22nd Sep 2019

EU takes on Google with digital culture depository

  • Europe's literary classics will be available via the project (Photo: European Commission)

The great paintings of Europe, the musical scores of the continent's finest composers and documents of profound historical importance - from the Magna Carta to Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring and Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal" - are now digitally available, via the EU's vast Europeana project, to anyone in the world without ever having to visit the museum or library where the fragile original is held.

The multimillion-euro digital library backed by the 27-nation bloc is a public endeavour intended to take on, or complement, the book and image search engines of internet colossus Google.

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Alongside the works of art, music and literature, visitors will also be able to upload holiday snaps they have taken while on trips to historic sites such as the Eiffel Tower, Brussels' Mannekin Pis or Legoland.

Going live on Thursday (20 November), the site was instantly overwhelmed by the 10 million visitors per hour it was receiving and crashed mid-morning, requiring a quick doubling of the number of servers supporting the library. It crashed again in the early evening.

Websurfers can access some 2 million books, maps, recordings, photographs, archival documents, paintings and films from national libraries and cultural institutions of the EU's 27 member states.

"Europeana is much more than a library, it is a veritable dynamo to inspire 21st century Europeans to emulate the creativity of innovative forbears like the drivers of the Renaissance," said commission president Jose Manuel Barroso at the launch.

Libraries and museums digitise works so that they can be viewed via a computer and then makes the objects available for search and retrieval through the Europeana portal. This process involves a gargantuan digitising effort requiring lots of workers and page-turning robots.

Indeed, most of the funding for the project - €2 million a year in EU financing - goes to the digitisation process, which is the responsibility of member states.

The EU nations have embraced the project to wildly differing levels of enthusiasm. Ten member states have each uploaded 0.1 percent or less of the digitised items. The UK and Netherlands are well represented, each providing 10 percent of the objects in the system, and Finland and Sweden have also delivered a smorgasboard of documents.

However, France has dominated Europeana, providing a full 52 percent of its content.

This is just the beginning insists the commission. By 2010, the project hopes to hold some 10 million items.

"I now call on Europe's cultural institutions, publishing houses and technology companies to fill Europeana with further content in digital form," said information society commissioner Viviane Reding.

In August, the commission asked the member states to step up their efforts to contribute to Europeana.

The project kicked off in 2005 under the co-ordination of the European Digital Library Foundation with the co-operation of national libraries, museums and archives of all member states.

Some 1,000 cultural organisations have provided material, from the Louvre in Paris to Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum and the British Library.

Currently, users can search for items in all EU official languages except Bulgarian and Maltese, although they will be added in the coming months.

In the years to come, employing new semantic technologies, users will be able to enter a search term in their own language and have all results that contain the search term's meaning in other languages as well.

The commission says that Europeana is far more specific than generic search engines. It will serve up fewer hits, but more targeted results.

Google and Gutenberg

The market-dominating search engine Google welcomed its publicly-funded competitor to the internet.

"Digitisation projects like Europeana send a strong signal that authors, publishers, libraries and technology companies can work together to democratise access to the world's collective knowledge," the company's European book search leader, Santiago de la Mora, wrote on his blog.

"The more of these projects, the easier it will be for readers and researchers around the world to be able to search books and other materials that are now scattered throughout the globe and difficult to access."

The company also said it hopes its Google Book Search can collaborate with the EU library, calling such projects "the biggest technological leap in disseminating knowledge since Gutenberg invented the printing press.

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