the past year. As electronic readers gain popularity, books are set to become the next sector to be caught up by the online revolution after music and film.
Technology research company Forrester estimates sales of e-readers in the United States alone at 3 million units in 2009, and expects that to double to more than 6 million in 2010.
Some fear this may kill the printed word with all its charms; others relish the thought of discovering out-of-print gems on their screens, of delving into Britain's "Magna Carta" or first editions of Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary".
In no small part, the literary offer on the Web was helped along by Google Books, which displays searchable snippets of books in copyright and whole texts of out-of-copyright works.
"It is because of Google that we exist at all," Jill Cousins, Executive Director at multilingual culture site Europeana (www.europeana.eu), told Reuters. "They have done Europe a big service in terms of making the politicians aware of the deficit of European culture online."
Europeana, which is funded by the European Commission, as well as other publicly funded sites eventually want to link up with online retailers so readers can easily pay for works under copyright. In Safig's rural digitization lab, the hope is that any public-private deals will generate work for smaller firms.
Safig began digitizing books for local libraries in 2000. It has since quadrupled the number of people working on such projects in La Chatre alone to about 80, and some 400 people including outsourcing operations in Mauritius and Madagascar.
And despite the pragmatic side of mass digitization, staff rival the most fervent bibliophiles when they describe the printed words that whiz across the scanner every day.
They talk about the excitement of digitizing hand-written records from monasteries, or the shock at pulling ancient racist caricatures from the depths of the Bibliotheque Nationale.
"It's good to digitize the old books, to protect the originals from over-use and to give everyone access to them," said Colin Clement, a pony-tailed 25-year-old, explaining the different scanners.
"But the digital copies are so much more sterile. With the originals -- well, someone actually touched this book." (Editing by Georgina Prodhan and Sara Ledwith)