Building the European Digital Library: calls for greater cooperation

copenhagen.jpgA major European conference on digitisation came to an end today with a call for greater cooperation between countries and increased investment in digitisation at the highest political levels. The three-day LIBER-EBLIDA conference in Copenhagen brought together representatives from national and university libraries across Europe to discuss how digitisation can support moves towards making available European scholarly and cultural digital content, writes Philip Pothen.

High on the agenda were moves towards a European Digital Library – the delivery of integrated access to the digitised collections of libraries, archives and museums across the EU – the involvement of major commercial players such as Google and Microsoft and the stated aims of a number of smaller European nations to digitise their entire cultural and scholarly heritage.

Pat Manson from the European Commission was one of the keynote speakers. She said the European Commission had designated Digital Libraries as one of its i2010 flagship projects, but that the vision of integrated access required cross-domain collaboration, joining up and selecting of content to create a critical mass. She said the Commission was addressing these objectives at political, strategic and technical levels. Concern was expressed, however, that while the Commission was supporting the development of tools, digitisation itself was being devolved to member states, something that is causing tension given the different pace of activity in different countries.

There were calls for greater coordination across countries in a number of areas: in the area of funding (from Hans Petschar from the Austrian National Library); in the exchange of information about available resources and the creation of registries (from Werner Schwartz and Ralf Stockham from Goettinger University), and in the area of technical interoperability (from Stefan Gradmann of Hamburg University).

Toby Bainton, from the UK’s SCONUL (Society for College, University and National Libraries) spoke about the legal challenges involved in digitisation and specifically the question of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), the optional exceptions that EU directives in this area allow for and their differing interpretations in different European countries.

Astrid Verheusen from the Dutch National Library spoke about large-scale digitisation in the Netherlands and about how the last ten years had brought about significant changes in priorities in the area. At the outset the quality of the digitisation had been paramount, which meant a smaller volume of materials digitised. But around 2000, she reported, the emphasis had changed towards techniques more appropriate for ‘mass digitisation’ projects. This trend was likely to continue, she said, with greater streamlining, less time spent on selection of materials and limited time spent on restoration. ‘Less then perfect solutions,’ she said, ‘can enable us to be flexible, modular and nimble.’

Paula Marchionni, manager of the JISC digitisation programme, spoke about the £22m programme and its 22 projects and how they are digitising a wide range of materials, including newspapers, sound, maps, cartoons, journals, parliamentary papers, etc. Most of the projects from the first phase of the programme had now made available content, she said, and the 16 projects from the second phase were building on their success and on lessons learnt.

Other speakers in the same session looked at national digitisation efforts. Latvian, Catalan and Danish representatives spoke about how digitisation was a key strand of their national efforts to make available national heritage materials and to increase the presence of that heritage on the Web as a whole.

Stuart Dempster of the UK’s Strategic Content Alliance spoke about the work of the
Alliance developing a UK Content Framework (for delivery in spring 2009) and to maximise the investment being made in public sector information. A partnership between key public sector bodies, including JISC, the BBC and the NHS, the Alliance is attempting to overcome the many barriers which prevent citizens from the accessing the publicly-funded content they require for education, research work and leisure activities.

Jens Redmer reported on Google’s Books Search and Library Partner programmes, calling them ‘historic’ in their attempts not only to make available ‘the world’s information’ but also to join up services so that, for example, a Google search would link not only to content about a book but the book itself, or, where Google could not itself digitise the book concerned due to its still being in print, to local bookshops where that book could be bought. The presentation drew a wide range of questions about intellectual property, licensing issues and the ownership of the over one million texts currently being digitised by Google in Europe and the USA.

Among the recommendations made by conference delegates were: changes in European copyright directives, including greater uniformity of copyright regimes across the EU; simplified access to information about all European library and archive resources through a single portal (a ‘European Discovery Space’); greater coordination in the sharing of best practice as far as public-private sector initiatives were concerned to allay some of the fears felt by many in this area; agreement on the place of European developments on the world stage, and greater coordination of long-term preservation activities.

Conference chair Paul Ayris summarised the conference’s outcomes by saying that digitisation is fragmented and uncoordinated with no overarching strategies which underpin the work being done across Europe. Calling for greater coordination across the continent, he asked why it was that it had taken a private company, Google, to show European libraries a way forward in making available scholarly resources?

Libraries are changing, he continued, and these changes constitute a ’revolution’. But we have yet to identify what this truly means for libraries, he suggested. However, he concluded by saying that the conference had identified a number of action points in certain key areas – such as IPR, funding, greater cooperation, and so on – and these would be taken forward through the appropriate forums.

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