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MEMO/05/347

Brussels, 30 September 2005

European digital libraries : Frequently Asked Questions

1. How would you summarise the European strategy for digital libraries?

Creating a virtual library of European dimension will depend on a common effort to move ahead on the following three strategic issues:

  • digitisation of content stored in traditional formats (e.g. text and photos on paper, photographic negatives, films on reels, music on vinyl records or tape, etc);
  • online accessibility of this content;
  • digital preservation – making sure that the digital information will also be available for future generations.

The commitment of the Member States and the individual institutions (libraries, archives) to this project will determine how fast it is carried out. The Commission will help to co-ordinate efforts at national level. Through its programmes - for example eContentplus and the research framework programmes - it will help to build “critical mass” and to ensure EU-wide access to digitised collections.

2. What material will be available in the digital libraries?

The European digital libraries initiative addresses all types of material: books, audiovisual material, photographs, documents in archives etc. The technology is beginning to enable users to find and work with information in all these forms. Information about Leonardo da Vinci, for example, can exist in the form of his work, books about him, documents with his drawings etc, plus films etc. The challenge is to create a digital library that combines these resources. This will also make it possible to tap the vast and diverse potential of Europe’s written text, image and sound archives.

3. Will there be one centralised European digital library?

Technology is moving fast and there are potentially many different ways of creating virtual European libraries. We should not aim at one single site or structure, but combine efforts in all the countries. What matters is to integrate access. This does not mean that the libraries or digital collections should be merged in a single database or library. Ideally, the user should be able to search in different collections through one single entry point and use the material. This would obviate the need to know about and visit multiple libraries.

4. How does the European initiative relate to the letter from 6 heads of State and Government about the creation of a European digital library and to the statement by 19 European national libraries?

The Commission has welcomed the letter by the Heads of State and Government on the creation of a European digital library and the statement of the national libraries in which they express their commitment to realise this objective. The Commission’s digital libraries communication sets out its view on how Europe can turn the digital libraries vision into reality. Making Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage available on line provides an immense reservoir of starting materials for Europe's artists and scientists - and information and communication technologies provide powerful new tools with which to exploit them, to the benefit of all. The Commission Communication outlines the actions that will be taken to give new impetus to digitisation work under way in the Member States and to contribute in the areas where Europe can add value.

5. Is the digital libraries initiative part of i2010 and of the Lisbon strategy?

The digital libraries initiative is a flagship project of i2010, the overall Commission strategy for the information society for the coming years (see IP/05/643).

Initiatives that improve the accessibility and flow of information are good for the knowledge economy, and the digital libraries initiative has a considerable economic potential. Once digitised, our cultural and scientific heritage can be used as input for a wide range of information products and services, e.g. in the education and tourism sectors.

6. Is the Commission initiative a reaction to Google’s digital library project?

Google’s initiative is an example that shows the potential of the online environment for making information more accessible for all. The sheer size of the announced operation – 15 million books – appeals to the imagination. The initiative has certainly triggered a reflection on how to deal with our European cultural heritage in the digital age. It is also interesting in that it highlights the possibilities for public/private initiatives in this area. Public/private partnerships or sponsoring by private companies will accelerate digitisation. Given the budgetary constraints on many cultural institutions, initiatives involving the private sector can be a useful means to complement public funding.

7. Will all material in Europe’s libraries and archives be covered?

We are dealing with potentially huge volumes of data. To take an example: The British Library has some 150 million items (books and others). European libraries hold in total more than 2.5 billion (2,500 million) books and bound periodicals. Not all of these books are unique, but even digitising all the unique material would be practically impossible. European archives also contain enormous amounts of documents and audiovisual material. Choices will have to be made as to what can be digitised, and of course copyrights have to be respected.

Digitisation is costly and requires a considerable upfront investment. The costs of a European virtual library would depend on the extent of its ambition, but also on the quality of the digitised material and the type of service offered. Downloadable versions of the highest quality would be more expensive than a “view only” service, based on low-quality scans.

Value can be added at European level through co-ordination to ensure that resources are used efficiently (no duplication of efforts) and that good practices enhancing cost-efficiency are known to all.

8. How will the material to be digitised be chosen?

The institutions or Member States themselves will be responsible for the selection. No “top down” model is envisaged. The decisions about what is included will need to be taken by the libraries and archives who own the materials as part of their own strategic development plans and in light of the resources (human and financial). However, European added-value is important. If a writer has, for example travelled and worked in different countries, it is interesting to combine material from the different countries.

9. Are European citizens interested in a European digital library?

Digitisation and online libraries initiatives have to be rooted in demand and use. European libraries have 138 million registered users. Putting the material online will not only increase possibilities for these users, but will also open it up for wider and cross-border use. Until now, the experience with online services is that people do use them. For example, Gallica, the online section of the French national library, gets 4, 000 downloads a day and 1.5 million hits a month. The fact that Google invests so much money in its digitisation project also demonstrates that there are clear commercial expectations.

10. What possibilities will the users have?

The needs of the users should be central. Developments will be demand-driven, but it is important to take a longer term and visionary view of what the user will get from the library in the way of services. Different users will have different needs and uses: One can imagine researchers wanting annotation tools; other users may wish to develop their family histories and genealogies using the materials in historical community archives. We see in the future that users can and will be much more actively involved in contributing to their cultural heritage online (e.g. the Wikipedia model).

11. What will be funded at European level?

Financing digitisation is mainly a responsibility of the Member States. The Commission can contribute in areas where there is most European added-value. Instruments such as the EU research programmes and eContentplus can play an important role, for example by helping to aggregate digitised material across borders. These programmes cannot, however, be used to fund routine digitisation.

At present, digitisation efforts in the Member States are progressing rather slowly. One of the aims of the European action in this area is to reinvigorate the national efforts. Public/private partnerships or private sponsorship can be a useful means to complement public funding and will allow some libraries to accelerate digitisation.

12. What work has already been done in this area?

Making Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage available online is not a new topic. In recent years, various policy initiatives have addressed digitisation and visibility of collections held by libraries, archives and museums. The EU Member States, supported by the Commission, exchange information and work together on digitisation. An important basis for their work is the Lund eEurope digitisation action plan (which came out of a major conference on digitisation in Lund, Sweden, held by the Commission in 2001). http://www.cordis.lu/ist/digicult/lund-principles.htm

Several EU-funded research projects have dealt with the online availability of Europe’s cultural heritage, some specifically with digitisation. A recent project dealing with the digitisation of Europe’s film heritage is PRESTO-SPACE. http://www.cordis.lu/ist/digicult/presto.htm

13. How does the vision for digital libraries relate to The European Library project?

The European Library service originates from the TEL project, co-financed under the EU’s 5th research framework programme. The vision of the project is that it will provide a gateway to the catalogues of the collections of European libraries and will eventually give access to their combined resources. Through TEL, some of the digital content of these libraries can already be obtained online. The TEL project ended on 31 January 2004. Its results can be seen as the embryo of a European digital library.

14. How will you deal with the issue of intellectual property rights?

Under current legislation only public domain works (where there is no longer copyright) can be made available to the public online. For other works, digital libraries need to get the explicit agreement of rightholders. In practice this means that only works from the 1920s or before will be covered in a digital library, or works for which there is an agreement, on a case by case basis, with the rightholders.

Intellectual property rights are a crucial issue in the online consultation that accompanies the digital libraries Communication. The replies to the consultation by all the stakeholders involved will be a valuable input for further reflection and action in this area.

See also IP/05/1202


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