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DEBATES 2011 - Referencing, prescription of cultural contents - Interview of Bruno Racine, President of the French National Library (BnF)

« Let’s be voluntary: let’s not make mistakes risking to loose everything »

What are the missions of the French national Library? How have referencing and prescription of cultural works changed? 

 The BnF has 3 main goals: collecting, preserving and spreading French publishing heritage. 

Regarding the mission of collecting, the approach of the institution is both encyclopedic and universalist. We take an exhaustive inventory of French publications (piece of writing, maps and plans but also websites, etc.). Referencing is made with the collective catalog of France. Concerning the heritage of other countries, the approach is, obviously, selective.

The mission of legal deposit, created in the sixteenth century, is truly exhaustive for over two centuries. It is mandatory for any producer, publisher, printer, distributor.

The mission of spreading was traditionally Malthusian, as restricted to accredited researchers. For fifteen years, with the construction of the library François-Mitterrand, the institution has been opened to the public. For four years, we have also wanted to make available online heritage, without any physical attachment. The mutation is significant: we went from a few thousand of member cards to millions of visits on our digital library Gallica. The dimension is now global and same goes for the catalog WorlCat created by OCLC.

The digital world requires us to rethink fundamentally the tools of referencing and access to resources.  The catalog is being mainly used by experts. In the digital world, content is fragmented. The book is an accessible object in its overall constituency but it also becomes a « reservoir » of fragmented data. The challenge is to achieve both: to respect the organic unity of a thought such as a paper book which materializes it and to facilitate the access to information that one can look for or use, independently of the overall thought.

This leads to rethink our tools. In the physical world, the question of order is essential and mandatory. In the digital world, the constraint of a single order no longer exists. However, it can allow a variety of orders and remake. Then, the quality of the descriptive data of the content is essential. That is why the role of libraries is crucial.

Facing the arrival of new mechanisms of referencing and prescription in the digital world (SEO search, social networks, group purchasing, competition from new players in digitization, …), what is the strategy of the French National Library? 

At the level of an institution like the French National Library, it has just begun. We observe all the breakthrough of actors who are becoming dominant but, overall, the market remains competitive and fluid. In France, our horizon is the completeness and the referencing of the works. Prescribing is not the primary mission of the BnF, the freedom of researchers is crucial. I prefer to say the methodical promotion of our wealth. The aim of long-term completeness must live with the principle of reality. The volume of collections to highlight is so important that we must proceed in order of priority. While increasing constantly Gallica, we also aim at enhancing usability and conviviality for the simple visitor or highly specialized researchers.

In terms of referencing, two approaches are possible. The first one is based on the current mechanisms of referencing and description on the Internet, where search engines and social networks establish the rules. The goal is to make the best use of them to ensure that the works will be the most visible. The second one is to develop ad hoc tools. The French National Library has chosen these two ways: to play the card of existing search engines and social networks and, in parallel, to contribute to the emergence of a world around books, periodical, maps, recording, multimedia documents and website, which allow increasing significantly the ways to access to these contents. This is the challenge of the call for partnership that French National Library has launched under the auspices of the Minister of Culture and the General Commissioner for Investment. To promote the heritage to the great majority of people, we should not be locked in a narrow logic, it is necessary to combine approaches.