The much-anticipated Europeana portal (www.europeana.eu) came to life 1 day ahead of schedule, on Nov. 19. But capacity problems hit hard, leaving it battered and bruised by 10 million hits per hour on its official inauguration day. On Nov. 21, the portal announced a temporary closing until mid-December. The European Union-funded collaboration provides free access to some 2 million digital objects from libraries, museums, archives, and audio-visual collections in 27 member European countries. The website supports formats for film material, photos, paintings, sounds, maps, manuscripts, books, newspapers, and archival papers.
Europeana began in July 2007 with the ambitious goal of making Europe’s cultural heritage "fully interoperable and accessible through a multilingual service." The current launch is a beta, with interfaces in 21 of the 23 official languages of the European Union (EU). By 2010, the Europeana portal plans to provide direct access to 10 million digital objects and to be fully operational in all EU languages.
Funded by the European Commission under the eContentplus program, a part of its i2010: Digital Libraries Initiative policy (http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/digital_libraries/index_en.htm), Europeana was originally known as the European digital library network (EDLnet). It is a partnership of 90 representatives of heritage and knowledge organizations and IT experts from throughout Europe. Europeana can also trace its roots back to The European Library (www.theeuropeanlibrary.org), developed by the Conference of European National Librarians as a European counterforce to Google’s Book Search project (see "Building a European Digital Library: A Challenge in the Culture Wars," Searcher, March 2006).
More Than Books
The realization of Europeana goes beyond the goal of providing instantaneous digital access to books in libraries, however. Claudia Dillmann, director of the Deutsches Filminstitut, says, "We recognize that researchers and people learning about European history and culture need to explore all sorts of media, including films, sounds, photos, and papers." The internet should provide integrated access to all these media types, and that requires collaboration among archival, library, audio-visual, and museum domains. Such collaboration across domains and across the countries of Europe is a significant endeavor.
Europeana is headquartered at the national library of the Netherlands, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek; the EDL Foundation oversees the project (http://dev.europeana.eu/edlnet/edl_foundation/purpose.php). Reportedly Europeana works with a staff of 14 and at an annual budget of about €2.5 million (about $3.15 million). Partnership in the initiative comes from 27 European countries (http://dev.europeana.eu/partners_list.php) and there are national representatives from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
The prototype targeted already-digitized artifacts in particular themes: cities, social life, music, crime and punishment, and travel and tourism. So on relaunch, you should be able to see objects related to medieval pilgrimage and modern immigration, trade routes, world exhibitions, and crimes against humanity.
The portal provides a simple keyword search box and a link to Advanced Search. Advanced Search contains three search boxes (with AND, OR, and NOT connectors) for searching within Title, Creator, Date, Subject, or Any field. In addition to search, you can browse by timeline, format of object, or ideas that "People are currently thinking about."
Perhaps not surprising, due to its genealogy (Jean-Noël Jeanneney, then president of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, provided the spark in his "Google Defies Europe" article in Le Monde on Jan. 22, 2005), the contents at the portal’s launch were overwhelmingly French. More than 1,000 cultural organizations from across Europe have provided digitized items as of Nov. 1, 2008. But 52% of the items now in Europeana come from France, 10% from the U.K., 10% from the Netherlands, 8% from Finland, and 7% from Sweden. Every other EU member state has so far contributed 2% or less of the contents, in several instances less than 0.1%.
There are two immediate consequences: First, we see European events and culture primarily through French eyes. For example, the collapse of the Berlin Wall is shown by a French TV documentary. Second, we should search for objects using French words and frequently must select objects based on French metadata.
A Europeana FAQ says that "it will be just as easy for school children to use it, for homework or for fun." Well, sure, if they know French. In fact, as artifacts from other member states and languages increase, the Babelian experience can only be expected to be more inhibiting. Even now, the "Think Culture" phrase attached to the portal logo appears in 21 languages, rarely coinciding with the one you have chosen for your interface.
Since copyright questions—particularly those related to orphan works whose rightsholders cannot be located—are still unresolved, many of the works that Europeana makes accessible now are pre-20th century. But France’s Institut national de l’audiovisuel has supplied 80,000 broadcasts recording the 20th century, even dating back to early footage shot on the battlefields of France in 1914.
Advanced web technologies have been embedded from the start. If you register, you can add tags to your retrieved items and store items in a personal MyEuropeana space. You can also join a community: currently there are communities for Genius (logicians), classical music, cinema, museums, arts, and a Go Europeana community for the semantic web. At present, Europeana does not accept contributions from private individuals or commercial companies, but a Flickr account is to be established where individuals can upload photos of their visits to historic sites and monuments for possible future inclusion.
Another area in which Europeana aims beyond Google is in the application of structured metadata. Strict standards for contribution have been developed (http://dev.europeana.eu/provide_content.php). Content contributors are required to provide metadata about their resources in Dublin Core, which is used to build a basic index for simple search. Items submitted should have metadata already existing or possible to create by automatic processing. Europeana offers users direct access to the digital object rather than to collection descriptions, so content providers are strongly encouraged to provide more elaborate metadata to enable users to get straight to the content. Europeana uses the OAI-PMH (Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting) approach, and all data transfer is based on XML structured files.
The Europeana portal itself contains "object surrogates" that aggregate different data types. For example, a surrogate may be a thumbnail of images, a sample of audio content, descriptive metadata, rights information, and a link to the original digital object, which itself continues to be housed at the content provider sites. Upon discovery of the object at the Europeana portal, users are directed to the various content provider sites to access the original object.
Even now, content development is expanding to accept smaller collections with differing formats (priority has been given prelaunch to large-scale collections with consistent descriptive and format standards). According to the European Library Newsletter of November/December 2008, a European Film Gateway project will add film stills, posters, scripts, and digitized films; and EuropeanaLocal will bring in material from regional libraries, archives, museums, and audio-visual collections. Rob Davies, scientific coordinator of EuropeanaLocal, has already provided encouragement by publishing a "best practices" direction for adding local content in Ariadne (www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue57/davies).
Cross-language searching is a goal—an ambitious one. Now, you need to search using the words treaty, traité, and trattato to find objects on treaties in English, French, and Italian; the application of semantic technologies in the future would enable retrieval of all "treaty" items by a single-word search in any of the languages.
But money and cooperation—more of both—are overriding needs. European libraries alone contain more than 2.5 billion books, with 1% of those now in digital form. The total cost of digitizing 5 million books in Europe’s libraries is estimated at approximately €225 million, but that does not include objects such as manuscripts or paintings. Moreover, an analysis by the European Commission shows that in many cases, objects that have been digitized are not necessarily available online: only one in four German museums that have digitized material offer online access to it, and only 1% of the material digitized by Polish archives is online.
The European Commission is scheduled to provide €120 million in 2009–2010 for improving online access to Europe’s cultural heritage, but it wants its member states to contribute more for digitization and access. In August, the commission asked member states to step up their participation also by setting specific goals on how much they would digitize.
Bruno Racine, current president of the national library of France, leads with a challenge: "The Bibliothèque nationale de France played a significant role in the birth and existence of Europeana by providing its name but above all by making a substantial technical, financial, and documentary contribution to it. … Everything that we digitise is intended to be accessible via Europeana and represents several million items." [Italics added for emphasis.]
In the next 2 years, the other 26 member states must step up and increase their holdings to make Europeana the pan-European treasure house that it can be.
And in the next month, Europeana will be reinforced to handle the 10 million hits per hour that brought it down on its official launch day—reportedly there are already six instead of the originally planned three servers. A little cleanup and hackproof security is also in order, as some of the images on the portal front page (if you did manage to make it through on Nov. 20) looked as though they had been placed there by those school children looking for fun, mentioned in the FAQ. In the meantime, potential users are directed to the promo site at http://dev.europeana.eu. But I say, "Wait for the real site." It’s worth exploring, and it will return—though I dare say with a soft, unannounced launch.