24th Nov 2020

EU looks to private sector to fund €100bn digitisation of books, art

  • When it comes to public and private funding, building digital libraries is as controversial as any other spending area (Photo: EUobserver)

It will never be known what knowledge was lost in history's greatest act of cultural vandalism, the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the largest library of the ancient world. In 48 BC, Julius Caesar is thought to have ordered his ships set alight, sparking a firestorm that burnt through the docks of the city and ultimately the great library.

Scholars mourn the tragedy, wondering what literature was stolen forever and what science or philosophy was hidden from humanity only to be rediscovered centuries, millenia later.

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Yet to this day, any library, museum or gallery on the planet is still in danger from such elementary foes: fire, tsunami or earthquake, or simple theft. As a result of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, an estimated 1 million books, 10 million documents, and 14,000 archaeological artifacts were lost from libraries and museums.

But in the second decade of the 21st century, enormous efforts are being mounted by European states and other nations to digitise our species' cultural heritage, which will not only ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again, but also open wide new pastures of scholarship by making all of literature, art and scholarship as searchable as the internet is today.

Such efforts are highly labour-intensive, and therefore extraordinarily expensive as well, making the move highly politicised as debates rage in the pages of literary reviews and academic journals over the possibility of private profit-making from the intellectual patrimony of mankind.

Robert Darnton, a leading historian of the book and perhaps the key scholar leading the charge against the efforts of the likes of Google Books, launched in 2004, which has so far digitised 15 million of the estimated 130 million unique book titles that exist in the world, laments what he calls the "privatisation of knowledge". Meanwhile, Google for their part stresses how they have bent over backwards to ensure free public access.

On Monday, the European Union waded into this debate, with a European Commission "Committee of Wise Men" arguing that the process is of such immense scale and cost that, in an age of austerity, cash-strapped libraries, museums and galleries have no choice but to depend on the private sector to pay for the exercise.

However, full, free access by the public to digitised artifacts is non-negotiable, no matter who does the digitising, the wise men, Maurice Levy, the chair of advertising firm Publicis, Elisabeth Niggemann, the director-general of the German National Library, and Jacque de Decker, the secretary of Belgium's Royal Academy of French Language and Literature, said in their report on the subject.

The Wise Men authors tabulated that the full cost for libraries, museums and national archives to digitise the full richness of European culture and civilisation will likely amount to a "gigantic" €100 billion.

However, they put the figure in perspective, noting that the research alone, never mind the production, of Europe's Joint Strike Fighter, is an estimated €40 billion.

"[EU] Member states need to considerably step up their investments in digitisation," the report argues, calling for all public domain works in Europe to be digitised by 2016 and deposited within Europe's digital library, Europeana.

At the same time, they recognise that it is hard to make the argument for digitising Beowulf or the statue of David at a time when public pensions, healthcare and other services are being stripped to the bone under Europe-encouraged austerity programmes. "Stimulating the flow of private funds for the digitisation of cultural assets ... becomes all the more acute in the wake of the current financial downturn and the growing pressure on public budgets," the report says.

As private actors bring "funding, technology and expertise," the "key question is not whether public-private partnerships for digitisation should be encouraged, but 'how' and under which conditions' ... The involvement of private partners should be encouraged," they note, adding a caveat that this "should not be seen as a substitute for public funding," and that the public sector "has the primary responsibility to fund digitisation."

"Striking the right balance in public-private partnership agreements is a question of fine negotiation between cultural institutions and private partners," the Wise Men advise, noting that such libraries and archives "often enter partnerships with commercial entities unprepared or unequipped."

The report says that the contents of the agreements made between public institutions and private digitisers be made public - Google has so far been reluctant to reveal the details of its digitisation process and the amounts it spends as a result of these partnerships.

Any such private partnership should also be made only on condition that "digitised public domain material be free of charge for the general public and available in all member states."

Orphan works and metadata

In a shot across Google's bow, the report added that the maximum time for preferential use of digitised material resulting from such partnerships be limited to seven years. Google's deals in this regard so far have ranged from 15 to 25 years.

The wise men also stressed that current digitised efforts often incur problems with "metadata" - the information attached to an object describing the author, the age or provenance of the work. Scholars have lamented errors in metadata - such as search results showing 325 books on Woody Allen having been published before 1812 - are endemic.

They further noted that insufficient emphasis has so far been placed on the digitisation of audiovisual materials, newspapers, periodicals and museum objects such as statues or pottery.

The report added that the thorny problem of so-called orphan works - those still in copyright but for which the copyright holder cannot be contacted - must be resolved as soon as possible. Specifically, the authors recommended an adaptation to the Berne Convention, the international agreement governing copyright.

In unveiling the report, the commission said that it intended to introduce legislative proposals along these lines some time later this year.

Responding to the document, Google issued a nugatory statement saying: "The report underlines the importance of digitisation for preserving and increasing access to cultural heritage - something Google has supported for many years ... We ensure web users can get free access to public domain books via Google Books and via the websites of our library partners."

The company did not wish to comment on the suggestion that preferential-use deals be limited to seven years.

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