Europe Gets Serious About Cultural Collection

An ambitious project is underway to digitize the complete cultural history of the European Union and make it available to the general public via Europeana, a digital library and museum. The project launched last November with roughly 2 million artifacts. It now counts 4.6 million items from more than 1,000 institutions among its collection, and it is expected to grow to 10 million items by 2010.

The European Commission began digitizing content in 2000, but a 2005 letter from the leadership of six EU nations to the president of council suggesting a digital library provided the impetus for Europeana, which is now run by the European Digital Library Foundation.

"Europe needed to get its cultural heritage together so it could make available the collective history and cultural traditions of Europe," explains Jon Purday, marketing and communications manager for Europeana. "There had been fragmented efforts in the past, but it was important to unify what's going on."

Ten projects associated with Europeana extend its offerings in a variety of directions. Europeana Connect looks at mobile opportunities, a global positional component, and user groups to determine how people use Europeana; the European Film Gateway digitizes film posters, scripts, and other materials from the European film archives; Europeana Local works with smaller libraries and museums to digitize their content. "You'll get this really interesting mix where national treasures are represented, but so are local histories and highlights," says Purday.

An overwhelming amount of Europeana's content presently hails from France (47%), with Germany contributing the second highest percentage (15.4%). Although the bulk of the EU's 27 member states have contributed relatively little, there are countries making noteworthy steps. Slovakia has turned a military complex into a digitization facility, while Finland, Slovakia, and Lithuania have used European Structural Funds to ensure funding for digitization projects.

Thus far, though, the amount of digitized content, and the amount of that content available via Europeana, remains small. Europe's libraries contain more than 2.5 million books, but estimates on the amount that have been digitized sit at about 1%. That number is expected to rise to just 4% by 2012. The percentage of these digitized books available on Europeana sits at a paltry 5%.

In part, this is because copyright laws are proving problematic for Europeana. Much of Europeana's literary content is material already in the public domain; neither out-of-print nor orphan works (those under copyright but for which an author cannot be named) are part of the collection. The European Commission has been working on these copyright issues via a public consultation

There may be details to work out, but few argue the importance of the project. "Europeana makes cultural bodies more relevant to the Web 2.0 generation-a generation that expects to be able to read text, see video, hear sounds, and view images all in the same space and time," said Elisabeth Niggemann, director-general of the German National Library and chair of the European Digital Library Foundation, when Europeana launched

And for the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the project is both important and well-timed. Between 2003 and 2013, the museum is undergoing an extensive renovation. "The closed museum forces us to find new ways of remaining visible and consequently challenges us to develop new, different forms of reaching the public," explains Cathy Jager, head of collections management for the Rijksmuseum. "Digital collections offer unlimited possibilities for research, recreation, and curiosity," she says.

According to Purday, one group did express concern about Europeana. "The archivists worry about the simplicity of our data model. They have a very complex data model, out of which it is very difficult to pluck individual items," such as specific speeches, he says

"There is sometimes a tendency in a museum or library world to pluck a specific speech-a treasure of oratory. An archivist would say, ‘But you want it in context; by plucking one out, you lose the richness that gives us a nuanced version of history instead of a black and white version of history.'" He says Europeana's founders appreciate that concern and have made it possible for interested users to link out to view material in context

And certainly there are benefits to digital viewing

Purday notes that the famed Vermeer, Girl With a Pearl Earring, can be enlarged so that nearly every brushstroke is visible. "You can get closer to it than you can in the actual gallery," he says.

The next release of Europeana, the Rhine release, will be launched in July 2010 and will include more multilingual capabilities and mobile applications. Meanwhile, Europeana's leadership is also interested in collaborating with other institutions, and Purday cites the U.S.-based World Digital Library as a possible partner, saying, "It makes sense for the user to bring all of this together."