Le Meilleur (The Best) de l’internet: A Review
of French-Language Information Sources
by Pascal Lupien, Academic
Liaison Librarian, McLaughlin Library, University of
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
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, http://global-reach.biz/globstats/refs.php3).
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.
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 [http://gallica.bnf.fr/] 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 [http://abu.cnam.fr/index.html] 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 Ferry.com [http://julesferry.com/biblio.html] 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 [http://www.fsj.ualberta.ca/biblio/],
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) [http://www.bnquebec.ca/] 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 [http://www.bpi.fr/].
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 [http://www.bnquebec.ca/portal/dt/
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
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 [http://www.giga-presse.com/] 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
Those interested in French Canadian culture outside
Quebec should visit the Bibliothèque de reference
virtuelle du Nouveau-Brunswick [http://www.gnb.ca/bibliothequespubliques] 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 [http://www.bibliovirtuelle.ca],
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
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 [http://www.toile.qc.ca/] is another largely commercial search engine and Web
directory similar to Francité, but focused on
Yahoo!, the “first large-scale directory of
the Internet,” has French and French Canadian
versions, Yahoo! Canada en français and Yahoo!
And yes, the “bête noire” of French
cyberspace is available in the language of Molière. Google
France [http://www.google.fr] uses essentially
the same search engine as Google.com, 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 [http://www.inist.fr/en/PRODUITS/francis.php], 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 [http://connectsciences.inist.fr].
Année philologique [http://www.annee-philologique.com] 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 [http://humanities.uchicago.edu/orgs/ARTFL/],
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 [http://www.sdm.qc.ca/gen/repere.html] 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
Often referred to as the French equivalent of MEDLINE, CISMeF-patient [http://www.chu-rouen.fr/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 [http://global-reach.biz] (7 April 2005).
Miniwatts International, “Internet Usage in
Europe,” Internet World Stats, 22 March
2005 [http://www.internetworldstats.com] (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.
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,
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.