Europe Seeks to Grow Digital Archive

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Europe's online digital museum now has more than 14 million artifacts but experts are still looking for ways to improve the collection.

Europeana, the E.U.'s digital library, was launched in November 2008 to allow people access to digitized books, maps, paintings, newspapers, photographs, film fragments and other audiovisual documents from Europe's cultural institutions in their own language.

Despite the overall success of the project -- the original target for 2010 was 10 million objects -- there is still some room for improvement, said Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes. For example, video and sound material makes up only 2 percent of the collection.

Europeana is also hampered by copyright clearance difficulties. The vast majority of artifacts are much older and out of copyright or are "orphan" works, or material whose potential rights holders are unknown.

Photographs, maps, paintings and images of museum objects make up 64 per cent of the collection. A further 34 per cent is dedicated to texts, including more than 1.2 million complete books that can downloaded, including rare manuscripts with the earliest printed books from before 1500.

Last year European Commission representatives sought assurances from Google that it would not infringe copyright with its similar global Google Books book-scanning project. The Internet giant tried to placate European publishers saying that it would only display out-of-print translations of works that were still commercially available in Europe with the approval of their copyright holders. It also pledged to make greater efforts to ensure that books are truly out-of-print before making them available in digital form.

There were fears that Europeana and Google Books would be in direct conflict, but they now appear to be occupying different positions. Cultural institutions from all E.U. member states have contributed items to Europeana. Furthermore the institutions retain control over their content. Europeana operates as a portal to the content rather than storing it itself. The institutions organize their digitized content to make search possible, inviting users to read a book, play a video or listen to an audio recording that is stored on the servers of the contributing institutions.

France and Germany are the largest contributors, but the steering group, the Comité des Sages, wants to see more material from other countries to ensure Europeana represents a true cross-section of Europe's cultural heritage.

Next year, users will have the opportunity to contribute to the collection as Europeana invites individuals to contribute material around the theme of World War I.

New items added this year include a Bulgarian parchment manuscript from 1221 revealing the history of the Bulgarian language; Catechismusa prasty szadei, the first Lithuanian book, published in 1547; and a 1588 copy of Aristotle's Technē rētorikēs in ancient Greek and Latin.

Other fascinating items include handwritten travel notes by Mozart and handwritten music scores by Beethoven; a series of videos illustrating how Galileo Galilei did his experiments; paintings by the 17th century Dutch painter Jan Steen; the 1476 Caxton edition of the Canterbury Tales; and several editions of the 'Origin of species' by Charles Darwin.

A Comité des Sages report on Europeana is due to be published at the beginning of 2011.

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