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The European Digital Library: Frequently Asked Questions

European Commission - MEMO/06/311   25/08/2006

Other available languages: FR

MEMO/06/311

Brussels, 25 August 2006

The European Digital Library: Frequently Asked Questions

What is the European Digital Library?

The Commission is promoting and co-ordinating work to build a common European "digital library", by which we mean a common multilingual access point to Europe’s cultural heritage. Through this access point, users will be able to search in their mother tongue different collections in Europe’s libraries, archives and museums without having to visit multiple sites. This is one of the key goals of the Commission's digital libraries initiative which aims at making European information resources easier and more interesting to use in an online environment.

Will European citizens really be 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 increase possibilities for these users, and also make it available for wider and cross-border use. Experience with online services so far shows 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 companies such as Google invest so much money in its digitisation project also demonstrates that there are clear commercial benefits.

What does the Commission expect of Member States?

The contents of the European digital library will grow at the same speed as the underlying digital collections in the participating institutions. At present, only a fraction of the collections in the EU Member States is digitised. A common effort is necessary to speed up the digitisation and online accessibility of the material.

First of all, Member States will have to invest in order to digitise their cultural heritage stored in traditional formats (e.g. text and photos on paper, photographic negatives, films on reels, music on vinyl records or tape, etc).

Building a rich European digital library is not just a matter of money. It also requires an organisational effort. And it presupposes that the right conditions are in place for digitisation, online accessibility and the preservation of cultural content. The Commission Recommendation calls on Member States to act in areas where problems have been reported, such as copyright clearance, the lack of overviews of what has already been digitised and the absence of strategies for the preservation of digital information.

What issues are tackled in the Commission Recommendation adopted today?

In the Recommendation the Commission urges Member States to tackle three main areas: the digitisation of cultural material, its online accessibility and digital preservation. In these areas the Commission asks Member States to ensure:

  • Digitisation of content

- by setting up large scale digitisation facilities.

- by clearly indicating what they have already digitised and by quantifying their further plans. This will help to avoid overlap and to create collections with European added-value.

- by encouraging partnerships between cultural institutions and the private sector.

  • Online accessibility

- by promoting the development of the European Digital Library as the multilingual access point to Europe's cultural heritage. This can be done, for example, by specifying conditions for granting funding to cultural institutions for digitisation work.

- by looking at and working towards concrete solutions on copyright issues, for example mechanisms to deal with "orphan" works (copyrighted works whose owners are very difficult or impossible to locate) and works that are out of print.

  • Digital preservation

- by establishing national strategies and plans for the long-term preservation of and access to digital material.

- by adapting legislation, where necessary, to allow multiple copying and migration for preservation purposes, and to tackle the issues of web-preservation and the deposit of digital material for preservation purposes.

Is the Recommendation just about books?

No. The Recommendation addresses all types of cultural material: books, journals, audiovisual material, photographs, documents in archives, etc.

What did stakeholders say?

The Recommendation builds inter alia on the results of an open consultation on the digital library initiative (30 September 2005 to 20 January 2006 (see IP/06/253). The Commission received 225 replies, from cultural institutions (46%), publishers and rightholders (19%), universities/academics (14%), IT firms (8%), citizens (6%) governments and ministries (3%), and others (4%). Organisations and individuals from 21 Member States and from 8 countries outside the EU replied to the consultation. The initiative is generally very well received and seen as an enormous opportunity for making Europe’s cultural, scientific and scholarly heritage more accessible and usable on the Internet. The replies are very rich in ideas. A key contentious point, in particular between cultural institutions and publishers, is how to deal with works under copyright.

Why is digital preservation needed?

Experts estimate that our society has created and stored 100 times as much information since 1945 as in the whole of human history up to that point. Another study suggests that the world's total yearly production of print, film, optical and magnetic content would require roughly 1.5 billion gigabytes of storage i.e. 250 megabytes per person.

Not all of this information is worthwhile preserving, but a lot of it is. And that is where the problem lies. All digital material – digitised works as well as ‘born digital’ material – has to be maintained, if not it will be lost. There are several reasons for the loss of digital content: successive generations of hardware rendering files unreadable; rapid succession and obsolescence of computer programs; the limited lifetime of storage devices (e.g. CD-ROMs); and an increasing supply of information and dynamic content.

To ensure that the content of the digital age remains available for future generations, we have to act now. Although several initiatives in this area exist, most Member States do not have a clear policy on digital preservation.

Who is the European Digital Library aimed at?

The European Digital Library will offer anyone with an interest a simple route to access European cultural resources. It is aimed at informed citizens (both professional and non-professional) who want a powerful and simple way of finding cultural material from different Member States. Moreover, it is expected to attract researchers as there will be a vast virtual collection of material from all disciplines.

Once digitised, our cultural heritage can also be used as input for new creative efforts and for a wide range of information products and services. It can for example play a key role in the future growth of sectors such as learning and tourism.

Will there be recent materials, i.e recent books, available online through the European Digital Library?

This will depend on the participation of private right holders (for example publishers) in the European Digital Library and on agreements between the participating cultural institutions and right holders to make the material available.

Will consultation of the European Digital Library be free?

It will be free in as far as public domain material is concerned, that is to say material that is not or no longer covered by copyrights. The decision how to make copyrighted material available of course involves also the right holders.

Will the European Digital Library be built from scratch?

No. The European Digital Library will build on the European Library (TEL), which offers, already today, an organisational framework in which a number of European libraries already collaborate and have experimented with improving the online accessibility of their digital assets. The European Library service originates from the TEL-project, co-financed under the EU’s 5th research framework programme. At present the TEL portal (see: http://www.theeuropeanlibrary.org/portal/index.html) is a gateway to the catalogues of the collections of European libraries and to digitised resources of the participating libraries.

What are the next steps for the European Digital Library?

The following steps are envisaged:

2006: full EU-wide collaboration between national libraries in the TEL/CENL (Conference of European National Librarians) framework.

2008: multilingual access to digital collections of national libraries through the TEL portal. The collections must be searchable and usable. A minimum of two million digital works (books, pictures, sound files etc.) should be accessible through the European Digital Library.

2010: the European Digital Library needs to have expanded to include collections of a number of archives, museums and other libraries, and possibly publishers. A minimum of six million digital works should be accessible through the European Digital Library. In practice, this number can be much higher, if cultural institutions of different types and at different levels (national, regional, local) participate.

What has been so far the reaction of the Member States to the digital libraries initiative?

The digital libraries initiative follows up a letter of 28 April 2005 to the Presidents of the European Council and of the Commission by six Heads of State and Government. In the letter, they advocate the creation of a virtual European library. In his letter of 7 July 2005, Mr Barroso gave a positive reply to this suggestion, indicating the willingness of the Commission to work towards such a virtual European library and pointing to the work already undertaken in this area at European level.

In its Communication "i2010: digital libraries" of 30 September 2005 (see: COM(2005) 465 final), the Commission outlined its strategy in this area. The initiative was discussed by the Culture Council of 14 November 2005 and was well received. Several Ministers stressed the need to build on existing initiatives and projects.

How much will digitisation cost?

The financial effort needed for basic digitisation to meet the first targets of the European digital library can be estimated at some 200-250 MEUR over a period of four years (up to 2010) spread across all Member States.

What is the Commission’s financial contribution to the European Digital Library?

The Commission will contribute in areas where there is most European added-value, but will not fund the basic digitisation. EUR 60 million has been earmarked within the eContentplus programme for making Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage more accessible and usable. The research programmes will make considerable funding available to co-fund a network of “centres of competence” for digitisation and for digital preservation.

Public/private partnerships or private sponsorship can be a useful means to complement public funding and will allow some libraries to accelerate digitisation.

What are centres of competence and how will they be selected?

The centres of competence will house the skills and expertise needed to achieve excellence for digitisation and preservation processes. They will incorporate and build on existing know-how in technology companies, universities, cultural institutions, and other relevant organisations. A network of centres of competence, co-funded by the European Commission under the research programme could become the cornerstone of European digitisation and preservation.

The centres of competence will be selected further to open calls for proposals, which will be evaluated by independent experts. The large-scale digitisation facilities mentioned in the Commission Recommendation can be part of or closely linked to the centres of competence for digitisation.

What has Europe done in the past in this area?

Making Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage available online is not a new idea. 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 digitisation action plan (which came out of a major conference on digitisation in Lund, Sweden, held by the Commission in 2001). An update of the action plan was adopted under the UK Presidency. A national representatives group (NRG) is in place that monitors progress, and makes sure that good practices are known in and spread to other Member States.

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. Another important project is MICHAEL. The project creates overviews of existing digital objects in the Member States. By 2007, the MICHAEL platform will be capable, through a European-level portal linked to a network of national ones, of discovering digital collections that are dispersed across Europe.

Ultimately what will the Digital Library provide for Europe's citizens?

Ultimately the Digital Library will give European citizens the opportunity to consult via their computer, books, newspapers and films from their own country and from other European countries. People will use it to find, understand and experience their cultural heritage through digital libraries and virtual visits to the past. The user-friendly access point will allow them to search the information in their mother tongue and to combine the digital material from different sources.

Further information:

The text of the Recommendation on digitisation and digital preservation can be found on the i2010 Digital Libraries Initiative web site at:

http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/digital_libraries/index_en.htm
The portal of The European Library can be accessed at:

http://www.theeuropeanlibrary.org/portal/index.htm
See also press release of today : IP/06/1124


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