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Recommendation on the digitisation of cultural material and its preservation online - guide

29 October 2011
by eub2 -- last modified 29 October 2011

The European Commission has adopted a Recommendation asking EU Member States to step up their efforts, pool their resources and involve the private sector in digitising cultural material. This is seen as essential to make European cultural heritage more widely available and to boost growth in Europe's creative industries. The digitised material should be made available through Europeana, Europe's digital library, archive and museum.


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 accessed from a computer and consulted online. For text and photos, this involves scanning. Digitisation is essential for the better dissemination of cultural content on the Internet.

Why is digitisation of cultural works important?

Thousands of films and other videos are lost every year because the originals simply do not survive the passage of time. The only way to retain access to this cultural heritage is to digitise it.

Museums and libraries are not able to make ancient and rare manuscripts available or display them to all visitors. Digital versions of old works will therefore not only guarantee survival through the ages, but also mean that they can reach a much wider audience without running any risk to the quality of the original copy. Through digital libraries people can visit the past in a virtual way to experience Europe's cultural wealth and history.

Once digitised, cultural material is a valuable resource for creators and businesses, who can reuse it to develop innovative products and services, for example for education and tourism or games and animations.

A Recommendation on this was already issued in 2006. Why do we need a new one?

Besides the technological changes which make digitisation easier and cheaper, the debate at European level has moved on considerably over the last few years.

New elements since 2006 include: the launch of Europeana in November 2008; publication of the report 'The New Renaissance' by the 'Comité des Sages' (high level reflection group) on bringing Europe's cultural heritage online on 10 January 2011; the Commission's proposal for an Orphan Works Directive of 24 May 2011 and a Memorandum of Understanding on Key Principles on the Digitisation and Making Available of Out-of-Commerce Works signed on September 2011 between organisations representing libraries on the one hand and publishers, authors and their collecting societies on the other (MEMO/11/619) .

How has the Recommendation been influenced by the 'Comité des Sages' report 'The New Renaissance'?

The findings of the 'Comité des Sages' helped the Commission draw up the new Recommendation which takes up many of the report's concrete suggestions. For example:

    An increase in funding by Member States for digitisation can generate jobs and growth in the future.

    Public-private partnerships for digitisation must be encouraged. They must be fair for all partners and result in cross-border access to the digitised material for all. Preferential use of digitised material by private partners should not exceed seven years.

    Access to and use of digitised cultural material in the public domain needs to be improved; all public domain masterpieces should be accessible through Europeana by 2015.

    The conditions for the digitisation and online accessibility of in-copyright material need to be improved to avoid the absence of recent and contemporary material online. Rapid adoption of EU rules for orphan works (whose rights holders cannot be identified) would be helpful in this context.

    Europeana should become the central reference point for Europe's online cultural heritage. Public funding for future digitisation should be conditional on the accessibility of the digitised material through Europeana, and existing metadata (descriptions of digital objects which enable their retrieval and use) should be widely and freely available for re-use.

    To guarantee the preservation of collections in their digital format, a second copy of this cultural material should be archived on Europeana. In addition, a system should be developed so that any cultural material that currently needs to be deposited in several countries would only be deposited once.

What progress have Member States made since 2006?

Member States reported on the progress they have made towards the objectives of the 2006 Recommendation in 2008 and 2010.

These reports show that progress has been made, albeit not consistently across Member States and unevenly for the different aspects of the Recommendation. In particular, more action is still necessary on:

    financial resources and quantitative targets for digitisation.

    solid support for Europeana, including criteria and conditions for financing digitisation.

The latest state of play for each Member State can be found on the digital libraries website.

What is Europeana?

Europeana rolls multimedia library, museum and archive into one website. It currently gives direct access to more than 19 million items covering digitised books, audio and film material, photos, paintings, maps, manuscripts, newspapers and archival documents that constitute an important part of Europe's cultural heritage. Visitors to can search and explore different collections from Europe's cultural institutions in their own language in virtual form, without having to visit multiple sites or countries.

How does Europeana work?

Europeana functions as a multimedia Internet portal with content from different sources. The digital objects that users can find in Europeana are not stored on a central server, but remain on the network of the host cultural institution. Users can search for the items available across the EU. Once they find what they are looking for, a simple click provides them with access to the full content – inviting them to read a book, play a video or listen to an audio recording – that is stored on the servers of the respective contributing institutions. Cultural institutions collaborating with Europeana organise their digitised content in order to make this search possible, while maintaining full control over their content.

How many digital objects are available through Europeana and where do they come from?

Europeana currently gives direct access to more than 19 million digitised items from museums, libraries, audiovisual sources and other archives across Europe. Over 1,500 cultural organisations from across Europe have provided material to Europeana. The digitised objects come from all 27 Member States and some countries outside the EU, although the geographical spread of content contributions is uneven.

What is new on Europeana?

Among the recently added sources are the paintings and objects from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna; historical texts and handwritings in Hebrew from the Goethe University in Frankfurt; a collection of posters from Europe's film archives and historical photographs from the national museum in Prague.

There are several new exhibitions on Europeana.

A virtually curated exhibition on 'Weddings in Eastern Europe' brings together images and sounds from traditional weddings in Poland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Hungary in the first decennia of the century. Among the specific themes treated is the role of the matchmaker, the arrival of the guests at the wedding, the ceremonial blessing and morning songs on the day after the wedding.

An exhibition on 'Musical Instruments' brings together the collections of nine of Europe's major musical instrument museums. Examples of instruments on display are a 16th century clavichord decorated with a painting of the battle of Lepanto, experimental instruments with strange shapes such as the 'violino-harpa', and celebrity instruments such as the synthesizer of ABBA's Benny Andersson.

How is Europeana financed?

In its start-up phase Europeana has been mainly financed by the EU. From 2009-2011, the EU's eContentplus programme contributed about 80% of the budget (€2.5 million per year). In the period 2011-2013 the EU's contribution will be increased to €3.7 million a year from the ICT Policy Support Programme. EU public authorities and cultural institutions pay for the rest. The EU also co-funds other projects directly or indirectly contributing to Europeana, and research projects that will improve the digitisation and online accessibility of cultural material, as well as its digital preservation. In the period 2009-2010, some €119 million was earmarked for these actions through the EU's overall research programme (7th Framework Programme) and its Competitiveness and Innovation Programme.

Who decides whether a cultural object goes on Europeana?

Whoever holds the material - individual libraries, audiovisual collections, libraries and museums - decides what they want to digitise based on several criteria:

    What are the most beautiful, historic or highly regarded items which they are most keen to share with the world?

    What do users most often want to consult or view?

    Are there hidden treasures – little-known items that could be enormously attractive to users once digitised?

    Are items too fragile for uses to consult, or to be displayed? Digitisation can help both preserve material and make it accessible to users.

Solid digitisation strategies can ensure that the same objects from different collections are not digitised twice. They will also help to digitise related collections. For example, if a library digitised the papers (letters, diaries, speeches) of a prominent statesman, and an archive in that country chose to digitise papers relating to his political party (records of meetings, manifestos, correspondence) from the same era, both sets of material would gain in strength from the shared context.

How can digitised cultural content create opportunities for business?

In their report the 'Comité des Sages', highlighted several areas in which digitised cultural content can stimulate economic growth and job-creation, including:

    In the digitisation process itself and the technologies linked to it. If European companies can develop the most efficient technologies and working methods in this field, they will be the first to benefit from public contracts for digitisation. The process of digitisation is also labour-intensive and will generate new jobs.

    As raw material for services and products in areas such as tourism, education and new technologies. The arrival of millions of new digitised cultural works online is likely to spur a wave of innovation and new business models for companies specialised in various stages of the digitisation chain. One example is Arkhopôle, based in the French Aquitaine region. It is a cluster of 125 SMEs who collaborate with cultural institutions and universities. They specialise in the creation and commercialisation of cultural content and try to develop a new market for digital heritage material.

Why are public-private partnerships necessary for digitisation?

The digitisation of our cultural heritage cannot be done with public money alone. A recent study on the cost of digitising Europe's cultural heritage estimates the total cost of digitising the collections of Europe's museums, archives and libraries, including the audiovisual material they hold, at approximately €100 billion.

The private sector can be involved in digitisation efforts through sponsorship or partnerships with the public sector. These partnerships should comply with a number of key principles to ensure that they are fair and balanced. In particular, they must set time-limits for the preferential use of the digitised material. The 'Comité des Sages' recommended that the maximum time for preferential use of the material digitised in PPPs should not be longer than seven years.

Some EU countries look for a private partner interested in digitisation through open calls for proposals. Recent calls have been issued in France and Germany. The call by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France makes explicit reference to the 7 year preferential use criteria.

Why should public funding for digitisation depend on whether this digitised material can be freely accessed through Europeana?

Member States should take measures to ensure that all material digitised with public funding is made available through Europeana, and so boost the development of the platform, because if public money is used to digitise cultural material, the public should share in the benefits.

Why does digital material need to be 'preserved'?

We now produce every two days as much information as we did from the start of civilisation up to 2003. Not all the digital information is worth preserving, but a lot of it is. All digital material – digitised works as well as material of digital origin – has to be maintained, 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.

With ever growing volumes of data being produced, Europe needs to continue to act in order to ensure that the content of the digital age remains available for future generations and that future generations will be able to find it, make sense of it and use it.

Who will benefit from the Recommendation?

The public is the main beneficiary of this Recommendation because the expansion of Europeana means that they can enjoy even more cultural treasures in a new and exciting way. There are gains for a number of groups. The 1500 libraries, archives and museums across Europe who contribute to Europeana; the researchers who get better and easier access to cultural content; rights holders (when the digitisation and online accessibility of in-copyright works is at stake); Europe's creative industries (who will be able to build business based on re-use of the material) and the ICT industry (companies who digitise, as well as companies developing new services and applications based on digital content) all stand to benefit.

Source: European Commission