In a world where the internet is our main source of information, few find themselves researching in libraries, at least not brick-and-mortar ones. Recently, the European Commission announced its plans for the European Digital Library (EDL) to develop a prototype site, which will allow users to access digitized content from European archives. The first theme of the prototype, better known as the CITY, will be launched in November 2008.
On a budget of Euro 149 million, the EDL will enhance the availability of information in areas where there has been a lack of development on the web: geographic content, educational content, and scientific content. The CITY’s purpose is to show the European urban experience from different perspectives; cities of the future and past, trade and industry, design, shopping, and urban cool are among some of the emerging ideas the CITY is said to launch. “Europe’s citizens should all be able to enjoy our rich cultural heritage. This Foundation is a significant step towards making that ambition come true,” comments Commissioner Viviane Reding, who is responsible for the EDL’s section of Information Society and Media.
Ultimately, the foundation members want to provide access to Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage through a cross-domain portal, as well as to support digitization of Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage. All of the digitized content will be from European archives, museums, audio-visual collections, and libraries. It will also give direct access to more than 2 million digitized books, photos, maps, and sounds so that a European country can be explored with the click of a mouse.
The idea for the prototype was presented and endorsed to the Cultural Ministries of all EU states last year as well as to the European Parliament. Because the web has become one of the primary means to do research, the European Parliament will stress the importance of making the library accessible in all languages. They believe the library should not only be used as an access point for the European cultural heritage but should also expand to have multilingual access to tackle the multicultural barriers.
The EDL is aimed at citizens who want a simple yet powerful way of finding cultural material from their own or other European countries. The need for a digital library is clear: European libraries currently have 138 million digital registered users, making the CITY prototype suggestive of a demand. In order to show proof of concept, according to Jill Cousins, program director of EDLnet, the CITY prototype allows people to see historical relationships such as where a Victorian gentleman’s hat was made to where the hat was worn and how it may have influenced fashion. She says the CITY lets users “see how the immigration of people through war or famine or religious persecution changes the look and feel of a city—through photos and film or heard in the changing dialects.” The CITY theme is meant to encourage users to broaden their knowledge of Europe’s rich culture and to prove how easy it is to search one European country and be led to another almost seamlessly.
The CITY is just the first of the subject themes being launched. The EDL wants to add more themes, including religion, war, music, and art.
“The European Digital Library is not in competition with search engines. [Search engines] will probably always be in the position to do a search better and be the first port of call for someone looking up something or starting a research task. The European Digital Library should be seen as complementary; working on the issues of interoperability and multilinguality as well as ensuring standards are met in digitization so that material can be made accessible,” says Cousins. “It is also about providing information that is pre-validated, it has come from the trusted cultural heritage institutions of Europe and is not lost in the rest. We will definitely be working with the big search engines to ensure that the much needed distribution is in place.”
All access to the European Digital Library and its prototypes will be free as far as public domain material is concerned. Once all the information is digitized, it should result in future growth for learning, as well as an endorsement for tourism.