Europeana: Digital Grand Tour delayed


When Europe’s digital Grand Tour finally launched last week, unexpectedly high waves of traffic temporarily sunk the project.

A cadre of European politicians gathered Thursday at the Museum of the 18th century in Brussels to launch Europeana, a digital museum

that allows visitors to explore classic European paintings, photos, recordings and texts in the same manner in which it is possible to surf through sites like

The project is a collaboration of more than 1,000 libraries and museams around the European Union. Half the contributions are French.

Trying to access Europeana on the day of its launch, though, was akin to struggling through the Roman Forums in August. It was impossible to see anything. The project’s three servers were totally overwhelmed.

Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and Viviane Reding, European commissioner of Information Society and Media, spoke glowingly of the initial response - 10 million hits the website received prior to their 1 p.m. speeches Thursday.

“Never before was a European online initiative so successful,” Reding said.

This is not necessarily saying a lot: With its 2.5 million pages, the Commission’s homepage,, is a nightmare to navigate. Traversing the site feels akin to rifling through an unordered filing cabinet. Many EU journalists wonder if the Commission tries to drown important news in its online cacophony of documents. At times, a call to the Europe Direct hotline is required to locate information.

But by Saturday morning the Commission announced the site had received about 15 million hits per hour throughout Thursday - double server capacity. The site was taken down Friday evening. It is expected to be back up in mid-December.

Europeana’s three servers are located in the Hague, where the project is headquartered. Programmers plan eventually to put mirror servers around the world.

A pair of Dutchmen programmed Europeana in about 10 weeks, said technical developer Eric Van der Meulen.

They added the final two of 21 European languages, Finnish and Hungarian, at 7 p.m. on the day before the launch.

Europeana, which is still in beta, was programmed using only open source applications, Van der Meulen said.

“Once we get the thing finished and stabilized, we want to be able to put this down as an open source application so other people can look at it and go, ‘Ok how did you do this?,’ and ‘Wow, maybe we can use this for something.’ The future of computing is open source and not only that but you can get a lot of input from all over the world this way.”

Technical challenges included harvesting and normalizing metadata from more than 1,000 different museums and libraries. Half of the participating cultural heritage institutions were French.

Europeana is an outgrowth of the European Library, on which Van der Meulen also worked. He said he suspects Reding choose the same team which brought the European Library fruition to develop Europeana because of the Library project’s success.

Europeana has in the press most often been compared to Google’s Library Project.

Copyright concerns are abundant in all three projects.

For now, all objects on Europeana are in the public domain. Reding said Thursday she encourages users of the site to remix what’s available.

Barroso agreed, heralding the project as an open door to cultural heritage.

“It will inspire young people to be more creative than their grandfathers,” he said. “I love the sense of common belonging. We cannot go ahead with this great project of economic and political union without a shared cultural heritage.”

Issues of intellectual property will certainly complicate Reding’s goal of adding 10 million more digital objects over the next two years.

Moving forward, she said she plans to facilitate dialogue among various stakeholders to find a way to legally include contemporary works. Nobody wants a black hole when it comes to artifacts from the 21st century, she said.

In particular, she said she will continue discussions with books publishers in order to arrange for digitization of orphan works. Fifty percent of books in the British Library are orphan works, she said, and it would be a shame to loose them.

The difference between Europeana and existing library projects, though, is in the diversity of digital objects available on Europeana. Van der Meulen, for example, is able to search the names of his family members and come to a recording of his uncle’s 1970s rock band, the Makkers, or photos of his father Leendert Van der Muelen, a world-class cyclist.

“It’s for a lot of people that way,” he said. “Its a fun toy. Everybody Googles their name, you know. Only with this you get associations with your own name that you wouldn’t find in Google.”