Europe's cultural wealth at the click of a mouse: frequently asked questions
European Commission - MEMO/08/546 11/08/2008
Other available languages: none
Brussels, 11 August 2008
What is digitisation?
Digitisation is the transformation into digital format of text and photos from paper, films from reels, music from vinyl or videos from tape, so it can be (dis)played and used from a computer. For text and photos this involves scanning.
Information technologies make it possible to consult cultural material through your computer, but it has to be available in digital format first. Digitisation is therefore a precondition for a better dissemination of cultural content on the internet.
Older works in libraries and archives can be difficult for people to access and are susceptible to wear and tear. For example, ancient and rare manuscripts are not put at the disposal of all visitors. Digital versions of old works will not only guarantee survival through the ages, but reach a much wider audience without causing any risk to the original copy. Through digital libraries people will be able to visit the past virtually to find, understand and experience Europe's cultural wealth and history. Sometimes digitisation is the only way to preserve the content. This is the case for a lot of audiovisual material: ten thousands of hours of unique film material are lost every year because the originals in the audiovisual archives are falling apart.
This is why the Commission promotes the digitisation of cultural works like books, newspapers, films and photographs from European museums, libraries and other archives.
Digitisation will give European citizens the opportunity to use their
computer to consult books, newspapers, works of art and films from their own
country and from other European countries. For example, the following digitised
works are already available to everybody at the click of a link:
- The paintings by Johannes Vermeer from the Dutch museum 'Het Mauritshuis'.
The online availability of more recent works – that are still in copyright – will depend on the way in which private right holders (such as publishers) want to exploit them. They could for example become available through agreements between the participating cultural institutions and the right holders.
Many libraries, museums and archives throughout Europe have started digitising their collections. This is true for the major national institutions, but there are also many local and regional museums and libraries that are digitising their unique assets. Often the digitised material is invisible for the user, simply because it is not available online (only one out of four German museums with digitised material makes it available on the internet) or because it is difficult to find.
Soon however, European art music and book lovers will have a new source of pleasure: Europeana, the common European digital library, museum and archive, will make it easier to find and consult the hidden treasures of Europe's cultural heritage.
The Commission has stimulated and co-ordinated work towards the creation of Europeana, a common multilingual and digital access point to Europe’s cultural heritage. Through this access point, users will be able to search different collections in Europe’s cultural institutions in their own language, without having to visit multiple sites or countries. Europeana will be launched as a prototype in November.
The European Digital Library Foundation, established in November 2007, represents the commitment of the different cultural sectors to deliver Europeana. Its founding members include major European associations of libraries, museums, audiovisual and other archives.
A first presentation of Europeana can be found at: http://www.europeana.eu/
Europeana will offer anyone with an interest in literature, history, art or cinema a simple route to access European cultural resources. It offers professionals and citizens a simple way of finding cultural material from different Member States. It is also expected to attract researchers as there will be a vast virtual collection of material from all disciplines. That said, it will be just as easy for school children to use it.
Experience with digitisation and online library initiatives so far shows that when cultural institutions have made part of their collections available online there has been an overwhelming interest from the public. For example, the online section of the French national library, Gallica, gets 1.5 million hits a month and 4 000 downloads a day. The popularity of regular European libraries provides a strong user base of 138 million registered users. Putting the material online will increase possibilities for these users and make it available for wider and cross-border use.
Like all libraries, the popularity and usefulness of digital libraries like Europeana will depend on the quantity and quality of the material it offers, and there is therefore a big onus on Member States to digitise material and make it available online. The content of Europeana will grow at the same speed as the underlying digital collections in the participating institutions. At present, only a tiny fraction of the collections in the EU Member States is digitised. For example, about 1% of the collections of Europe's national libraries are digitised. The estimate is that by 2012 this will have risen to some 4%. A common effort is necessary to speed up the pace of digitisation and online accessibility of the material.
First of all, Member States will have to invest in order to digitise their cultural content 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, including the conclusion of public private partnerships. Also the right conditions for digitisation, online accessibility and the preservation of cultural content need to be in place.
In August 2006, the Commission recommended to Member States to tackle a series of priority actions for the digitisation of cultural material, its online accessibility and digital preservation (IP/06/1124)
In November 2006 the national Ministers responsible for culture broadly endorsed the Commission Recommendation. In doing so, they agreed to move forward together to bring Europe's cultural heritage online and outlined a specific timeline for action. http://www.europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=PRES/06/309&format=HTML&aged=1&language=EN&guiLanguage=en
What progress have Member States made since 2006?
Today the Commission has published a progress report assessing the actions that Member States have undertaken since 2006 to make more books, newspapers, paintings, films and photographs from their museums, archives and libraries available online, as well as the actions to ensure the preservation of digital material.
The report shows that there has been progress in some areas:
At the same time much remains to be done, in particular on:
Experts estimate that since 1945 over 100 times as much information has been created and stored than in the whole of human history up to that point. Others suggest 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 digital 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 because otherwise 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, Europe needs to act now. In its 2006 Recommendation the Commission urged Member States to take the necessary measures (national strategies and an update of the relevant legislation) for preserving digital content.
The Commission has over the last few years:
In 2009 and 2010 the Commission will make some €69 million available for the further development of digital libraries (including digital preservation, better and cheaper digitisation, multilingual search, innovative ways of improving access to cultural heritage). In the same time span some €50 million will be made available for the deployment of digital libraries through the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme. This includes the co-funding of experiments supporting targeted digitisation actions, although the funding of basic digitisation will essentially remain a matter for the Member States.