Perspectives from the Frankfurt Book Fair: 1 attendee’s impressions

Thanks to Heather Moulaison for this report from the Frankfurt Book Fair.

For me, “book fair” brings to mind rows of vendors with stale candy trying to hawk their wares under unforgiving fluorescent lights. That’s what I was expecting when I left for the Frankfurt Book Fair roughly two weeks ago. ACRL has been sponsoring a booth at the fair for years, and this time, I was one of the recipients (through WESS, the Western European Studies Section) of a small stipend to attend the Book Fair (from Oct. 18-23) and staff the ACRL booth. Unfortunately, it looks like funding for the ACRL booth and the stipends is going to be cut entirely next year.

After having been there, “Everyone goes to the Frankfurt Book Fair because everyone goes to the Frankfurt Book Fair” rings true; I was involved with a fantastic group of attendees and made great international contacts. Surprisingly, though, the Book Fair programs were most definitely worth attending and describing here.

First I saw a presentation by Google. Thinking back on last year’s OCLC Environment Scan that, to paraphrase, said patrons want to search OPACs the way they search Google, I was pleased to hear finally what Google claims to be about: focus on positive user experience, never detract from that experience, insure the purity of the search, act first and refine later, function as a switchboard between user and content. The bulk of the presentation covered the two aspects of the Google Print program: the Publishers program where publishers voluntarily submit works, and the Library program where libraries open their stacks to Google. Google Print did seem to make sense from the publisher point of view. Even the Library program didn’t seem quite so villainous after it was clear that small snippets are shown on the results screen and the entire work is not ever revealed. If it’s used as a supplemental tool to helps patrons to find things, my cataloger’s mind tells me this can’t be a bad thing. The copyright/intellectual property issues weren’t addressed. I left thinking for the first time like Google Print is probably a good thing for libraries and patrons, but despite the “public good” aspect, I still wasn’t convinced that the Library program is a fair use of copyrighted material according to the law.

Perhaps the most interesting session was the one on electronic publishing. I wasn’t able to stay for the entire program, but saw quite a lot. The head of the French National Library, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, began by presenting a short talk on the impact of electronic publishing. He followed the structure of the traditional French lecture: 1) discussing convictions that a digital divide is being created, that books will outlive the web, and that there is a necessity for cultural diversity with the creation of new technologies; 2) addressing the problems and dangers Google presents if they establish a monopoly on digitized information and if only English language results are available; 3) responding with the notion that other possibilities exist, that government should lead organized ventures and that democratic projects like wikipedia were valuable. He didn’t discuss concretely any of the French or European digitization plans. During the presentation, Jeanneney reasserted that his position on the matter of Google’s projects does not stem from an anti-American stance. It seems to me this was in response to articles in the Anglo-American press; I remember some in the Chronicle of Higher Education alluding to his chauvinism, in the French sense of the term.

After questions from the audience, Jim Gerber from Google gave his presentation; he used roughly the same PowerPoints as the one I’d seen the day before. Gerber took a couple of shots at Jeanneney; for example, his introduction included the fact that the two had something in common: Gerber, like Jeanneney, was not anti-American. Google’s stated mission is to organize all the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Librarians of the world, snicker in unison? Audience questions tried to get at the legality of the Print program and the need for licensing and contracts, but those questions were brushed aside. Archiving seemed to be on the minds of those seated around me – and the problem of what would happen to the digitized versions in the future. Were we all to trust Google blindly? They are, nevertheless, trying to make money. These were the questions that didn’t get asked officially, but were mumbled amongst the librarians in the group.

Did this whet your appetite for information about the Book Fair? Look for more coverage in an upcoming edition of C&RL News.

–Heather Moulaison, Cataloging/Modern Languages Librarian, The College of New Jersey

One thought on “Perspectives from the Frankfurt Book Fair: 1 attendee’s impressions”

  1. Thanks for the report, Heather. I think it’s important for librarians to be involved in the book publishing industry, and Frankfurt is an excellent place to be involved at the heart of it.

    We had an interesting discussion of the copyright issues involved in Google Print a little while ago. Your concern about trusting Google blindly is certainly shared by many in publishing. I’m not opposed to the move (mainly because I think it’s time to reexamine the nature of “copy” in a digital world) but Google is not very forthcoming with their ultimate plans, and there are implications that aren’t clear to me at all.

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