In November of 2008 the European Union unveiled the European Library, a digital repository to preserve and make accessible Europe’s multitude of cultural materials. Like all libraries big and small the European Library strives to provide free and open access to information for individuals all over the world. However, examining how the European Library obtained support and funding from EU officials reveals that digital libraries and the digitized items that they hold can be of immense political and historical significance.
What Is It?
An all access web portal, the European Library has a single search box which enables users to freely search for resources within the online catalog systems of “Europe’s leading national and research libraries.” The online library provides users with free access to over 200 million bibliographic records and resources of which include artwork, maps, manuscripts, photos, films, and books from all over Europe.
Owned by the Conference of European National Librarians (CENL), the European Library has contributions from all of Europe’s 48 National Libraries and a growing number of research libraries. In its most basic form the European Library serves as an aggregate for Europe’s national libraries and archives by providing researchers with bibliographic and digital records for the items each user searches for. The European Library also allows for the downloading of its metadata content free of charge for data mining and exploitation purposes.
Why Does This Matter?
The European Library has evolved from a number of earlier library projects such as GABRIEL (Gateway and Bridge to Europe’s National Libraries) or TEL (The European Library). For years EU officials, while sympathetic and admiring of the idea behind the European Library, did not support the digitization project on the grounds that it was too expensive and that resources for the preservation of European culture would be better allocated elsewhere. However, in 2005 Google announced the Google Books Project which works to digitize works from America’s top libraries in order to make them freely available to the public. With Google’s announcement came immediate concern from “EU officials and cultural commentators” who voiced “that Google’s ambitious plans could result in important European literary works missing out and being lost to future generations.” In fact, head of the French National Library from 2002-2007, Jean-Noel Jeanneney, claimed “Google’s plans could lead to a US-centric record of great literary and cultural heritage, neglecting diverse works in different languages.”
Jeanneney’s concern for the implications of Google’s digitization are articulated in his book Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View From Europe. Indeed Jeanneney’s writing and criticisms give voice to an important issue that arises during the digitization process: what do we choose to digitize? This is an important question that libraries, cultural institutions, and corporate donors are facing. Digitization projects are costly, time consuming, and labor intensive and it is inevitable that not every item in a library collection can be digitized. Nevertheless it is important to pay attention to the selection and funding processes that affect which items are chosen for digitization.
Books, paintings, maps, and other cultural resources that are digitized can be made available over the Internet and therefore spread to anyone individual who has access to a computer. And because of the increasing use of computers and technology to transmit information the digitization of cultural materials, though not a perfect solution is powerful in that it provides institutions with the opportunity to make their collections more accessible to the world. Thus institutions that do (or can afford to) digitize their materials are in a powerful position to affect the historical memory for researchers of the future. For what we choose to digitize and make accessible today will be what digital library users of the future consider history. It is an important issue with serious historical and even political ramifications.
After Google’s Book Project announcement support and funding for the European Library began to grow amongst EU officials signifying that perhaps they do understand the ramifications of digitization and how it can affect the historical record. Next time you use a digital library like the European Library, or the Afghanistan Digital Library, or read a digitized book off of Google Books think about what sorts of books, artwork, and other items of cultural worth did not get digitized and what that could mean for the future.
Sources Cited & Consulted
“About – The European Library.“ The European Library: Connecting Knowledge. 2012. 9 Dec. 2012 http://www.theeuropeanlibrary.org/tel4/aboutus
“FAQs – The European Library. “ The European Library: Connecting Knowledge. 2012. 9 Dec. 2012 http://www.theeuropeanlibrary.org/tel4/faq
“History – The European Library. “ The European Library: Connecting Knowledge. 2012. 9 Dec. 2012 http://www.theeuropeanlibrary.org/tel4/history
“Support for EU ‘digital library’” BBC News. 4 May 2004. Web. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4512831.stm
Carvajal, Doreen. “European Libraries Face Problems in Digitalizing.” New York Times. 28 Oct. 2007. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/28/technology/28iht-LIBRARY29.1.8079170.html