France joins race to digitize world's books

Wed Jan 20, 2010 7:31pm EST
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By Sophie Hardach

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.   Continued...

<p>Yves Jocteur Montrozier, chief curator of the old books collection at the Municipal Library of Lyon, displays an old book which has been digitised next to its online copy on a screen in this January 15, 2010 file picture. REUTERS/Robert Pratta</p>