Le Milleur (the Best) De l'Internet: A Review of French-Language Information Sources

Article excerpt

In March of this year, French President Jacques Chirac asked his country's Culture Minister and National Librarian to investigate the creation of a European digital library that would give French and European literature a greater online presence. This initiative has touched off a considerable amount of discussion in the mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as within the library and information science world. Some have interpreted Chirac's efforts as a response to Google's plan to digitize the collections of five major English-speaking universities, collections that include some French works. A statement issued by the President's office declared, "A vast movement of digitisation of knowledge is underway across the world. With the wealth of their exceptional cultural heritage, France and Europe must play a decisive part. It is a fundamental challenge for the spread of knowledge and the development of cultural diversity." On the other side of the Atlantic, criticism ensued, particularly in the right-wing media, in which the French government's efforts to preserve its country's cultural identity have been rather simplistically interpreted as cultural protectionism or being anti-American.

The debate in France seems to have focused on whether or not Google's plan to digitize more than 15 million books would mean that French works would play second (or third or fourth) fiddle to American literature in an eventual universal library. Some also worry that such a project would relegate the interpretation of European literature to American hands. National Librarian lean-Noel Jeanneney described the Google project as "confirmation of the risk of a crushing American domination in the definition of how future generations conceive the world. The libraries that are taking part in this enterprise are of course themselves generously open to the civilizations and works of other countries ... but still, their criteria for selection will be profoundly marked by the Anglo-Saxon outlook."

Given the increasing importance of Web-based information in our daily lives, French concerns about control of the Internet and control of online European literature residing in foreign hands (and in this case, the hands of a single foreign company) are understandable. It is unlikely that any country with a rich cultural history would be comfortable with a large part of its heritage being organized and made accessible by a private enterprise located in a foreign country. According to the information science literature and list-servs, many librarians have also worried about a single commercial entity selecting and organizing a project as vast as a universal digital library. They have raised issues about choice as well as concerns about cultural diversity in cyberspace. In light of this debate over the "googlization" of cyberspace, we should perhaps examine the extent to which these concerns are warranted by looking at the true state of the French language on the Internet at present.

French on the Web

Though people in France and other countries have expressed concerns over the predominance of American English-language Web sites on the Internet, what is the reality behind this? Due to the proliferation of Web sites in the past decade (there are billions of pages), it would probably be impossible to develop a completely accurate assessment of language representation on the Internet, but some efforts have been made to estimate the number of Web sites available in the world's major languages. An examination of various statistical sources reveals that French does have a relatively small presence on the Internet, but then so do most other languages. It is estimated that about 68 percent of sites on the World Wide Web are in English. Only about 3.0 percent of Web sites are in French. While this doesn't seem like much, it must be noted that there is more Web content available in French than in Spanish (2.4 percent), and only slightly less than in Mandarin Chinese (3. …