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Europeana: An Infrastructure for Adding Local Content

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Rob Davies describes a Best Practice Network under the eContentPlus Programme to make available locally sourced digital content to the Europeana Service.

Europeana - the European digital library, museum and archive - is a two-year project that began in July 2007. It will produce a service giving users direct access initially to some two million digital objects, including film material, photos, paintings, sounds, maps, manuscripts, books, newspapers and archival papers, rising to a target of 10 million by 2010.

The development of the Europeana service is a flagship activity of the European Digital Libraries Initiative [1] [2], designed to increase access to digital content across four identified key domains (libraries, museums, archives and audio/visual archives) is now gaining momentum. The first prototype service [3] will be launched by Commissioner Viviane Reding to the Council of Ministers on 19/20 November 2008. This progress is paralleled in some countries by work co-ordinated at national and regional level to integrate access to cross-domain content [4].

However, there is a pressing need, not least in order to achieve Europeana's 2010 content target also to make available the enormous amount of digital content provided by Europe's cultural institutions at local and regional level alongside that held at national level. By doing so, such a move will extend the institutional base of content providers to involve more extensively Europe's network of museums and archives as well as libraries. This process will bring together and link up heterogeneously sourced content which is complementary in terms of themes, location and time. Moreover, it would make it possible to establish integrated services with greater richness and complexity. Such a development will also add value for users by linking the digital content brought on stream through EuropeanaLocal with content with local and regional relevance held by national level institutions. These are the goals of EuropeanaLocal [5].

Key Challenges

A major challenge in achieving these goals is that the digital content addressed by EuropeanaLocal is very widely distributed and heterogeneous, held in a wide variety of media, maintained in many different data formats and described by a wide variety of metadata schemas. This issue is related to the way in which users currently interact with the network of content providers and distributed collections of digital objects. Models can range from an environment where autonomous digital libraries are federated or accessed through unified interfaces at one end of the scale, or managed approaches where metadata and/or the actual objects are aggregated in one or more portals. Services are based on agreements between co-operating providers.

In order to address this challenge, a clear and direct route needs to be established for local institutions to enable their content to be used within Europeana. In addition to making accessible, in the shorter term, high-value digital content held by a variety of cultural institutions (from at least one locality or region in each member state) plus Norway, EuropeanaLocal will set in place, test and promote the use of a consistent Europeana-compliant execution environment. The latter would be achieved through technical and governance structures in such a way that the myriad cultural content generators from localities across Europe can easily 'plug in' their item-level content in future. The establishment of a pan-European infrastructure of this kind will not be achieved overnight. But it is of great importance that a start is now made so that a visible de facto standardisation of approaches can be achieved and a snowball effect created in the interests of users and public and private service providers across all member states.

A different challenge concerns the need to create the conditions for building upon the thematic richness and geographic diversity of Europe's cultural traditions and social identities. The expected convergence of rich digital content within Europeana will support - beyond federated search mechanisms and access to individual digital collections - intelligent semantic and geographic exploration and retrieval functions. In this context, the ways in which Europeana interacts with the semantic and technical infrastructure being developed for the Semantic Web are highly relevant. The latter applies both in terms of identifying which Semantic Web activities need to be considered in terms of standards and interoperability, and which are relevant to implementation e.g. the Resource Description Framework RDF, the Web Ontology Language (OWL) and Simple Knowledge Organization Systems (SKOS).

The content provided through EuropeanaLocal and the user base of local/regional institutions will provide an important test bed in this respect, ensuring that approaches and standards developed to enrich semantic interoperability and improved search facilities at 'central' Europeana level are supported by the knowledge gained from the flow of data from local digital collections across Europe. Likewise, EuropeanaLocal partners will be well positioned to contribute to the enrichment by means of semantic and geographic metadata (annotations), in a framework of generally agreed conceptual and spatial conventions, as they come on stream through the work of Europeana.Net Thematic Network (formerly known as EDLNet) and beyond.

Standards, Tools and Infrastructure

EuropeanaLocal will ensure in general that the approaches, standards and tools developed by Europeana (e.g. through Europeana.Net) are adopted widely, thereby supporting the interoperability of content within Europeana beyond that which is held by purely national level institutions. The participation of The EDL Foundation as a partner in the consortium will play a valuable role in ensuring that there is the strongest possible linkage between the technical standards and infrastructural work being carried out by Europeana.Net and related activities. For example, it will do so by making available tools such as its metadata 'installer' and automated metadata conversion tools for use by EuropeanaLocal partners. This linkage will also support the development of a sustainable business plan which is hospitable to the long-term participation of a rapidly increasing number of local and regional content providers.

In general, this will involve the establishment of a harvestable network of OAI-PMH-compliant metadata repositories, aggregating content at a level which makes sense in terms of the diverse demographics and digital content holdings of Europe's municipalities, regions and localities and which complements the existing and planned Europeana network.

A number of recommendations have begun to emerge through the initial work of Europeana.Net, providing guidance on its functional scope of the prototype to be released in November 2008, including a set of Essential Semantic Elements:

In addition, a number of areas have been identified as aspects which need to be addressed in the next phase, many of which will become relevant to implementation within the proposed duration of EuropeanaLocal (2008-11). They include:

  • Object Modelling – and specifically the utilisation of OAI-ORE specification published on 17 October, 2008
  • Semantic web
  • RSS/|ATOM,
  • Multi-lingualism of content access
  • Geographic and place-based discovery
  • Social networks
  • Collection identification
  • Rights expression (C20 black hole)
  • Persistent identifiers
  • Technical and economic sustainability

The Europeana Service

For the Europeana interface to be fully usable and to offer an attractive range of services, the data that cultural heritage institutions currently hold in proprietary databases need to be made available for harvesting via the OAI-PMH protocol. This will be the main line of approach of EuropeanaLocal. To this extent, a number of the local/regional content providers participating in EuropeanaLocal have already begun to implement this model.

A number of fundamental assumptions have emerged at the strategic and political levels for Europeana and may be seen as conditions which are highly relevant to the positioning and goals of EuropeanaLocal:

  • Europeana will be a federated digital library built on distributed, autonomous and heterogeneous resources: this fact creates specific conditions and challenges for technical, functional and semantic interoperability.
  • Europeana will be an access point to cultural content and not just a discovery point. Other services will be able to reuse its content.
  • Archives and museums must be involved effectively and visibly in Europeana, as soon as possible.
  • Europeana will provide access to text, pictures, video, sound and 3D objects.

For 2008, the focus is upon open access, digital, freely available and public domain material - in order to minimise copyright issues in the early stages of development. However, all freely available content and metadata should be covered by a suitable licence clearly specifying the respective rights and use conditions. It is clear from initial discussions that the strategic goal of Europeana is to act as a service provider rather than simply as data/object provider. Although the principal purpose of EuropeanaLocal is to make cultural objects accessible for use (initially by exposing their metadata for harvesting) by Europeana, there is the clear proposition that Europeana will develop specific services in order to position itself as an added-value access provider. In this context it will be important to demonstrate the unique selling points of Europeana, such as timeline based discovery which is present in the 2008 prototype.

Objectives of EuropeanaLocal

The work of EuropeanaLocal will thus directly support the chief objectives of Best Practice Networks for digital libraries under eContentPlus, by contributing greatly to improving the interoperability of digital libraries held by museums, archives and other institutions in all EU Member States and by making their content accessible through the common user interface of Europeana. Working closely with key initiatives such as Europeana.Net and successor activities to implement the proposed infrastructures and standards in the context of the provision of an enormous amount of new digital content held at local/regional level (or aggregations of this content), EuropeanaLocal will contribute powerfully to the growth of Europeana and to understanding and addressing, in practical terms, the issues relating to standards-based interoperability between digital objects and collections. This approach will be achieved by:

  • implementing the production standards, specifications and tools which will enable cross-domain search, retrieval and use of the digital content held by cultural institutions in all member states, involving the professional domains (libraries, museums and archives);.
  • establishing and promoting straightforward methods by which cultural institutions and aggregators may join Europeana and provide their content to its services. By working so closely with Europeana, both through the involvement of its newly formed EDL Foundation as a key player in the EuropeanaLocal network consortium and through active participation in Europeana.Net, EuropeanaLocal will support the establishment of a co-operation structure which benefits cultural institutions of all types and levels in every member state.

This process will provide substantial added value to Europeana and its users by:

  • greatly expanding and enriching the freely available and accessible content to be found by users systematically and easily through the Europeana interface itself, as new services come on stream;
  • making available for harvesting locally relevant Europeana-branded cultural content to other service providers working in sectors such as tourism, education, family history, humanities research, the publishing/media industries and through other search engines and services on the Web. This will serve to enhance the interoperation of Europeana with other services and assist with its intention to work with such services to improve results mutually over the longer term.

Key content types to be made available through EuropeanaLocal include items and collections of high cultural value ('treasures') held at local or regional level, specific local collections held by libraries, museums and archives, local sound and film archives, public records held by archives, etc. The number of content items available from the limited sample of institutions involved in EuropeanaLocal is, at more than 20 million, already very large in the context of the targets for and content currently available to Europeana. The potential of local/regional sources may be appreciated when these data are extrapolated to all cultural institutions in Europe and by taking into account the likelihood of a continued growth of digitisation at local and regional level in the years to come. EuropeanaLocal will put in place an infrastructure that will continue to increase the content available to Europeana, at the same time enhancing the skills, expertise and motivation required to support local institutions throughout Europe.

Steps Towards a Successful EuropeanaLocal

Over its three-year duration the project, in order to achieve its goals, will seek to:

  • make accessible to Europeana the content specified by local/regional organisations and content aggregators which are the project partners, together with other content from these sources which becomes available during the project period, thereby boosting significantly the total content accessible through Europeana.
  • to this end, promote and support, through training and guidance, the establishment of a widespread operational network of OAI-PMH repositories, represented in each member state plus Norway, consistent with the requirements of Europeana to harvest content. Metadata will be aggregated in repositories at a suitable 'geopolitical' or thematic level in each locality, region or country of Europe, to support Web harvesting and interoperability. Repositories will be specified that support the recommendations of Europeana.Net in terms of protocols, technology and metadata requirements.
  • establish a test environment, to be operated by EDL Foundation, into which the metadata generated by EuropeanaLocal can be harvested, enabling technical enhancements and optimisation for access via the Europeana interface to be performed, before eventual integration with the main Europeana infrastructure, for public availability as a prototype service towards the end of the project;
  • make available to the local/regional content providers in EuropeanaLocal a 'toolkit', including OAI 'installer' and metadata mapping tools developed for Europeana, automated metadata conversion tools, training and implementation support which will ease the conversion of existing local and institutional databases to OAI-PMH-compliant digital repositories and which will generate consistent metadata.
  • resolve the long-standing problem of the use of differing, often locally created, metadata formats, especially in the museums and archives sectors, by implementing a practical convergence of major metadata schemas and by using automated processes of mapping and 'cross-walking' between them. In this context, as in others, it will be vital that EuropeanaLocal uses the architecture and standards for interoperable metadata emerging from Europeana.Net and its successor activities.
  • ensure that local and regional content providers represented within EDLocal comply with the list of requirements and guidelines emerging from Europeana.Net and the EDL Foundation, including the public availability of content (copyright cleared) and willingness to have their data processed according to Europeana practice.
  • extend to local and regionally sourced content sustainable solutions, consistent with the technologies developed within the overall framework of Europeana, for the systematic semantic and geographic annotation (metadata enrichment) of their digital content, both at the collection level and at the granular 'item' or 'object' level, such as user tagging, addition of user-provided content, GPS co-ordinates, etc.
  • promote, using the dissemination opportunities available to the project, the low-cost and straightforward accomplishment of additional digitisation activity (including OCR for full-text search) at regional and local level using where possible the emerging network of creation of 'centres of competence' which are capable of providing service support to smaller institutions in digitisation activities and of making available existing tools and services.
  • arrive at a position by the end of the project where it is easy for new local and regional content providers - and critically its aggregators at regional, national and international level - to add their content to Europeana without difficulty on a technical level and smoothly in terms of the Europeana business model e.g. by negotiated subscription through regional, national and international initiatives (e.g. 'portals' and aggregations of various descriptions), as these arrangements are announced by Europeana. EuropeanaLocal partners in each member state will act to ensure that such agreements are in place, supporting and using where appropriate agreements made by other national representative bodies.
  • ensure the sustainability of the repositories network in each, by negotiating and agreeing with other players in the national framework a most rational, scalable and maintainable solution to long-term aggregation of digital cultural content and its metadata.

Whilst it is early days yet in the implementation of EuropeanaLocal, progress has already been made in assessing the nature and format of content to be provided by partners, the variety of infrastructures available to support harvesting content in the participating localities and in thinking about implementation planning and training to account for the wide variety of starting points across Europe.

Meanwhile several 'sister' projects have been approved under eContentplus to continue the process of adding content from different cultural sectors to EuropeanaLocal including: APENet (national archives), Athena (national museums), and European Film Gateway, together with the long-standing sequence of projects managed by The European Library (TEL) which is supporting the contribution of content from National Libraries. A further series of project inputs from projects funded under eContentplus and the forthcoming CIP programme are expected: a sign that support from the European Commission for Europeana will remain strong for the foreseeable future.

References

  1. Commission of the European Communities. Com (2005) 465 final. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament,
    the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: I2010: digital libraries.
    http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/digital_libraries/doc/communication/en_comm_digital_libraries.pdf
  2. Europe's Information Society Thematic Portal. What is the Digital Libraries Initiative?
    http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/digital_libraries/relaunch/index_en.htm
  3. Creating Cross-Domain Consensus for the European Digital Library http://www.blueconsultants.com/edlnet/
  4. Europeana: connecting cultural heritage http://dev.europeana.eu/
  5. EuropeanaLocal http://www.europeanalocal.eu

Author Details

Rob Davies
Director, MDR and Scientific Co-ordinator of EuropeanaLocal

Email: rob.davies@mdrpartners.com
Web site: http://www.mdrpartners.com/

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Date published: 
30 October 2008

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How to cite this article

Rob Davies. "Europeana: An Infrastructure for Adding Local Content". October 2008, Ariadne Issue 57 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue57/davies/


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