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Malamud’s Idea for Digitization as Public Works

I had the privilege of hearing about this notion from Carl himself when he was in DC a few weeks ago. It made great sense especially given the zeal with which Carl explained it. I was delighted to see him post a thoughtful write up of his suggestion to pursue digitization as a national effort, inspired by France’s disbursal of stimulus funds along a similar vein.

Carl makes a compelling case for a home grown digitization effort funded by also by stimulus money. He relates it back to the challenges faced by our first National Archivist and the inventiveness with which he approached considerable challenges.

The biggest challenge was the deluge of paperwork, a situation not very different from what our national institutions face today. Instead of simply moaning the impossibility of swallowing all the records Connor would need to establish the National Archives, he thought nonlinear. The result was the invention of several key technologies: the airbrush to clean paper, the laminator to protect it, and of course, the microphotograph (now known as microfilm or microfiche), a technology so successful it reduced incoming paper needs by 95%.

There is an implication to this idea that Carl just touches on in the write up. He discusses the lack of skilled labor available in the 1930’s. His use of the term public works is intentional, now as then there is a dividend that a modest amount of stimulus money could return in the form of new jobs and improving the lot of any number of workers who could acquire experience and training they could take back into the market.

The overshadowing of that element by his conclusion is forgivable. He lays a challenge at the feet of the Obama administration to step in and lead as is suggested by the very historical example Carl cites.

France to Digitize Its Own Books

France submitted comments expressing concern during the last go round in revising the terms of the original Google Books settlement. Michael Geist links to a New York Times story that at first would seem continuous with the French government’s earlier stance. French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged almost $1.1 billion to fund a new public-private partnership for the country to digitize its own literary works.

The article explains that the French national library originally approached Google about this effort. This is apparently what prompted the criticism filed as part of the ongoing class action against Google. The criticism apparently was not strenuous enough to prevent the Library from once again approaching the search giant as a potential private partner under Sarkozy’s new proposal.

I can only guess, though the article doesn’t say, that the difference is France would retain more control over the resulting data. The article mentions the need for capital beyond what the government can supply. That means there would have to be some consideration, in terms of some privileged access or exclusive opportunity, for whatever outfit steps up. So how would partnering now be any different from partnering with Google before?

There is another aspect to this that the NYT piece doesn’t explore, similar to the story upon which I remarked about the UK pushing civil services online. Namely that there is a troubling conflict implied by Sarkozy’s push to render France’s cultural heritage into digital format for preservation and access online while at the same time Sarkozy is one of the earliest and loudest proponents for three strikes as a measure for dealing with copyright infringement committed via online file sharing.

You cannot champion the ability of digital technology and networks to copy and share information on the one hand while simultaneously suggesting that permanent disconnection from the network is a valid response to a substantially similar activity. Worse, the movement of publicly funded goods and services online exacerbates the loss of access, often under rules that forego due process and judicial oversight.