To illustrate the lamentable state of the Czech National Library and, by extension, of the National Digital Library project, the former head of the group for long-term protection of data within the project came up with a striking analogy. “The National Library wanted a smartphone and got an ordinary mobile phone. Yes, both are telephones, can send SMSes, store contacts and have a battery,” Jan Hutař said. “But an ordinary cell phone is produced by a company that knows how to make a smartphone but elected not to. Unfortunately, try as you might, you cannot make a smartphone from a mobile.”
To put it another way, the Czech taxpayer may have paid in advance for an iPhone, Samsung Galaxy or top-of-the-line Nokia but is in danger of discovering upon receipt of the package that it contains the equivalent to a Chinese knock-off. The stakes are indeed high: The largest Czech libraries, the National Library and the Moravian Library in Brno, are cooperating on the National Digital Library project, which will cost a total of Kč 300 million. Most of the cost, Kč 255 million, is being funded from the European Union Integrated Operational Programme (IOP), with the remainder, Kč 45 million, being borne by the Ministry of Culture.
Two days after Alena Hanáková (TOP 09-STAN) took over the reins of the Ministry of Culture from Jiří Besser on Dec. 20, 2011, she wrote to Böhm asking him to postpone signing the acceptance protocol of the National Digital Library implementation project. Yet 10 days ago, on Friday the Thirteenth, as it happens, National Library director Tomáš Böhm signed off on the final decision as to which method (and company) to employ in the creation of the National Digital Library: the solution of the Czech company Logica, which won the tender to act as systems integrator.
Logica will cooperate on the project to ensure long-term data protection with its Beroun-based subsidiary, Albertina icome Praha (AiP), a company that, according to its website, specializes in the digitalization of historical documents. However, critics say that while AiP has experience in creating repositories for institutions such as banks, it has never provided a solution for a library. And within specialist circles, not a single librarian, for example, came out in favor of the proposed solution that Böhm has accepted.
Outcry met with officials’ silence
Critics of Logica/AiP’s proposed solution — including the Central Library Board (ÚKR), an advisory board to the Czech Ministry of Culture, and the Supervisory Board of the Library of the Academy of Sciences — turned to all concerned parties, in addition to Böhm and Hanáková, in a bid to strike down the pending decision. But their combined efforts to convince the powers that be to call a new tender fell on deaf ears.
The new culture minister took up the post just as the tender was closing. In her letter to the National Library director, she asked Böhm to hold off on a decision until all comments and concerns were addressed. The result was a short delay to the project set into motion by her predecessor and party colleague, Besser, the former long-time mayor of Beroun, a town south of Prague that is home to Logica. The departing librarians did not, with apologies to Dylan Thomas, ‘go gentle into that good night.’
As for the ÚKR, the body had raised 22 key questions relating to the tender in an open letter to Böhm, who answered them — after signing the protocol giving the project the green light. In sum, he argued that the tender for selecting a systems integrator had been completely transparent and even went beyond the requirements set out in the law on public procurement. Böhm went on to blame the board of the original research team, whose members made public the results of the tender before leaving the National Library in protest thereof, for the two-year delay.
The departing librarians did not, however, with apologies to Dylan Thomas, “go gentle into that good night.” They responded to Böhm with another open letter. Unlike the National Library director, they backed up their claims with documentation, including feasibility studies, copies of communication with the Ministry of Culture and affidavits. Böhm is challenging their findings, but the book on the controversial National Digital Library project tender may not be closed after all.
Journalists are often criticized for abandoning “affairs” and “scandals” for new quarry after writing a few articles, without bothering to follow up on the outcome of the earlier stories. Members of the ÚKR and other librarians interviewed by Czech Position have expressed concern this will be the case for the National Digital Library project.
But journalists do not have the power to make policy or compel the authorities to launch investigations. It is up to the Czech Ministry of the Interior, which is the administrator of the European Union Integrated Operational Programme (IOP), while the dispersal of funds and oversight falls with the Ministry of Regional Development (MMR). Europe’s bean counters could certainly have cause to wonder why Böhm ignored the request of Hanáková to hold off on that decision.
What do these two institutions make of the respective claims of Böhm and his critics and the project under the Ministry of Culture? Or the nearly complete departure of the project’s working group? Neither has yet commented, despite the fact the Czech Republic is under great scrutiny from Brussels, with the EU threatening to cut off funds in other areas for a number of reasons. Europe’s bean counters could certainly have cause to wonder why Böhm ignored the request of Hanáková to hold off on that decision.
Criticism of the implementation project falls into two categories: technical and conceptual. “The winning bid contains a large percent of its own development, which was previously deemed to be high risk,” said Jiří Polišenský, head of the working group for digitalization. To return to the analogy put forth by Jan Hutař, three of the four companies that took part in the tender for a systems integrator offered “smartphones” that have been tested throughout the world, but the National Library director opted for a cheap dumb one from Logica. Not to mention that four more clever options were excluded from the competition by the tender committees.