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Magazines > Searcher > September 2005
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Vol. 13 No. 8 — Sep 2005
Le Meilleur (The Best) de l’internet: A Review of French-Language Information Sources
by Pascal Lupien, Academic Liaison Librarian, McLaughlin Library, University of Guelph

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 Jean-Noël 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 listservs, 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 (3.9 percent), which has the world’s largest number of speakers (Global Reach, 

In large part, some of this dominance may stem from the fact that English has become the common language of international business and trade. Still, part of the problem may also arise from the fact that France, the largest French-speaking country by far, is well behind English-speaking countries in terms of Internet usage. In France, Internet penetration stands at about 41 percent of the population. This puts France well behind primarily English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom (58 percent), Canada (63.7 percent), and the United States (67.8 percent). Still, France falls only slightly below the European Union average of 46.9 percent (Miniwatts International). In Canada, which has the world’s second-largest population of French-speakers, the situation is similar: About 44 percent of Francophones used the Internet in 2000, compared with 58 percent of Anglophones. French-speakers, who make up about 24 percent of the population, represented only 18 percent of all Canadian Internet users. A Statistics Canada report revealed that French-speaking Canadians saw language as a barrier to using the Internet (The Daily, March 2001). 

A Bit of Background

So why are French-speakers behind when it comes to Internet usage? Given that France was one of the first countries in the world to develop an online information system, this may at first seem surprising. The French government, in collaboration with France Telecom, began developing a national electronic information network in the early 1980s (Kinder 2000). The result, known as the Minitel, was an electronic information system used in France long before the Internet became a household word elsewhere. Minitel remained popular well into the late 1990s (Moulaison 2004). It involved a box featuring a screen and keypad attached to a telephone line and provided access to information, services, and even online shopping. Its popularity, and the fact that the French were familiar and comfortable with this home-gown tool, probably delayed the widespread use of the Internet by several years. The fact that the Internet was seen as primarily an American tool, with mostly English content, was probably another barrier in both France and French Canada. During a 1997 speech, then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin cited this reason. In the same speech, he also admitted that France had been slow to respond to the Internet and announced that the government would renew its commitment to this technology (Kinder 2000). 

The French have now started to embrace the Internet; while the Minitel is still used in many households, Internet usage in France has grown by 192 percent between 2000 and 2005 (Miniwatts International). This should lead to more French-language content on the Internet, and Chirac’s plan for an online national library, if realized, may act as a catalyst. 

Given these developments, it seems a good time to examine the Internet resources already available in the language of Molière. While French has experienced a relative decline over the past 50 years, it remains one of the world’s major languages and, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most common languages spoken in the United States. One million four hundred thousand people speak French at home in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. French also remains a popular second language taught in high schools and universities across the English-speaking world. 

A literature search revealed a scarcity of writings in English on French-language Internet sources. There are many excellent resources available in French: digital collections, portals, journal indexes, etc. An evaluation of these resources could help public librarians serving communities where French is spoken, school librarians dealing with students working on French assignments, and academic librarians working with French departments. The sites reviewed here do not constitute an exhaustive list, but should give readers an idea of what exists out there in French cyberspace and suggest some good places to start with research. 

Virtual Libraries

Given the apparent alarm generated by Google’s plan to create a universal library, it is worth looking at virtual libraries that already exist in French. While the definition of “virtual library” may vary, I have understood the phrase to denote a collection of digital or full-text documents, images, and other resources available through a single portal. In the English-speaking world, Project Gutenberg has been around for some time, and many universities and other organizations have developed their own digital or full-text collections of various sizes. Virtual libraries also exist in French, with several models created in both Europe and Quebec. While not comparing (for now) with Google’s ambitious plans, the existing sites do provide access to a wealth of resources ranging from French literature to historical maps. And, most likely, the amount of French literature available online surpasses what can be accessed in many other languages. 

Gallica [] has been mentioned often in recent articles about the Google digitization project. It constitutes a likely starting place for the development of a larger French or European digital library. Several articles have already pointed out that Gallica has only a fraction of the budget that Google has, but the site is nonetheless impressive and worth exploring for Francophiles or students of French. This catalog of the digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de la France contains 70,000 digital documents, 1,200 full-text documents, and 80,000 images, extending from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The content is quite varied, containing everything from works of literature by great French authors to letters written by 18th century revolutionaries to historical pamphlets and political manifestos. There is also a large collection of images, including artwork, book covers, and postcards. The site provides a number of options for retrieving information: users can browse content by author, century, or theme. A search engine enables one to search by title, author, subject, or keyword. 

Like the English-language Project Gutenberg, ABU: La bibliothèque universelle [] provides access to a collection of full-text e-books by French authors. It also contains links to French reference tools, such as dictionaries, as well as to other resources. Users can browse by author or title. While not as ambitious and less user-friendly than Gallica, and lacking a search function, it does provide access to some important works of literature.

Jules [] is similar to La bibliothèque universelle in that it offers full-text access to various works of French literature, but its layout is simpler, though it does not provide links to other resources. 

La bibliothèque virtuelle [], maintained by the University of Alberta, provides access to several classic works of French Canadian literature. While the content is interesting, the works of only a handful of authors are represented and the content has not grown for some time.

The Web site of the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec (National Library of Quebec) [] provides access to a variety of digital resources, including 1,500 books from the 19th and 20th centuries. Users can browse this collection of French Canadian literature by author, title, subject, or date. The library has also digitized several Quebec newspapers, some of historical interest. Users will also find a rich collection of digital images including over 6,000 historical illustrations and photographs of Montreal, a series of maps from the New France era to the 20th century, and an extensive collection of old postcards and stamps. The virtual collection also includes a number of audio files of musical scores written in the early 20th century. 

Portals, Internet Directories, and Search Engines

A variety of Internet directories, portals, and search engines exist that can serve as starting points when using the Web for research in French. 

One of the larger Internet directories is maintained by the Bibliothèque publique d’information []. Click on “Ressources” and then “Les signets de sites Web sélectionnés par la BPI.” Created by France’s largest public library, this excellent portal indexes hundreds of Web sites, organized by category. Not all of the Web sites included are French, but start here.

Produced by the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec, BREF [

provides another extensive guide to reference resources on the Internet. Users can search by keyword or browse by subject from a very extensive list, theme (using the Dewey Decimal System, which librarians may find useful), or author (including many government and corporate authors).

ClicNet [], maintained by Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, is a portal that indexes sites of interest to those studying French culture and literature. Rather than attempting to act as a general portal covering the entire Internet, ClicNet is designed to be a Francophone cultural and literary site. It offers a collection of links to sites and articles on everything from literary news to biographies to theatre arts.

Giga Presse [] is a directory of more than 800 online magazine and journal sites in French. Users can either search by keyword or browse by theme (e.g., regional and local newspapers, arts and culture, science). This portal is an excellent place to start when looking for free access to full-text periodicals. 

Those interested in French Canadian culture outside Quebec should visit the Bibliothèque de reference virtuelle du Nouveau-Brunswick [] and click on “Bibliothèque de reference virtuelle.” Developed by the New Brunswick Public Library Service, the French section of this portal was designed to meet the information needs of the province’s French-speaking Acadian community. 

The Bibliothèque virtuelle de l’Ontario [], a portal created to respond to serve the French-speaking community in the mostly English-speaking province of Ontario, is scheduled for launch in spring or summer of 2005. It will contain an extensive collection of links to Internet sources, subject guides, and research tips. The development team also hopes to add access to licensed electronic resources, depending on funding from the provincial government. The portal may also be integrated with a bilingual virtual reference service planned for Ontario as part of the Ontario Digital Library project.

Francité [], a Yahoo!-like search engine and Web directory focused on France, is more commercial than the sites mentioned above. It links to hundreds of sites on a variety of topics: culture, business, sports, tourism, etc. It is an excellent place to start if you seek information on French associations, agencies, or businesses. 

Toile du Québec [] is another largely commercial search engine and Web directory similar to Francité, but focused on Quebec.

Yahoo!, the “first large-scale directory of the Internet,” has French and French Canadian versions, Yahoo! Canada en français and Yahoo! France [,].

And yes, the “bête noire” of French cyberspace is available in the language of Molière. Google France [] uses essentially the same search engine as, but provides a French interface and allows the user to limit search results to French-language sites only, which can prove very useful when conducting a general Web search.

Journal Indexes and Research Tools 

The lack of adequate electronic research databases is a problem not only for French speakers, but for students and scholars around the world. The vast majority of scholarly journal indexes, for example, are available in English only. This forces librarians and information professionals in non-English-speaking institutions to purchase and use the same databases that American libraries use. Of course, many of the big database products do cover non-English journals. However, a number of widely used French databases may have particular interest for students and scholars. Most of these are licensed products, so librarians must determine whether to subscribe or not.

Francis [], produced by the Institut de l’Information Scientifique et Technique du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (INIST-CNRS), is one of the primary journal indexes in the French-speaking world, although it could hardly be called a French-language research tool. Focused on the social sciences and humanities, the content is multilingual, but the database offers a French interface and indexes most major French-language academic journals. Descriptors appear in both French and English, with many abstracts available in French as well. Francis is international in scope and used by libraries throughout the world. Online access routes include Questel-Orbit, Ovid, RLG, and — free — the current year on INIST-CNRS’s own ConnectSciences site [].

Année philologique [] is a database that indexes journals and conference proceedings in classical studies, history, literature, and philosophy. The index first appeared in print format in 1928 and the electronic version contains records dating back as far as 1969. Produced in France, the file is multilingual (French, English, German, Italian, and Spanish) and lets users limit searches by year of publication or by a range of years and by language.

ARTFL, the American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language [], is an excellent licensed product containing several databases. Created by the University of Chicago, it offers access to a collection of texts and reference sources. ARTFL contains a main database (FRANTEXT) containing over 1,800 works, as well as several searchable theme-oriented databases, such as French Women Writers, Provençal Poetry, and Voltaire Électronique. It also contains links to a number of excellent reference resources, including an online version of the venerable Trésor de la langue française dictionary and a searchable version of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. Users can also search on specific parts of documents, in some cases down to the paragraph level. 

Produced by Services documentaries multimédia in Montreal, Repère [] is the main periodical index used in French Canada. It includes many of the periodicals published in Quebec and also provides citations to foreign periodicals (mostly from France). The periodicals indexed include both scholarly and popular titles, everything from Géographie physique et quaternaire to the tabloid Paris Match.

Often referred to as the French equivalent of MEDLINE, CISMeF-patient [] is a database designed to provide health information to the public and to healthcare professionals. It includes documents specifically written for patients by medical professionals, as well as links to hundreds of Web sites offering consumer health information. Like MEDLINE, CISMeF-patient uses Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) and Dublin Core metadata to organize information (Darmoni, Thirion and Platel, 2002). The interface is available in French only.


While France and other French-speaking jurisdictions have continued to lag behind when it comes to developing Internet resources, it appears as though this situation is rapidly changing. The realization that the Internet is here to stay and the specter of Google’s ambitions to create a universal digital library seem to have ignited a response in the French-speaking world, as evidenced by the French government’s proposal to establish a European virtual library project. As Internet usage among French-speakers continues to grow, so will the number of good, Web-based resources. In the meantime, existing resources should satisfy at least some of the information needs of French information-seekers.    



Darmoni, Stefan J., Benoit Thirion, and Sylvie Platel, “CISMeF-patient: A French Counterpart to MEDLINEplus,” Journal of the Medical Library Association, vol. 90, no. 2, April 2002, pp. 248–253. 

Degez, Daniele and Claudine Masse, “L’indexation a l’ere d’internet,” Documentaliste, vol. 37, no. 2, June 2000, pp. 118–120. 

Ferchaud, Bernadette,.“Quels modeles gagnants pour le marche de l’information sur internet?,” Documentaliste, vol. 38, no. 2, June 2001, pp. 132–135. 

Global Reach, “Global Internet Statistics: Sources and References,” Global Internet Statistics, 30 Sept. 2004 [] (7 April 2005).

Miniwatts International, “Internet Usage in Europe,” Internet World Stats, 22 March 2005 [] (6 April 2005).

Kinder, Sean, “The French Experience with the Internet,” Kentucky Libraries, vol. 64, no. 4, Fall 2000, pp. 11–13. 

Moulaison, H. L., “The Minitel and France’s Legacy of Democratic Information Access,” Government Information Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 1, 2004, pp. 99–107. 

Waterman, Sue, “Western European Literatures: Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Scandinavian, and Spanish,” College & Research Libraries News, vol. 62, no. 4, April 2001, pp. 411–14, 439. 

Statistics Canada, The Daily, Monday, March 26, 2001.

U.S. Census Bureau, “Language Spoken at Home for the Population 5 Years and Over, American FactFinder (QT-P16, Census 2000 Summary File 3 (SF3) — Sample Data, 2000

Pascal Lupien is an academic liaison librarian at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. He holds an M.L.I.S. from the Université de Montréal in Montreal, Quebec. 
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