Europeana Libraries: A collaboration with scholarly ambitions

Article  by  Samuel MILLER  •  Published 27.07.2011  •  Updated 28.07.2011
Logo of Europeana Libraries
[NEWS] A new partnership involving Europeana, The European Library and others will share millions of digital objects across multiple platforms and give momentum to a new portal or network aimed at researchers.

On June 29th, at the 2011 LIBER Annual Conference, Europeana Libraries presented a workshop on a new partnership which will add to the Europeana directory millions of digital objects, including such treasures as Spanish Civil War photographs and Medieval Serbian manuscripts, from 19 leading European research and university libraries.
According to the press release, Europeana Libraries will put online “5 million digitised books, scientific papers, film, images and other digital objects from 19 leading European research libraries” over the next two years. Many of the objects to be shared will be appearing online for the first time, including 1,200 films and video clips, 850,000 images, and 4.3 million texts comprised of books, journals, articles and theses. The contributors are some of the most prestigious libraries and research institutes in Europe and include such varied institutions as the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, the University of Bern, Trinity College Dublin, and the Hungarian Parliament Library. This variety ensures that the new collections will represent the full geographical spread of Europe.
Europeana is a joint initiative of members of the European Commission and presents a public portal enabling access to the digital collections of over 1500 European cultural institutions across all domains – libraries, museums, galleries and archives. It is intended to be the reference point for all European cultural content online.
The project of Europeana Libraries, which officially began work in January, is largely funded by the European Commission at a total cost of over 4 million euros and is an initiative of The European Library, which will act as coordinator over its two-year lifespan. At its base, Europeana Libraries consists of four key associations: the Conference of European National Librarians (CENL), the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL), the Ligue des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherche (LIBER) and the Europeana Foundation.
According to Aubéry Escande, Communications and Editorial Manager for The European Library, “the ultimate objective of Europeana Libraries is to bring to Europeana 5 million digital objects through the workflow of The European Library. We will gather content coming from different networks of libraries, including research libraries and university libraries, we’ll aggregate it, and provide it to Europeana.”
The Europeana Libraries partnership is special in that it brings national, university and research libraries into a collaborative effort that is unprecedented in scale. According to the official factsheet, the project breaks new ground regarding the cooperation and collaboration required to aggregate material from such a variety of sources, and that such a project “lays the foundation on which a critical mass of research resources can be based”. It is hoped that Europeana Libraries will give momentum to other initiatives that will continue such work once its two years are up, and will prove a model for the way institutions can work together. The result would be a sustainable aggregation infrastructure for the libraries sector.
Obviating any confusion, Mr Escande clarified: “I must stress that at the moment there are two sets of services, those of The European Library and those of Europeana. What Europeana Libraries does is bring these two entities together. It’s not a portal, but rather a network, or space for collaboration. It’s not a portal, but rather a network, or space for collaboration.  So Europeana Libraries as such is a project that is a network facilitator, but it is not the end product that will reach the academic.”
There is, however, an end product in sight. The European Library is developing a new portal designed specifically for researchers and academics and due for launch in 2012. It will also provide access to all the objects collected during the Europeana Libraries project.
The portal will offer a large range of services that have been carefully adapted to the needs of the professional researcher. In addition to the extensive bibliographical data naturally available via a network of national libraries, the portal will have advantages in such areas as resource sharing (of reading lists between professors and students, for example), citations, full text indexing, and updates, whereby a researcher could automatically be informed of additions to collections related to his or her past searches.
Another significant feature will be the use of collections – groupings of material brought together on a curatorial basis. “An important concept for the academic community is that of ‘collection’. It is something very familiar to the library community but is an important sub-set of data that the general public perhaps do not care about”, said Mr Escande. “A collection can have very high impact and value for a researcher”.
These offerings, partly a response to the rapid expansion and development of Europeana as an inter-domain and cross-institutional portal catering to the broadest possible audience, are also due to the particular habits of research professionals: “We know from experience that researchers will happily spend more time refining their search, going into the advanced search, if they are sure they will find what they are looking for”. Mr Escande emphasised the importance of correctly gauging the precise needs of the academic or researcher before launching the portal, which must have the ability to enter and adapt to the work environment of the user, via methods such as APIs.
Mr Escande went on: “The core activity of The European Library, and of Europeana, is aggregation. We do not hold content – we give access to content. So what we try to achieve is the best way to access this content and to provide services around it on a pan-European scale. This is not only relevant to European academics but also to academics worldwide. And that’s why it is very important that aggregation is work that is not minimised.” 

The book of the birth of Iskandar,
by Imad al-Din Mahmud al-Kashi (1411).
Institution: Wellcome Library, London Collection

Such research portals go some way in addressing reservations many academics in the humanities have about using digital resources. According to a report commissioned by the Research Information Network earlier this year, scholars in the humanities have yet to take full advantage of advanced digital tools such as text-mining, large-scale databases, file-sharing, grid and cloud computing and the semantic web. And while they show an increasing willingness to use digital resources, mainly for reasons of speed and convenience, on the whole they remain reluctant to cite digital versions of sources. They may, for instance, cite the physical copy of a source even if they have spent more time consulting the digital version. This, says the report, is largely in order to ensure a correct and durable record in their citations. The report identifies a lack of awareness of tools, a lack of standardisation across databases, inadequate annotation tools and difficulties in data linking as among the primary barriers to a broader adoption of digital resources.
In a discussion about the mass digitisation of cultural material and online research one cannot avoid mentioning the most noticeable instance in the private sector: Google’s grand project, Google Books. In addition to an ambitious digitisation agenda (to “digitally scan every book in the world), and numerous partnerships with European cultural institutions, it recently unveiled a quantitative research tool, which is already freely available for download and use online. Google N-grams, a joint project between Google Books and a team of researchers from Harvard University, allows a user to search in detail the world’s largest corpus of lexical information: 500 billion words taken from every book published between the years 1800 and 2000. One can see, for instance, the frequency of occurrence of any word at any particular time or changes in usage over longer periods, or even the moment at which a new word entered the lexicon. Such tools have immense potential and offer a taste of the advantages to research offered by mass digitisation projects.
Whatever the differences in objectives between private companies and public institutions – be they commercial or for the preservation of culture for research - the labour and investment required are much the same; the digitisation of the world’s entire cultural legacy is a task too enormous to be left to any one sector. Hence the recommendations made to the European Commission encouraging public-private partnerships in the realisation of its Digital Agenda.
Europeana Libraries will add significantly to the 15 million digital works already available through the Europeana website. Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, has ambitious intentions for Europeana; she wants it to reference 30 million objects by 2015 and for it to include all public domain masterpieces by 2016. By 2025 it should have led to the digitisation of Europe’s entire cultural heritage.

Further Reading:
Photo and Illustration credits: Europeana Libraries

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